23rd November 2017

Open University Business School, Milton Keynes , United Kingdom

The Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership (CVSL), Open University Business School hosted the VSSN Day conference in November 2017.

This day conference aimed to engage critically with concepts of leadership, examining theory and practice, and exposing to greater scrutiny the idea that leadership is part of the solution for many of the problems currently experienced by voluntary organisations. The conference intended to debate whether there a leadership deficit, as some think, or is this a distraction from issues in the wider environment.

The conference was well attended, with 35 delegates from a wide range of research centres, institutions and sectors.

James Rees, Co-Director of CVSL, opened the conference by discussing how leadership within the voluntary sector is a contested and embryonic topic. This and other questions form a part of the debate prompted by five diverse papers included in the programme for the day. The five presentations touched on varying aspects of leadership, inspired thought-provoking questions directly to the presenters, and discussion throughout the day.

During the day there was opportunity for networking and research and event updates. The VSSN AGM took place midway during the conference, looking at VSSN annual budget, future agendas, with a particular focus on saying thanks to certain individuals who were leaving and their contribution, and to welcome those that had recently joined.

All the videos of the presentations are now available on the CVSL website.

A special thank you to all the guest speakers, Co-Director of CVSL James Rees for hosting, and to the final panel: Dr. Carol Jacklin Jarvis, Professor Chris Cornforth (both Open University) and Professor Ram Cnaan who visited us from the University of Pennsylvania. The panel neatly wrapped up the conference with thought provoking comments on the different narratives and concepts that had been used throughout the day to understand leadership. There was a strong final message that different future approaches are required to understand and research leadership in the voluntary sector context.

The following day CVSL hosted the first Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN) writing retreat, with the aim of supporting early career scholars or those who have recently completed a PhD on voluntary sector studies. The retreat was very well received and gave the opportunity to bring 12 early career researchers together, to provide space and time to both write and receive 1-2-1 feedback. The purpose was to overcome the challenges of writing from their PhD research project, by creating a welcoming and reflective environment, providing expert guidance on the publishing process, and promoting peer support. We look forward to seeing participants’ published academic articles in the foreseeable future. A special thanks to VSR/ VSSN for the financial support, and to Rob Macmillan, Angela Ellis Paine, James Rees and Vita Terry for facilitating, the retreat.


Dr Alison Body, Canterbury Christ Church University, and Dr Jeremy Kendall, University of Kent,

Expansive opportunity makers but selective opportunity takers? Positional agility and tactical social skill in English third sector social service

Alison Body emphasised the role of tactical social skills in commissioning relationships. She describes there is a new competitive commissioning environment that have created new rules to follow, which fuel increasing concerns over the changes in commissioning relationships. Her research identifies how voluntary organisations demonstrate agency in how they approach commissioning relationships, and by drawing on Fligstein and McAdam’s field theory she illustrates how these social skills can be used as tactics to move in and across fields.


Stephanie Denning, PhD student in Geography at the University of Bristol

Challenging positionality and power relations in participatory and action research

Stephanie Denning draws on her PhD research project that explores food poverty and hunger holidays. She discussed her role as a leader in a Make Lunch initiative and draws upon the concepts of positionality and power to illustrate the everyday experiences within the initiative. Her research uses an ethnographic approach to look at the everyday practices within the initiative, highlighting this as a beneficial methodology to observe the everyday practices of leadership within voluntary sector organisations.


Dr Jon Dean, Sheffield Hallam University

The trouble with charismatic leadership: Voluntary sector leaders’ reflections on the collapse of Kids Company

Jon Dean’s presentation addressed the controversial topic of the collapse of Kids Company. He applied the theoretical concepts of charismatic leadership – drawn particularly from Max Weber’s work on sources of authority – to the former Director of Kids Company, Camila Batmanghelidjh, to unpack her traits, characteristics and role as a leader. His discussion looks at various explanations of the collapse of Kids Company, identifying different relationships, reputations, responsibilities and positions.


Candy Perry, Independent researcher

How failure to lead second order change causes organisational paralysis

Candy Perry discussed success and failures in leadership and management focusing on the need to understand what is happening in different parts of the organisation in order to avoid leading or seeking to control changes simply from the top but thereby failing to make effective changes. She highlighted the need for a ‘whole systems’ approach, explaining through examples of five different voluntary organisations that she had supported in her consultancy work. Leaders in these organisations felt paralysed into inaction, and she worked with them through a form of action research to support organisational learning and to help to unlock some their internal conflicts.


Dr Epaminondas Koronis (presenter) and Dr Katalin Iles, University of Westminster

Leading Voluntary Organisations: an investigation of patterns, narratives and the value of authenticity

Epaminondas Koronis draws on empirical data that explores patterns of leadership in charities in Greece. He describes how leadership in the voluntary sector is distinctive in this context, by arguing organisations require flexibility and more resilience to navigate this complex environment. He illustrates how leadership is complex, therefore, to unpack this it is helpful to understand the context. Various approaches to do this are through exploring narrative, storytelling and practices. Epaminondas puts forth a strong argument that a beneficial way to understand leadership is through interpreting leadership as a symbolic process.