15th birthday cake

15 years of NPC: How it all began

By Peter Wheeler 31 August 2017

First came a big question…

It’s 2001 and I’m working at Goldman Sachs, sitting in front of a bearded community organiser. He’s telling me about his work in East London with young kids that break into cars and steal the radios.

The problem is this’, he says, ‘when I get to my office on a Friday afternoon and find I have £5 to start the following week, how do I decide how best to spend it? Do I extend the programme that keeps young kids out of trouble? Or do I start a programme teaching the Bangladeshi grandmothers of Newham some rudimentary English so they can get what they are due from the Welfare office? How can that £5 do the most good, not just ‘good’?

And why are you asking me?

Peter, a well-resourced firm like yours must surely know an economics professor somewhere that can help answer this question.’

David Robinson picks his targets carefully.

Of course, we didn’t know an economics professor that could help us. And that’s how I came to be sitting in Goldman Partner Gavyn Davies’s office a few days later. Because David Robinson’s question was the same question we had been asking ourselves for a while: how do you give money to charity most effectively?

We agreed that it was not good enough not to know where to go for the answer.

…and then a search for who could answer it

Along with Peter Sweatman, another banker, we spent 3 months looking for the organisation that could help us. An organisation that’s purpose is to answer both questions: for charities, how do I best allocate my limited resources to achieve my mission? For donors and grant-makers, how do I best pick charities—and best engage with them—to achieve my mission?

But it didn’t exist.

That’s right. A decade and a half ago, when NPC’s impact journey started, the landscape was under-populated, almost lonely. A few luminaries like David Robinson, were asking awkward questions about resource allocation decisions, and how we know what we do is any good. Over the pond in the US we read about exciting concepts like ‘theory of change’. And in the development sector, they were at least experimenting with evaluation. But mostly the UK charity sector talk was about, fundraising and finances.

What we needed didn’t exist, so we built it

So, the assignment changed. We set about asking: if we started the very organisation we were looking for—one that would champion effective charitable giving—would it be useful? What would be needed from it?

By April 2001, we had an outline business plan and a way to fund it. We had a Chairman—David Robins—and a co-founder Harvey McGrath. We pulled in another Goldman alumnus Peter Mallinson. Then enter Bernard Mercer to actually run the thing, and Miko Geidroyc who knew how to do company research, since he’d headed that at Deutsche Bank, and had also spent a lot of time thinking about charities. By 2002 we were officially registered as a charity.

There was a horrible flaw in this set up. Most of us were all bankers, and grey, middle aged Anglo-Saxon ones at that. We didn’t have a hope in a sector we barely knew.

But we had one big advantage: we knew we didn’t have a hope. So we asked for a lot of help.

It wasn’t plain sailing, but we ploughed on.

Even so, they say the pioneers get the arrows and the settlers get the land. We certainly got arrows. Charities demanded to know who we, a bunch of financiers, were to question the good the charity sector was so obviously doing. They wondered why we were asking a question with no quantifiable answer. When we attended funder conferences and asked questions about impact, the reception was cool, even hostile. We were seen as failing to understand the sector, and we were certainly never invited to speak.

Undeterred we pressed on. A dozen or so of our mates ‘got it’, and gave us an initial boost to experiment with our methodologies: figuring out how to research entire sectors, translating equity analysis methods into charity analysis methods—a system we are still evolving to this day.

We were controversial and disruptive.

The NSPCC didn’t entirely appreciate the part in our report into child abuse that questioned the effectiveness of its flagship Full Stop Campaign. But from this initial stormy debate arose a strong alliance on the value of measuring impact and learning from it.

Diana Barran who worked for us was so concerned at what she found when researching the domestic violence sector, she went off and founded a charity, CAADA (now Safe Lives), to fix systemic problems.

Still, we made classic mistakes. A dozen friends interested in what we are doing does not a market make—too few bought our ready-made charity recommendations so we had to totally rethink our business model and ask: what do people really want?

Funders hated being told what to do, but asked for bespoke help. Meanwhile every time we published a report, charity chief executives would ask our analysts out to lunch to pick their brains. So we started selling services, rather than products.

And we shaped NPC into what it is today

There was a long debate as to whether we should offer services to both funders and charities—it was a relief when we concluded that if we really wanted to achieve impact, we’d better work with both. Our third CEO Martin Brookes hired someone to ‘think about data’, and our consulting services in impact measurement quickly followed.

We also understood how having a permanent think tank was essential to achieving our mission—we needed the head space to research new problems and engage people in debates regardless of whether they were buying our services. This, we found, also improved our consulting activities.

And so here we are today: part think tank, part consultancy, working to improve the effectiveness of the charity sector.

Those early days were very exciting—with all that land to explore. 2017 is no less exciting, but the landscape is very different. It is very well-settled. We work closely with many fellow travellers with whom we share similar objectives. But as pioneers we constantly feel the urge to find the next new frontier. Stay tuned for what’s to come.