NPC will be 20 years old in March, and I have had the privilege of being part of the organisation for 18 of those years. As we approach this anniversary, it’s an opportunity to reflect on what’s changed over the last two decades, and to think about how we want to take those insights into the next 20 years.
We’re old enough as an organisation to have seen much change in the charity sector, and in the wider field of philanthropy. I hope we’re also old enough to recognise where we’ve brought about or accelerated some of those positive shifts, but I hope we’re wise and humble enough to know where we’ve just been surfing a wave of broader change throughout society.
In other words, let’s celebrate NPC’s achievements, acknowledge where we’ve struggled, and redouble our passion and commitment to making the changes we need to see in future, based on what we’ve learned from the past.
To mark this landmark anniversary, we have a host of upcoming events, blogs, interviews and thought pieces from the sector’s leading and upcoming figures, more info here.
How NPC has grown
While NPC has changed over the years, at its heart has remained the same mission—to help the charity sector and those that support it to become more evidence-based in work and decision-making. We support individuals and organisations to improve their practices, we innovate and develop useful tools and approaches, and we challenge and influence the sector and government.
In 2002 we set out to identify effective charities, to help philanthropy better direct resources. As we grew to understand the context in which charities work and the challenges they faced in different sectors, from violence against women to criminal justice, we also learned about the gaps in charity practice around measurement and evaluation.
We decided to help close those gaps, through the measurement team we built, the tools and resources we developed and shared, and through the training and consultancy work we did to help put measurement into practice. Our work on theories of change became central to NPC’s theory and practice, and an ever-present in our ‘most downloaded’ charts.
Over the years, as we’ve built on this core body of work, we made attempts to work on the challenge of measuring impact across the sector. Through Inspiring Impact, the collaborative programme we helped kickstart and lead over the last decade, we worked to reach smaller charities with practical support on impact. And through the Justice Data Lab, which via our policy and influencing work, and the Ministry of Justice’s response, has helped provide criminal justice charities with real data and analysis on the impact of their programmes for free and at scale. We have also conducted research on systems change, which sought to connect organisations’ impact individually into broader agendas, coalitions and movements, creating lasting and systemic shifts.
There have of course been many other areas of work, which remain core to our work today. Helping philanthropists start up and develop in their giving; helping develop the field of philanthropy advice; exploring and encouraging innovation in philanthropy; helping new fields, like social investment, build on the impact practice developed in the charity sector; our policy and influencing work which helps create the conditions for impact, including our work on the implications of an ageing population for the charity sector in the Commission on Ageing; and incubating and supporting new organisations like the Private Equity Foundation (now Impetus) and Social Impact Analysts Association (now Social Value International).
We’ve helped many thousands of charities, and many hundreds of philanthropists and foundations, to better use evidence, make smarter decisions, and to be more efficient and effective. And at our best, we’ve helped convene the charity and philanthropy sides of the equation to work together more powerfully and effectively.
But I think we’ve also been slow to learn some of the lessons we have needed to learn, to listen to some of the voices we should have listened to, to share our platform with them, and to pick up on more challenging questions that I think we now have to address head on if we are to play a valuable role over the next 20 years.
The direction we now need to head in
Equity, inclusion and power dynamics are the themes shaping the future of the charity and philanthropy sectors. While NPC has already done work to start exploring them in our thinking and in our practice, deeper questions remain unaddressed: Can impact measurement drive meaningful accountability to those whom charities exist to serve?
Can capacity-building ever succeed in a sector where capacity gaps are a feature of systemic underfunding, not a bug? Can philanthropy ever be equitable when its roots are in wealth inequalities? Or when its practice is predominantly private and exclusive rather than open and inclusive?
Ultimately, can we envision a fundamentally different sector—one that’s truly equitable? What would it look like, and how would it behave? I believe it would need to be built as a commons, with democratic ownership and oversight of resources, priorities and decision-making. Others will have very different, but complementary visions. But what would it take to realise these visions?
I hope NPC can play a significant role in wrestling with these existential questions and, working together with others, can chart a path towards a new future for our sector. Perhaps openness is an important part of an answer to these questions. In our new Open Philanthropy programme, we are exploring how far we can address equity and inclusion through practices and mechanisms that share philanthropy’s work, data and decisions both outwards—transparently—and inwards—inclusively. I hope it is a beacon of the kind of work we’ll do in future to address the most important challenges we face.
I hope NPC can be idealistic about how much change we can create collectively, and grounded in knowing which steps feel right to take right now, and which practices we need to further invest in, in order to head in the right direction. In all that we do, whether with clients, partners or the wider sector, we will be striving to maximise social impact for the people who we all exist to serve.