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Can generous leadership in the voluntary and community sector support NHS transformation?


Today, we launch an extension to our Cascading Leadership programme, which provides free support to the leaders of health and wellbeing organisations in the voluntary and community sector.

It’s different from other leadership programmes: the support is delivered by someone who also leads a voluntary and community sector organisation, with training and supervision from The King’s Fund. The person receiving the support might be running a smaller or less-developed charity or might just be feeling stuck or in need of new ideas or a confidence boost.

The voluntary and community sector is very diverse, ranging from large national charities to small volunteer-run support groups. All of these organisations play a key role in health and wellbeing – reaching into communities, keeping people well and sometimes picking up the pieces where other initiatives haven’t worked.

Leaders in this sector are juggling multiple demands, and often struggling to be heard as the NHS is focusing on sustainability and transformation partnerships, integrated care systems and a move towards population health. Their role has become more complex, requiring leaders who are expert negotiators and collaborators, have entrepreneurial flair, and can hold their nerve when funding is tight.

We launched the Cascading Leadership programme two years ago, as a way to help voluntary and community organisations develop their leaders effectively and affordably. We recognised a huge wealth of knowledge, assets and skills within the sector, and wanted to support the wider use and dissemination of this to help meet leadership needs.

The programme was evaluated positively, with both sets of participants gaining a huge amount. It was reported as being ‘transformational’ for many of the organisations receiving support, who felt better equipped to lead their organisations effectively and strategically. For those providing the support, it built their leadership skills, changed the way they worked with their teams and partners, and helped build different relationships in the health and care system.

We at The King’s Fund also learnt a lot, starting with just how many people would apply for the programme. We were pleased that it was greeted so enthusiastically – with participants seeing both what was excellent about the sector and where it could develop. And we didn’t anticipate some of the ‘spin-offs’. We thought we were supporting leaders, but we’ve found that this programme is also developing hugely powerful collaboration and support across the voluntary and community sector. The Cascading Leadership programme proves that generosity and encouragement can be the norm in a sector that is sometimes criticised for its competitiveness and lack of partnership.

The public sector is increasingly looking to the voluntary and community sector and its leaders for greater collaboration and partnership. Our recent report on integrated care systems points out that the systems furthest ahead are those that have prioritised strengthening collaborative relationships and trust between partner organisations and their leaders. However, NHS leaders have said they sometimes find it difficult working with people in the voluntary and community sector, as it’s hard to know where to begin with so many organisations. The same report highlights evidence of limited engagement between the public and the voluntary and community sectors.

Voluntary and community sector leaders are expert collaborators and part of a growing movement, demonstrating their willingness to take on the challenge of transformation. If you are committed to breaking down barriers and creating meaningful engagement, then seek out these leaders. They may not be where you most expect to find them, and you will need to invest time in developing relationships – but the rewards will be more than worth it.