Isla Horton giving speech at WCVA AGM 2018

Voluntary sector leader? Invest in yourself

Published: 12/09/19 | Categories: Uncategorised, Author: Isla Horton

Isla Horton of Grow Cardiff was the 2018 recipient of WCVA’s Walter Dickie Leadership Bursary. Here, she talks about her definition of entrepreneurial leadership and why you should take your personal leadership development seriously.

My daughter is about to start year 7, so over the last year I have spent more than a few evenings exploring our local high schools.

‘Are you the next Steve Jobs?’

‘Could you invent the next Dyson?’

These were regular greetings as you came through the schools’ doors, pasted on their ceilings and steps.  The entrepreneurial call to arms.

When I saw the Walter Dickie Leadership Bursary was designed for developing ‘entrepreneurial’ leadership, my first thought was that it wasn’t for me, and I almost didn’t even apply.

An entrepreneurial leader in my mind was Richard Branson, Elon Musk – taking risks and building their business empires, rising at 5am on their private islands and jetting off around the globe.

Then there’s me. Most days I am lucky if I can get the kids to school on time, we’ve got clean underwear, and nobody died before 9am.

But are we entrepreneurs too?

If you work in the voluntary sector, chances are that you’re very familiar with applications for grants, bursaries, loans, seed funding for social enterprise ideas – making the case for your project or cause.

And what’s this if not entrepreneurship? Shaping your case to gain footing in a highly competitive industry – lots of organisations with great projects all pursing the same funding pot.

And if the Walter Dickie bursary was a fund for projects, I suspect it too would be similarly oversubscribed – but I was surprised to discover that in fact the opposite is true.

Perhaps like me, many leaders at voluntary organisations don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs.

I suspect the main reason though is that as a leader at your organisation your first thought is to care for the people, place or perhaps animals that you support. Seeing them flourish is the reason you get up in the morning – and that’s fair enough.

Securing funding and supporting those who need your project, your staff and volunteers and dealing with all the unexpected challenges that present themselves and were not on your to do list…well that’s enough to be dealing with.

You may take a day or two a year to train, but I suspect the thought of actual investment in your own professional development is at the bottom of your growing list of things to do.

At least that was me in the autumn of last year. It almost seemed selfish to think what I could do with an opportunity like the Walter Dickie Leadership Bursary.

And if that’s you, then I encourage you to pause and re-consider, to dare to dream what you could do with £2,500 to enhance your ability to lead effectively.

Invest in yourself

For me the room to develop on my own personal leadership abilities has been an absolute breath of fresh air.

It gave me an amazing opportunity to travel to Montreal, Canada where community growing is twenty to thirty years ahead of where we are in Wales.

There is something about seeing people having overcome many of the hurdles that you are now facing, that makes you believe that it can be done, and I can be the one to lead us through it.

10 days on my own in Montreal was an absolute adventure, a complete stretch out of my comfort zone. A waking and shaking for what I could be and what Grow Cardiff could become.

It is clear to me now that investing in yourself as a leader is an investment in your project and organisation.

I visited some fantastic projects, met some inspirational people – young people – had my thinking repeatedly challenged, and experienced some unexpected joys too – joking with Jesuits about Mrs Brown’s boys, watching whales, laughing with feminist politicians

I had some days of reckoning too – I really cried and had some much-needed time to think about who I had become, my family and what in the end really matters.

But what was it all for? Well I have brought back a fresh sense of what is possible and how so much more is achieved when we work together in active partnership – not competition – with other organisations.

Next steps

Canada was only part of the journey. Using the rest of the bursary, next month I will be travelling to study with Thrive, a therapeutic horticultural centre of excellence – to gain new skills and learning – something my organisation could never normally afford for me to do.

So if you are in a leadership role in your organisation, I invite you to seriously consider applying to the Walter Dickie bursary and to share this opportunity with your colleagues and partners in other organisations.

Related link: The Walter Dickie Bursary is now taking applications – invest in your leadership qualities and apply today.

(So far it’s only been awarded to two organisations in Cardiff – maybe it’s time it came further north!)

The application process itself is very straight forward and should take you a couple of hours at most.

The team at WCVA told me that both years, the people that won are the ones that rung. Give the Social Investment Cymru guys at WCVA a call prior to applying on 0300 111 0124 to chat about the process.

Take time to think about what you could really do with the opportunity, hone your idea, speak to your boss or your board, get their backing – and get writing.

There are no trick questions or impossibly short word counts, just write as you are and what you think you can accomplish.

Sometimes the things that holds us back the most is ourselves

Back to those messages in the high school steps and ceilings.

I may not be Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, or indeed Richard Branson, but there was one quote that did resonate with me – it was something Oscar Romero, the catholic priest from El Salvador said. He devoted his life to standing up for the poor and marginalised and was eventually martyred for doing so.

‘Aspire not to have more, but to be more.’  That is the sort of leader I want to become and encourage others to be – and this bursary is a step in the right direction.

The Walter Dickie Leadership Bursary is now open for applications. 

Before applying, we suggest that you contact Social Investment Cymru for an informal discussion about the process on or call 0300 111 0124.

The round closes on 18 October 2019.