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Cascading Leadership: a new model to support leadership in the voluntary and community sector


The Cascading Leadership pilot was launched in March 2016, in partnership with GSK and Comic Relief, to enable high-performing leaders of voluntary and community organisations to share their learning with the wider sector.

Here we outline the importance of investing in leadership within this sector, look at key features of the Cascading Leadership programme and share the results of an external evaluation along with our own reflections.

Comic relief and The King's Fund logos


We would like to thank the people and organisations that supported or took part in the Cascading Leadership pilot. First, GSK, which part-funded the project and also funded much of the project development work and which, through the GSK IMPACT Awards, has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to supporting leadership in the voluntary and community sector. Second, the voluntary and community sector leaders who took part in the pilot, and who generously shared their skills, expertise and insights. And third, Comic Relief which part-funded the project including the evaluation. In particular we would like to thank Sam Anderson, The Junction, and Emma Crawshaw, Crew, who were part of the original pathfinder project for Cascading Leadership and who supported The King's Fund team. We were fortunate to work with m2 evaluators, whose observations and helpful challenge helped us to strengthen the work. Finally, our thanks go to Mandy McKinnon, The King's Fund, and Hajra Daly, Comic Relief, for their contribution to the pilot.


The voluntary and community sector (VCS) has a key role in creating a vibrant and healthy society and is increasingly seen as an important partner for the public sector in addressing some of society’s biggest challenges. The voluntary and community sector is extremely diverse, ranging from large national charities to small local providers with few or no paid staff; what connects these organisations it that they operate independently for the public good, supporting people and communities.

Throughout the UK there are approximately 163,000 VCS organisations, 36,000 of which provide health and social care services (NCVO 2016). The NHS five year forward view (NHS England et al 2014) recognises that the voluntary and community sector plays a vital role in the health and care system, stating that ‘voluntary organisations often have an impact well beyond what statutory services alone can achieve’ but acknowledging that support for voluntary organisations is put under pressure when funding is tight.

Although this sector is increasingly valued for its contribution to the health and care of individuals and communities, there is still a long way to go before it is an equal partner with the public sector and its full potential is realised (People and Communities Board 2017; Department of Health et al 2016). The sector is under pressure from cuts in funding, often coupled with a rising demand for services. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) predicts that the combined effect of decreased public funding and pressures on donations ‘will put even more pressure on charities and their volunteers, especially the smaller ones that have been struggling for a long time already’ (Birtwhistle et al 2016).

Investment in VCS leadership is vital, as the sector faces a complex range of demands and is contemplating the need to develop different relationships with the public and private sectors. However, investment in VCS leadership has historically been very low and leaders in our GSK IMPACT Awards Network have highlighted the scarcity of leadership development opportunities and lack of funding to access them. Many leadership programmes are not designed for the VCS or require significant investment over a lengthy period, which is not always realistic, particularly for smaller organisations.

In her review of skills and leadership in the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector sector for the Cabinet Office, Dame Mary Marsh stressed the ‘importance of developing [the sector’s] own leadership and capability’ and the need for investment in ‘building our skills, confidence, drive, resilience and integrity’ (Marsh 2013). The House of Lords Select Committee report (2017), Stronger charities for a stronger society, made wide-ranging recommendations to support the voluntary and community sector. Included in this report is a recognition that training and development for staff is important, but that there are still significant shortcomings in availaibility of training and levels of take-up. It recommended identifying further opportunities to support and fund leadership programmes.

Against this background, The King’s Fund has been exploring how to support VCS leaders to achieve maximum impact. Since 2012, as part of the GSK IMPACT Awards programme, we have hosted a leadership network of 70 VCS organisations working in health and care that aims to develop leadership skills and foster collaboration and peer support. These organisations placed immense value on the leadership programme they received as part of their award and had demonstrated a commitment to supporting other organisations in the sector. Building on this idea, in partnership with Comic Relief, we launched the Cascading Leadership pilot programme in March 2016, to enable high-performing GSK IMPACT Award winners to share their learning and skills with the wider voluntary and community sector with the aim of developing leadership skills within the sector.

Here, we outline the importance of investing in leadership in the voluntary and community sector; the key features of the Cascading Leadership programme; and we share the results of an external evaluation and our own reflections, in order to add to the body of knowledge and tools to develop leadership in the VCS and beyond.

Why invest in leadership for the voluntary and community sector?

'Leadership can be defined as the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives.'
Yukl and Becker 2006

Good leadership is essential for organisations to maintain high-quality services. On leadership programmes, participants are given access to new skills and competencies and are encouraged to reflect, be challenged and learn new ways of working. They are supported to understand how to solve problems and adapt to different situations and stakeholders. Leaders need the capability and willingness to reflect on and notice what is happening, including their own behaviour, and the impact this has on their staff, volunteers and partners.

Leaders in the voluntary and community sector face particular challenges, and so it is important that leadership support is tailored to their needs.

  • Leaders may have to carry out a very wide range of tasks such as strategic partnership work alongside business planning, fundraising, communications, managing their building and of course leading their own teams with limited or little access to training, so developing leadership skills in the VCS may involve offering support for specific areas of skill as well as the ‘softer’ leadership skills.

  • VCS leaders often report that they feel isolated and unsupported, which can erode their confidence and resilience. VCS leaders need improved access to support as when leaders are well supported, organisations are able to grow, develop, become leaders across their system, and key deliverers of services.

  • Given the many demands on VCS organisations and their funding pressures, investing in leadership can seem like a luxury.

  • VCS leaders often find themselves in leadership roles because of either their own life situations or the situations in their community. They may have established their organisation in response to personal experience or having identified an unmet need, and may not have previously managed or led an organisation, learning these skills as the organisation grows.

  • Many VCS organisations rely on public sector commissioners or charitable funders for income. This power imbalance, real or perceived, can make maintaining autonomy and confidence challenging. VCS leaders therefore need highly attuned negotiating and problem-solving skills and the ability to respond to different situations flexibility and effectively.

  • VCS leaders may not have the ‘authority’ of a large organisation behind them. A small community organisation that has detailed knowledge of local circumstance and need may still have to work that much harder to get its voice heard and its leaders require skilful communication and influencing skills.

The Cascading Leadership programme

Since 2012 The King’s Fund has hosted a leadership network of 70 VCS organisations that aims to develop leadership skills and foster collaboration and peer support. The network is funded by GSK as part of the GSK IMPACT Awards programme (The King’s Fund 2017) through which participants receive £30,000 in prize money and free leadership training.

Members of the leadership network placed huge value on the leadership training they took part in, often describing it as more important than the prize money. They also demonstrated a commitment to supporting other organisations in the wider sector to access leadership opportunities. Within the Fund we considered how to build on the idea that leadership development for the VCS should come from within the sector; the leaders we worked with felt there was particular value in training and development being offered by people who already understood the ethos, challenges and capabilities of the VCS. A small pathfinder project was set up within the GSK IMPACT Awards Network in Scotland to explore how these organisations could help to facilitate the leadership of others. The pathfinder project demonstrated clear areas of success (Weaks 2016), and a larger pilot was developed working with organisations across the UK. This work was undertaken in partnership with Comic Relief and part funded by GSK. Some participants from the original pathfinder project took on a facilitation/support role in the larger pilot alongside The King’s Fund to ensure their expertise and learning was captured.

The Cascading Leadership pilot, launched in March 2016, involved 15 voluntary sector leaders offering themselves as ‘consultants’ to 15 voluntary sector organisations, which were the ‘clients’.

The client organisations were identified through their contact with Comic Relief, and most were in receipt of Comic Relief funding. Consultants were matched with clients by The King’s Fund and Comic Relief, the main criteria being that they were in the same region geographically, but not in direct competition. The clients attended a development workshop at The King’s Fund, to learn about and prepare for the consultancy.

A key aspect of the programme was that it was designed to develop the skills and capabilities of both those receiving and providing the support. The intervention was planned carefully to ensure consultants were fully supported and were given access to professional training and coaching so that clients received high-quality support throughout. The consultants were trained as a group, practising a range of consultancy and facilitation skills. The consultants also received individual coaching/supervision from members of the leadership and organisational development team at The King’s Fund.

The consultants were briefed to offer support and facilitation skills; to help surface what was not being addressed within the client organisation; and to support people to find solutions. The programme was ‘relational’ (ie, it aimed to help people pay attention to how they communicated with others and how they listened and made sense of what they heard) rather than ‘information giving’. So, the consultants’ role was not to manage or direct.

Client organisations were encouraged to harness their own capabilities and skills and have the confidence to lead. The methodology helped surface issues for VCS leaders, whether practical or relational and allowed people to talk about complex and difficult areas in relation to their work. Once surfaced, it provided an opportunity to think through what needed to change or how someone may need to intervene differently. On a practical level, an example would be finding a very different way of working with and relating to a Trustee board or making changes to organisational structures. One consultant articulated this as:

It was about helping people discover the resources they already had, it wasn’t about dumping a load of extraneous information that we had brought in, it was about helping them find their own strengths, because they know the people who use their services better than we did.

The pilot was designed as a short-term intervention, with each pairing having a least two consultancy sessions, plus follow up by email and phone. Given the dual nature of the intervention, there was cross over of outcomes for clients and consultants (see below).

At the end of the pilot a ‘knowledge capture’ learning event took place with clients, consultants and partners to explore the model and its application in greater depth.

The programme was distinctive because:

  • it built on the voluntary and community sector’s assets, capability and potential

  • those providing the support were working in the sector and fully understood its challenges and needs

  • it developed the skills of both those receiving and those providing the support, so building the capacity of the sector.

Evaluation of Cascading Leadership pilot

Hear from some of the programme participants in this video.

Comic Relief and The King’s Fund commissioned an independent evaluation of the programme from m2 evaluators. The Cascading Leadership pilot started with two central premises:

  • that thoughtful and reflective leadership increases the effectivenees of organsations; and

  • that the voluntary sector itself has the skills and assets needed to develop strong leaders. Thirty chief executives from the voluntary sector took part in the pilot, 15 as clients and 15 as consultants. The summary of the evaluation states:

'Without exception, they (participants) view Cascading Leadership as a success in terms of the benefits they have gained both individually and organisationally. The pilot demonstrated that supporting voluntary sector leaders to offer consultancy to other leaders within the sector enables them to develop professional skills, alongside deeper strategic leadership.'

As well as drawing on evidence from the evaluation we subsequently interviewed staff from 10 of the participating organisations and we added our own observations of the process.

Some key themes from the evaluation are discussed below.

The programme gave leaders the time and space to reflect and plan away from the everyday pressures of the workplace

Participants highlighted the huge pressure on VCS leaders who are having to manage diminishing funding alongside increased demand for services. They talked about the range of their roles and responsibilities and the need to be versatile and adaptable while at the same time feeling quite isolated. This meant that there were limited opportunities for them to have the space to think, plan for their organisation’s future and have a strategic vision.

'What has been most useful is having some focused time and space for reflection and development and sharing the wisdom of my consultant.'

Participants also said the programme gave them permission to examine their own leadership style and skills, which was something that was often given a lower priority. Some articulated the experience as enabling them to move from managing to leading. The programme also offered leaders the opportunity, and gave them confidence to address fundamental questions for their organisation, while being supported to do so.

One of the things that the programme was designed to do was to help people cope with the uncertainty of not knowing what to do and to not see this as a crisis. The programme gave people the opportunity and time to stop and think, mobilise their own capabilities, and to start doing some of the sense-making around the complexity of what was going on in their organisation to find longer-term solutions.

The programme brought new skills and confidence into organisations

People welcomed the opportunity to question their abilities and test themselves and they spoke of how they were able to take learning back to their organisation. This influenced the way they worked with their teams, and enabled people to have more challenging and difficult conversations. One consultant said:

The main benefits of taking part in Cascading Leadership were that it provided a protected space where you could explore with others what your capabilities currently were, build on them, and then support others to discover and develop theirs.

Clients said the experience had helped create a learning culture in their organisation and helped them look at organisational culture and work values. They were clear that the professional skills they developed, such as coaching and strategic thinking, also benefited their organisation. The learning took place through a focus on their work which meant there was a balance between individual support and examining how this interacted with their wider work context. There was also the opportunity for clients to cascade their learning upwards to their chairs and trustees.

'I have fed ideas about strategic planning back to my Chair, my Board and SMT.'

Initially, some of the consultants found it challenging to make the shift from being a leader to facilitating the leadership of others. They were supported to do this not just by The King’s Fund, but also by their peers in the consultants’ group. Many of the consultants said the experience had helped shape their own leadership style and skills within their organisation, and it had been beneficial for their own personal development. Consultants felt that as a result they could work differently with their own teams, one describing it as being able to listen to what was not being said. This was not something that was necessarily discovered during the initial consultants’ training, but through practising skills, reflecting, debriefing with their supervisor and learning to try out and model different behaviours.

I’m a natural reassurer; I want to jump in and rescue – there’s a temptation to try and manage the client organisation. But I realised I wasn’t the expert, the real expert was already running it.

The programme helped organisations tackle substantial organisational issues

Clients were encouraged to understand how practical challenges interacted with strategic questions, and to look afresh at organisational strategy and priorities. In some cases, this also meant tackling substantial issues not previously addressed:

'It forces you to confront difficult questions; it’s a vehicle to think about the future.'~

It helped me think through the structure of the organisation; I’ve now formed a management team.'

I have shared the learning with my trustees who have just been ticking over for years. There is now a more critical eye on their role, whether we have the right people, who we might approach; this has been a revelation.'
Client interview

There was a benefit of providing consultancy for the VCS from within the VCS

Having consultancy from within the VCS was considered a significant strength of the programme. Many felt a key element was that the programme focused on the sector’s assets not its deficiencies and did not assume that high-quality advice and support needed to come from outside the sector. Participants talked about the advantages of working with like-minded people who shared the same passion for the work, and felt that it was important that the consultants were ‘live’ leaders who could really understand the context for the work and who were often facing the same situations. They also spoke about being able to obtain virtually any type of support from outside the sector, but that working with another VCS leader was a distinct experience, where they could also build networks and trust. Clients also talked about the benefit of working with another organisation that was more developed, which gave them confidence that they were on the right course.

'There’s a greater appreciation of what you’re going through. They’ve got a knowledge of that particular landscape.'

'The thing that stood out was having peer support outside my usual terms of reference. There was no hidden agenda, no baggage, and it didn’t feel competitive at all; there was mutual respect.'

The programme helped combat the isolation felt by many VCS leaders

Through training and supervision, the programme offered a framework for VCS leaders to access support to combat the isolation felt by many. It was described by one as The King’s Fund holding a rope for consultants and, in turn, clients to hold onto, while they hung over the cliff of uncertainty and the programme gave them the opportunity to examine complex and difficult situations. One client said:

The wraparound service that you get, right from the review days, to the questionnaires, to the supportive phone calls, is often lip service by other providers. I can honestly say that Cascading Leadership sees this whole journey through with you.

The programme helped organisations develop a wider range of leadership skills

Organisations developed skills – such as coaching; learning new techniques to manage difficult situations and negotiations; knowing how and when to ask the right questions; how to offer support without immediately giving advice; and how to challenge constructively – that they could use both within their organisation and teams and in the wider sector.

'The techniques in the training in terms of asking open and difficult questions have been used both within the team and SMT.'

'Developing a learning style of active participation, learning together and a good sequencing of questioning also helps to improve the quality of service provision.'

'I’ve connected with someone I wasn’t able to ‘reach’ before: this has had a hugely positive effect on the team.'

'Working together sparked my own questions; you can’t help but reflect back on the questions to ask your own organisation.'

Consultants noticed they were thinking and behaving differently and more strategically, and asking more challenging questions both internally and in external meetings.

The programme improved partnerships and the ability to work collaboratively, partly because of the confidence and skills gained

Organisations worked together during the training and review days and were encouraged to share information with each other and the wider sector.

'This pilot has re-enforced the strengths of working with other organisations in the sector.'

'I have given feedback on funding bids and tenders to partner organisations, based on the learning that I have achieved through the pilot.'

The programme provided access to specialist skills and knowledge – such as evaluation, policy development, business planning and fundraising – to aid organisational development

The consultants and clients worked on a whole range of issues, with the consultants offering a fresh pair of eyes and different experience, knowledge and insight. Some talked about also being offered practical, tangible benefits and they had subsequently developed plans to address organisational issues. All thought the support they received was essential, and reported that it meant they did not feel alone while working through complex or difficult situations.

'I felt it had more of a problem-solving focus than other things I’ve engaged with; I felt I could go with problems and they would get sorted.'

'We’ve implemented some of the practical tools, like measuring impact.'

Challenges for the programme

The Cascading Leadership programme was designed as a short, time-limited intervention to test a new way of working. Much thought and preparation went into it and overall, there was a huge amount of support from participants. They were encouraged to offer feedback at every stage of the process and some issues were raised during the pilot which will be carefully considered as the work develops.

  • Matching process: some clients raised questions about the transparency of the process, and why they were matched with consultants.

  • Number of sessions: most clients and consultants felt the two sessions on offer during the pilot phase was not enough and more would be needed for any subsequent work.

  • Client selection: several clients interpreted being offered support as being identified by their funder as needing or being ‘sent for’ support. This caused some initial anxiety about the programme.

  • Clarity of expectations: clients could be better prepared during the introductory programme to understand what is feasible from the pilot, and how it addresses both capacity building and leadership.

  • Terminology: some raised questions about the terminology of client and consultant or the name ‘Cascading Leadership’ as it does not fully acknowledge the sometimes two-way nature of the intervention.

  • Scaling up: a key question to consider is how best to scale up in the short-medium term without losing the essential elements of Cascading Leadership; the support and supervision for clients and consultants.

  • Power: the issue of power was raised as it was felt to be underlying in some of the relationships, whether that be between The King’s Fund/funder and the consultant, or the consultant and the client. This was something that people were encouraged to notice, discuss and analyse their responses.

  • Avoiding dependency: consultants were urged to resist the temptation of providing the answers and solutions and creating a dependency with their client. Some initially struggled to do this. They were asked to think about how this may play out within their own organisation, with the danger of people ‘acting down’ and not encouraging or allowing people to do the jobs they are paid for. They were also supported to work with their client in accepting that not having all the answers did not necessarily constitute a problem, and to look at how the client could be enabled to find their own solutions.

  • Capacity building vs leadership development: as the programme progressed it became clear that some consultants and clients were facing a dilemma. On the one hand, clients needed practical help but if this was offered freely, the clients’ capacity for thinking and innovation could be undermined. In time the team became more adept at noticing this and seeing that meeting the clients’ immediate needs for help was crucial if a useful relationship was to be established. At this point, the more challenging work of helping someone think for themselves, because they were experts in their own situation, could be undertaken.


Cascading Leadership has tapped into key needs in the VCS – for leadership and development support; to acknowledge the assets and extensive capabilities of the sector; to build its leadership; and to understand that a thriving VCS will need leaders who will step up to support the wider sector, and not just their own organisation.

'CL draws upon existing voluntary sector knowledge and skills, and provides an opportunity to highlight the experience and assets that exists within the sector, rather than deploying a deficit model that assumes the sector is in need of external support. This is particularly important at a time of low public confidence in charities.'
m2 evaluators

The pilot programme, although small scale, has shown some measurable results. All participants gained from the experience, not necessarily the same ways, and all thought they had improved their leadership skills and learning, which in turn benefited their organisation.

This programme has not yet been tested outside of the VCS or with larger organisations, but some features could be replicable. It works with a defined group of leaders – which could be a sector, system or an organisation. All participants understand the context and nuances in which the work operates; more experienced people bacome a ‘consultant’ for less experienced participants but both receive development support. Based on pilot feedback, this approach also has the potential to build connections, networks and wider learning. It has the advantage that it does not use expensive external consultancy and could be run at limited cost, thus creating the potential for leadership development to be made more widely available.

The VCS is currently facing a complex range of pressures: increased demand coupled with decreased funding and trust in charities (Sussex 2017; The Charities Commssion 2017). In addition, the public sector is seeking greater and different partnerships with the VCS, understanding that it needs to tap into its distinctive knowledge of communities and high-quality cost-effective services. Against this backdrop investment in VCS leaders is extremely low. There is a now a need to think more creatively about VCS leadership, not just governance and building organisational capacity, which acknowledges the distinctive nature of VCS leadership. There will always be huge pressure on funding, but there could not be a better time to find new ways of recycling knowledge, building the sector’s capacity and developing its support mechanisms.

This report is designed to offer our learning and insights from testing a new way of offering leadership development to the VCS. We hope that it will add to the body of knowledge about leadership in the VCS and more widely, and will stimulate discussion and debate about innovative ways of supporting organisations, systems or sectors.