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The Long Read: Impact Leadership in Civil Society Organisations


In September, I supported the first week of YMCA Europe’s pilot Professional Masters in Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). It was a privilege to be working with 29 YMCA leaders across Europe. The week tackled questions about the very nature of leadership, the European policy context in which we work, using organisational diagnostics, and tackling specific European issues such as migration. 

At the start of the week, each leader identified having difficulty in demonstrating the impact of their projects in their YMCA groups. This prompted me to think about the extremely unique nature of leadership in CSOs, of impact measurement and ‘impact’ leadership within CSOs, and how we can ensure that we’re doing this well. 

The term ‘civil society’ entered political parlance from the 1980s onwards, but these organisations are more commonly known as the voluntary or third sector. According to the United Nations (2022), CSOs are “task-oriented and driven by people with a common interest [they] perform a variety of services and humanitarian functions, bring citizens’ concerns to Governments, monitor policies, and encourage political participation at the community level”. CSOs are credited as playing an increasingly significant role shaping political, social, and economic dynamics nationally and internationally. Common characteristics shared by civil society organisations often unearth unique leadership challenges. They are: diverse, requiring innovative approaches; characterised by dynamic relationships between multiple stakeholders demanding high interpersonal skills; tackling ‘wicked issues’ (Grint, 2008) requiring system leadership, and; staffed with high numbers of volunteers who are managed on goodwill rather than renumeration (Natil, 2022). Traditionally, hierarchical forms of leadership may not be suitable for CSOs. Alternatives, such as relational leadership (Clarke, 2018), servant leadership (Greenleaf, 1977), system leadership (Virtual Staff College), or transformational leadership (Ghate et al., 2013) may be needed. However, CSOs are often time-poor - another leadership characteristic - and so evaluating which models of leadership are appropriate for their organisation may not be possible. YMCA Europe’s Masters in Civil Society Organisations tackles this space, bringing leaders together to discuss shared approaches to these challenges. These very specific demands have prompted us to start work on a leadership and management programme to support people leading youth organisations in the UK.  

Returning to the question of impact measurement, CSOs create a diverse set of long-term impact for individuals and communities. There are two implications arising from this. Firstly, each organisation will need to develop its own measurements to reflect its uniqueness. Whilst each CSO might have a very particular set of outcomes, they are able to draw on common tools and approaches that are well established and effective across the sector. Secondly, CSOs will need to create measures of both short-term outcomes and long-term outcomes. Gains made in the short-term can be attributed to the work of the CSO and data can be collected directly by them. Gains in the longer term can only be partly attributed to CSOs, alongside a wide-range of other factors in young people’s lives, whose data may need to be collected from other stakeholders such as families and schools. The Centre for Youth Impact at George Williams College is often asked for a single and simple tool to demonstrate the impact of youth provision. Whilst a catch-all tool may not exist, there are simple approaches CSOs can adopt that can guide them through the process of impact evaluation design, and ensure they have the right tools to navigate this complex terrain.  

The programme reminded me of Amartaya Sen’s Capability Approach (1999). Whilst this framework is focussed on wellbeing, it has pertinence to the impact measurement context. Sen states that wellbeing is dependent on ‘people’s capabilities and functionality’, which includes “doing things and being things that they choose”. In this instance, this means actively choosing and doing impact evaluation, which becomes ‘functional’ when put into action. A key proposition is that simply telling someone what to do is ineffective. They need to be able to choose what to do and how to do it, and to develop the skills to put these choices into action.  

The work of Paulo Freire is a powerful example of this in practice. Freire (1970) is famous for his liberatory work in Brazil where he supported oppressed people to learn to read in the literal sense, but also in the emancipatory sense, as increased literacy skills also increased people’s awareness of their oppression and desire to act on it. Freire’s work is a touchstone for me, reminding me that what Freire called ‘critical consciousness’ is a vital component of people taking meaningful action. Enabling leaders of CSOs to be ‘literate’ in impact measurement, raising their critical consciousness of the choices they make, helps increase their ‘capability’ in their impact within the sector, communities, and amongst those they support. One of the ways we support practitioners to improve this skill is through an Impact and Improvement training programme and resource hub, which is accessible to all, free to use, and enables everyone in CSOs to gain the knowledge and skills needed to make effective choices to further their own impact journeys. 

The people responsible for impact measurement in CSOs, sometimes known as ‘impact leaders’, face particular challenges. Not only are their organisations unique and the field of impact measurement complex, but they are often also leading without authority over the people actually delivering impact measurement, with few time or cash resources, whilst also delivering to other priorities. Skills in influencing without authority (Cohen and Bradford, 2017), being a coaching manager (Hunt, 2022) and change management (Franklin, 2014) are crucial in this space. If you would like support in developing your impact leadership skills, keep an eye out for our new Impact Leadership Programme and Resource Hub, which will be available in the new year. 

And finally, YMCA George Williams College is also a CSO managing these challenges. Spending a week focussed on leadership with 29 YMCA leaders has been a valuable opportunity to not only support others, but also to reflect on what we might do better ourselves. One of the strengths of civil society is its ability to share and learn from one another, and we encourage you to find moments to do that for yourselves. 




Cohen, A., Bradford, D. (2017) Influence without Authority. Oxford: Wiley Press. 

Clarke, N. (2018) Relational Leadership, Theory, Practice and Development. London: Routledge. 

Franklin, M. (2014) Agile Change Management: A Practical Framework for Successful Change Planning and Implementation. London: Kogan Page. 

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press 

Ghate, D., Lewis, J., Welbourn, D. (2013) System Leadership: Exceptional leadership for exceptional times. London: Virtual Staff College. 

Greenleaf, R. (1977) Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. London: Paulist Press.  

Grint, K. (2008) Wicked problems and clumsy solutions: The role of leadership, The New Public Leadership Challenge, Vol 1.  

Hunt, J. (2022) The Coaching Manager. London: Sage.  

Natil, I. (2022) New Leadership of Civil Society Organisations. Community Development and Engagement. London: Routledge. 

Sen, A. (1999) Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

United Nations (2022) The UN and Civil Society. Accessed 29/9/22 at:,local%2C%20national%20or%20international%20level