Network of Regional Youth Work Units England blog

A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.

Where have all the youth work leaders gone?


In this week’s blog, Jamie Mercer from Youth Focus: North East explores leadership in the third sector and whether or not we have the amount of leaders we need.

Leadership in the youth work sector has been a hotly contested area for some time. The last 15 years has seen the amount of charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations grow dramatically in size, in part through increased public funding and investment in support infrastructure. There are courses promising to turn workers into effective leaders and the amount of literature and reports on leadership in the third sector seems to have increased exponentially over the last decade. So the question is: where are these leaders?

I think it’s important early on to make a clear difference between leadership and management. They are not the same; leaders inspire and motivate while managers plan, organize, and co-ordinate. The two are intrinsically linked and very complementary; separating the two often causes problems.

So while the youth work sector may have many good managers, what has happened to all of the leaders? We’ve seen the ramifications of charismatic leaders reaching beyond their limits to often catastrophic climaxes, a la Kids Company back in July this year.

With funding cuts affecting the third sector, youth work especially, there has been more emphasis placed on highlighting new ways of working, identifying new directions, and making huge changes to the way charities are ran. This is a leader’s bread and butter, but in this great time of need the sector has faced growing criticism that there is a ‘leader deficit’.

Charities and not-for-profits have almost been falling over themselves to stake their claim as ‘leadership experts’, describing their take on leadership as the one true way to success. The thing is though, leadership comes in many different shapes and forms – the truth is there is no perfect mould to follow.

While on one hand the sheer amount of third-sector leadership courses and literature is impressive, on the other it is a somewhat depressing reminder that the sector lacks the leaders it desperately needs at this time.

The third sector is currently struggling for credibility. This year has seen more negative press about charities than positive and the general public are now less trusting of charities than ever before. Leadership in the youth work sector therefore must be about making the sector more credible, more trustworthy, more open, and more honest.

The sector needs more leaders capable of influence, of shaping policy and opinion. The sector needs more leaders capable of changing the narrative of the third-sector into something more positive. Most organisations are good at illustrative narrative, projecting what an organisation does and how, but strategic narrative, conveying what we stand for and what we want, is often lacking. To use an existing reference, management and illustrative narrative is giving a hungry person a fish whereas leadership and strategic narrative is teaching them to fish.

Youth work organisations are pretty good at addressing the direct needs of service users but are they actually doing enough to tackle the root cause of many of the issues young people are facing at the moment. Who is standing up for young people on a policy level, challenging government and making demands?

The third sector needs to unite to confront the seemingly ever-changing landscape. By having that joint conversation, a successful sector-wide strategic narrative framework can be discussed. What do we stand for, what do we want, and how are we going to work towards it? That’s what we need to find out. Third sector organisations need to work beyond perceived competition and rivalries. We need to work towards creating a more powerful and influential future, and we can only do this by working together, exploiting the latent power of the sleeping giant that is the third sector.

Jamie Mercer, Youth Focus: North East


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This entry was posted on October 23, 2015 by in Youth Focus: North East and tagged , , , , , .
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