Is agile and hands-on leadership effective for the greater good?

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Written by Susan Broomhall, Vlad Demsar, Melissa A. Wheeler, and Samuel G. Wilson.

Australians have a long-standing love affair with charities. Recent studies by QUT’s Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Non-profit Studies (ACPNS), show that around $4 billion was claimed by individuals as tax deductible donations in 2018/19, with an average donation of $933 per person. Philanthropy Australia also reports that, on average, around 30% of taxpayers donate 0.41% of their total annual income to charity. However, despite the positive public sentiment, the charity sector has also faced increasing global criticism over the last few years. Recently, an official inquiry was launched into Prince Charles’ charity, which has been accused of offering royal honours in exchange for large donations. Project Rescue Children is being investigated by Kenyan police over allegations it exploited local children to raise funds from overseas donors. And Surf Life Saving NSW was defrauded of 1.8 million by its leader Matthew Hanks, who faced criminal charges as a result.

Despite some of the negative publicity surrounding charities in Australia and overseas, Australians overwhelmingly view charities as leading for the greater good compared to other institutions (see Figure 1 below). But why is this the case? Apart from their premise of helping others, how do charities sustain these perceptions more broadly?

Figure 1: Australian Leadership Index (ALI) Score by institution (2021, n=4062)

Figure 1

Why are charities seen to be leading for the greater good?

The way people evaluate leadership is constantly changing, particularly in periods of disruption. Not only are Australians experiencing more stressors in their everyday lives, but they are also witnessing and sympathising with the significant stressors affecting others. In a general sense, charities are seen as leading for the greater good because they help alleviate some of these stressors. This stands in stark contrast to other sectors, which may be seen as exacerbating the challenges faced by Australians, engendering more negative leadership perceptions. The 2019/2020 Australian Bushfires and 2022 Australian Floods exemplify this phenomena. In both situations, charities have been seen as leading for the greater good in the face of these natural disasters, by raising funds, and helping victims through resources, as well as financial and humanitarian aid. By contrast, during these disasters, the Federal Government was widely judged to exacerbate the situation through delayed decision making, a lack of coordinated timely emergency response, and a lack of urgency in providing relief for disaster victims, translating into negative leadership perceptions.  Whilst disaster response is seen as the responsibility of government, it is instead community and charity groups that often provide the fastest and most appropriate response.

Looking at the data from the Australian Leadership Index, overall leadership perceptions in Australia are continuing to decline in 2022, after reaching a peak in 2021. However, charities continue to perform strongly when it comes to leadership and have continued to do so since the launch of the study in 2018. Australian Leadership Index modelling and survey data suggests there are several reasons for this. Data shown in figure 2 below indicates that when it comes to forming perceptions of charitable organisations’ leadership for the good, the focus of charities on creating positive social (13%) and environmental (11%) outcomes looms especially large. In addition, the perceived transparency (13%), ethics (17%), accountability (16%), and responsive to the needs of society (14%) are major drivers of community perceptions of charities’ leadership for the good. Notably, charities outperform the national average in terms of their perceived performance on these metrics. For example, around half of the population believe that charities produce positive social (54%) and environmental (38%) outcomes, are transparent (44%), ethical (51%) and accountable (46%), and responsive to society needs (53%).

Figure 2: Drivers of leadership for the greater good in the not-for-profit sector

Figure 2

Notably, and unlike institutions in the public and private sector, charities also typically engage in a more hands-on approaches to community leadership and facilitate the participation of others, through volunteering, in prosocial actions that help communities and remediate harms. Yet, questions remain around how and why this is so effective when compared to other ways of leading for the greater good.

The impact of hands-on leadership

Charities have a reputation and business model that is very specifically ‘hands on’ in word and deed. As suggested by the words recently seen emblazoned on a volunteer’s t-shirt—“I’m a do-er”—people who are employed by and volunteer for charities pride themselves on their hands-on approach to serving others. That is, charities consistently meet the immediate needs of the community by ‘doing’ the work—overtly and directly serving communities—and, importantly, being seen to do. This highly visible, hands-on public service contrasts with less concrete and visible ways of serving the public interest, such as those acts of leadership for the good that occur and are expressed in regulatory and legislative domains.

The agility of charities during times of crisis may also be a contributing factor to the esteem in which charities are held. When resources are low, effective charities find creative ways to pivot and deliver what is needed to their communities in a timely and targeted manner. To illustrate, during the pandemic, many charities faced a drop in funding and resources, such as hospices who lost their ability to generate income. Many believed they would have to close their doors. In demonstration of charities’ leadership for the greater good, one hospice applied agile decision-making, re-allocating the full team to emergency appeal support, enabling the hospice to continue its community service.

Perhaps leadership for the greater good means getting your hands dirty and being ready to pivot when the situation calls for it. In other words, it means helping the community when it is in need. Other industries can look to the leadership shown by charities if they want to meaningfully contribute to the society we share.

Susan Broomhall is the author of Bullying & Harassment – Understanding the Psychological and Behavioural Tactics of the Toxic Leadership Stronghold

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About the Australian Leadership Index

The Australian Leadership Index is a national leadership survey that provides a comprehensive picture of leadership for the greater good in Australia. Made possible by the generous support of the Graham Foundation, the Australian Leadership Index is nationally significant for a number of reasons.

It is the largest ever study of leadership for the greater good. Each quarter, the ALI surveys 1,000 people across Australia about their beliefs about leadership for the greater good by Australian organisations and institutions. The ALI also reveals how institutions in different sectors vary in terms of leadership for the greater good, as well as the drivers of these perceptions, revealing new insights into what institutional leaders can do to show leadership for the greater good. Finally, by making all ALI data freely available via the ALI data portal, the Australian Leadership Index provides the public, journalists and leaders with a powerful new tool to help bring forth the leadership Australia needs for the future Australians want.

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