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A product or a journey?

Our approach to consultancy for charities and funders

By Sally Bagwell 17 September 2018

At NPC, we want charities and funders of all kinds to have the information, the skills—and sometimes the constructive challenge—needed to make the biggest difference to peoples’ lives. That’s pretty much why we exist. So consulting is a huge part of our work and is crucial to our mission as a charity.

We spend a lot of our time supporting individual organisations to make changes they need—developing strategies, analysing ways of working, developing ways to measure, understand and improve impact.

We don’t talk much publicly about our consulting work—apart from through the odd case study—because the results are often confidential, or highly specific to the client we’re working with.

But what does become public are the insights we gain from our day-to-day work with organisations trying to make a difference. These organisations are working on complex challenges without simple answers and we go with them to find solutions. Along the way we see the difficult contexts in which they work, the common challenges they face, what helps and what hinders change—both operationally, and at a wider cultural, policy and regulatory level.

All these insights feed our think tank and policy work, and can be found in the many guides and resources we provide free over on our resource hub.

In short: we learn as much from our clients as they learn from us, and we bring as many of these insights as possible to future work and the wider charity sector.

Here are some principles for how it works. If you’re interested in working with us, this is what you can expect…

There’s never a right answer

Once we’ve got to grips with a client’s issue it’s tempting to scurry away, promising to return in a couple of weeks with a shiny report containing ‘The Answer’.

But increasingly I think the ‘right’ answer is a myth. The most effective solution we can offer you as a charity, funder, or social enterprise is built on a combination of three things:

  • listening and questioning
  • evidence-based insight from research
  • reflection on what is practical for your organisation at that time

Whatever your ambition, we know from experience that how far and how fast an organisation is able to move will always trump the most rigorously researched ‘optimal’ solution.

I know: the idea that a tricky problem can be outsourced to experts who will deliver neat solutions is seductive, and hard to let go of. But how likely is it that something cooked up from afar and wrapped in a neat bow will actually stick?

So that also means…

The journey is as important as the destination

We can bring research, analytical skills, new perspectives, experience and the space to do the thinking. But your organisation, and those who use your services, are the ones who have a deep understanding of what is needed, and what solutions could work.

So we prefer to think of what we do as more like ‘coaching’. We’ll walk along side you, give pointers and directions, ask important questions, offer iterative solutions.

This way, you’ll be part of the journey as we go—connected to the thinking and principles that inform any decisions. Ultimately, you’ll have a much greater connection with the work if you’ve played a role in shaping it.

But despite this close working…

It’s not always comfortable

Consulting support should be professional, responsive, flexible. But that doesn’t mean we’ll always be telling you what you want to hear.

We’re engaged for our deep understanding of the charity sector, so it’s our responsibility to the people we work with—as well as to our own charitable mission—to be honest and open, and not to shirk difficult conversations.

Though we come at these conversations from a place of humility, trying to ensure we bring the appropriate balance of empathy, enquiry, and direction, it’s not always easy for either party. But sometimes the uncomfortable conversations can be the most valuable because…

Change will happen in unpredictable ways

As part of NPC’s efforts to understand the impact of our own work, we aim to catch up with clients six months after a project closes. I think we are yet to experience a client simply saying ‘yes, we’ve implemented all your recommendations!’

Yet, when we return to our client or they return to us, either at six months or years down the line, we often see a myriad of small changes to systems, to attitudes. We see shifts in thinking and in the kinds of conversation that happen within organisations. All of which add up to significant changes.

We think this is much more likely to make a difference than having ‘The Answer’, wrapped up in a neat bow, gathering dust on a shelf.

Get in touch if you have any other principles for what good consulting looks like. In the spirit of practicing what we preach, we’re always keen to learn and improve!

Find out more about our consultancy services.