This year at NPC we celebrate our 15th anniversary. 15 years doesn’t sound long, but our 2002 inception pre-dates Twitter, the X factor and the financial crash.

In this time we’ve seen governments come and go, banks fail, and former chancellors strut their stuff on Strictly. We’ve also seen the charity sector shift and evolve, charities fail, charities succeed, charities merge.

One of several things we’ve learnt is the value in sharing lessons publicly for the benefit of others. And as I’ve had the pleasure of being with NPC for virtually the entirety of its existence, I thought I’d have a bash at my top lessons from a decade and a half of trying to help people and organisations to do good more effectively.

What seems obvious doesn’t always work—be adaptable.

This was an early lesson. An example was our own product offer. When we started, we assumed that if we told philanthropists where to put their money, they would fund our pre-selected, meticulously researched, recommendations and pay us for the information. This seemed rational.

Instead we found that many philanthropists are driven by passion and have their own ideas. They prefer to make their own decisions about where and what to fund. But they are open to being guided on how to find and  select charities, to develop strategies and funding processes, and they will even pay for this guidance.

So we quickly discovered that adapting approaches when they don’t go to plan is not only necessary but doable. So we adapted our strategy to offer a more flexible approach.

Our own experience illustrates why theories of change are valuable: thinking through what you are trying to achieve; asking what might drive change—in our case people’s behaviours and motivations; looking for evidence of what works; and interrogating assumptions. Such steps help to devise programmes that stand a greater chance of success.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

When we first started advising on measurement, theories of change, and strategy we were obsessed with the correctness of the output—are all the boxes in the right place on the theory of change diagram?

We have learnt that you can advise on strategy all you like, but unless your process brings everyone with you, it will be abandoned as soon as it is written.

Now we treat such work as perpetual ‘work in progress’. That’s because the process of coming up with a good working draft of the assignment is every bit as important as the final version.

Involving staff, and preferably users, is imperative. Stakeholders want to recognise the theory of change, strategy, impact measurement framework, as something they believe in and want to implement. The importance of a culture that learns and adapts cannot be over-stated.

So culture change is a big part of what we are doing, at both the individual charity level, and at the sector level.

Much of the change we are seeking is being driven by charities…

Our initial thinking was that funders, especially philanthropists, were key to making progress towards effectiveness in the charity sector. We stand by that. Ambitious and strategic philanthropists like the Stone Family Foundation have a marked impact on a cause. It’s such a joy to work with donors who seek long term, close relationships with charities, and invest in the charity’s development. Charities constantly tell us that it’s the beneficiaries who reap the rewards of this type of commitment.

But we’ve also found that charities are often the ones driving the social change agenda, pursuing mission-led strategies, and engaging users. We were surprised at how charities welcomed our early sector research and analysis. So we engaged directly with charities on impact practice, strategy, governance—indeed any topic to be found in What makes a good charity? Working with charities has directly contributed to achieving our mission.

but there’s further to go.

Still, there’s a chunk of charities that these ideas just haven’t convinced or even reached, and there’s a long way to go with the many charities who aren’t evolving in the way we’d like.

I’ve seen less progress that I’d hoped for in terms of basic funder practice, too. We still see the default funder preference for restricted funding, 3-year funding cycles, cumbersome and distancing application processes inhibiting charity excellence and the sort of long term investment in change needed.

So we’ll continue to fight on both fronts.

As with any organisation, it has, as they say, been a journey. We weren’t created perfect, and we continue to learn and develop, especially as the environment changes, too. We know there’s still work to do, both with our approach, and with what we’re trying to achieve. So we’re getting to it. Get in touch if you have any thoughts.

Don’t miss the last few tickets for our annual conference NPC Ignites on 11 October. There’ll be a session from our co-founder and trustee Peter Wheeler on 15 years pushing the impact agenda. Sign up here.

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