Supporting leadership – four key steps: The Lords Select Committee

‘Juggling on a unicycle’

Charities recognise that training and development for leaders and staff is important, however there are still significant shortcomings in terms of available training and levels of take-up. Infrastructure bodies in the sector should take the lead on working with government, academics and research institutions, and with the business community, to identify further opportunities to support and fund leadership programmes.  (Recommendation 8) (Paragraph 128)

In his evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities, professor John Mohan from the Third Sector Research Centre described charity leadership as being not unlike ‘juggling on a unicycle’. This analogy certainly chimes with the experiences of many of our members who have to balance a huge range of tasks and skills, while often simultaneously facing unrealistically high expectations. To continue the metaphor – it’s knowing that should they drop one ball, that will be what everyone notices, not the fact that they’re still successfully juggling eight balls while artfully steering a straight course on their unicycle.

The complexities and challenges of leading a charity are rarely recognised or discussed other than by sector leaders themselves so I was incredibly pleased to see leadership as one of the key areas identified within the report that needs attention. Evidence from various witnesses to the Committee noted strong leadership as a requirement for, among other things, managing contracts, successful mergers, digital innovation, good investment and strong governance. This covers just a small number of topics of which charity leaders need an understanding.

While the Lords’ report focused primarily on smaller charities and therefore the challenges their CEOs face, there are takeaways for all civil society leaders. CEOs of medium and large charities and social enterprises may not have to take such a hands-on approach to service delivery, but all not-for-profit CEOs are impacted by the weighty expectations  placed on them. This was noted in the evidence submitted by The Governance Institute who said that charity leaders faced expectations in regards to salary levels, business practices, funding arrangements and strategic decisions about how to achieve charitable objects.

I would add to this list the unrelenting pressure that comes from the unrealistic expectation that charity leaders must never oversee a project that doesn’t achieve all of its projected outcomes: the threat of the ‘f’ word, of failure. Despite being encouraged to be bold, to innovate, and to invest there is little understanding or support for leaders who, despite good planning and management, don’t yield the results that have been expected.

The unique expectations confronting not-for-profit leaders is a complex topic deserving its own blog, but it is an important consideration in the context of this discussion. Charity leaders have to be honest with each other, with trustees and with the government about the pressures they face if we are going to successfully meet the Lords’ recommendation on leadership. I see the pathway to delivering this recommendation as having four key steps:

  • Identify the barriers to taking up existing training opportunities
  • Take steps to support CEOs in overcoming existing barriers
  • Identify the gaps that exist in current provision
  • Work with potential funders inside and outside the sector to invest in the funding of new leadership opportunities


Alongside formal training, the value of informal networking and mentoring needs to be recognised. The most common reason given by ACEVO members for joining is networking. We are consistently told that the safe space offered by our regional CEO forums offers a unique opportunity to talk to colleagues who understand the highs and lows of being a charity chief executive and to build collegiate networks. There is therefore an identifiable need for more informal development opportunities and more peer support, including mentoring: something which can be especially important in encouraging new and emerging talent to take on positions of leadership.

In the coming months we will be talking to partners in other infrastructure bodies to ensure we can deliver on the Select Committee’s leadership recommendation. If there are programmes or ideas you would like to see, please let us know. I also encourage all charity CEOs reading this blog to be honest about the challenges they face and reassure you that talking about challenges does not detract from the wonderful parts of your job.  After all, being a juggling unicyclist is hard, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive – or fun.


By Kristiana Wrixon, Head of Research

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