I was going to write a triumphal blog about our conference, NPC Ignites, which took place this week. A blog about how it raised our sights, got us out of the day-to-day grind, showed us some of the exciting and bold things people are doing in the sector, and inspired us with new ideas and approaches.

And it did all that. Genuinely. It was a varied, interesting and inspiring day, with a fabulous line up of speakers. Brexit, the election and public opinions provided a backdrop to the discussion, combined with a array of content from governance to Artificial Intelligence, commissioning to the loss of trust in experts.

Throughout the day, themes that, to my mind, show genuine progress and potential emerged. These include: examples of imaginative approaches to collaboration; a move towards involving users in all aspects of our work; creative approaches to using assets and resources in different ways; mature attitudes to risk; and the acknowledgement that people are at the heart of our success. These were music to our ears, reflecting many findings and discussions in our State of the Sector research, Charities taking charge.

But looking back on the day, my overwhelming feeling was one of disquiet. And that’s because, in different ways and guises, there were some serious challenges made to the sector about how we deliver change.

Until Polly Neate, CEO of Shelter, came on to deliver the final keynote (listen in full below) these were fragmented: scattered throughout the day interspersed with tea breaks. But she rolled them into one and then went further, delivering a speech that pulled no punches about power and privilege in the sector.

So, drawing on discussions from throughout the day, here are some of the challenges posed that I came away pondering:

We’re squandering our USP. Voluntary organisations are grounded in communities, seeing people’s experiences and the true impact of policies on people. We have power through our access, our networks, our influence, our positioning as charities, and our freedom of choice. But we’re not using it. And we’re too quick to play the victim when things don’t go our way.

We’re sacrificing the common cause of civil society in individual bids to protect and promote our organisational positions and brands.

We have retreated behind a screen of passive and managerial speak; speak that we understand but our true audiences can’t engage with. This means we’re more and more viewed as ‘the establishment’, a body that many people feel distant from and alienated by.

Inappropriate demands for evidence are a burden and are used as a technique to protect power in the hands of a few.

None of these make comfortable reading. But in my experience that usually means there’s an element of truth in them. And that discomfort is important. In Polly’s speech she made the point that: ‘If you think you’re working for equality and it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right.’

Of course, as someone in another session said ‘It’s much easier to criticise and destroy something than to build something.’ And that’s true. But we must take a clear-eyed and ambitious approach to tackling the root causes of problems instead of tinkering with the symptoms: that goes for the sector’s own problems, as well as the social issues it seeks to fix.

And I’m glad that these issues were raised at NPC Ignites, because I think that captures the role that NPC can play—to act as a platform to challenge the sector to do better, because that’s what our missions and those that we work for demand. As Refugee Action CEO Stephen Hale was kind enough to say:

‘The voluntary sector needs reflection and it needs challenge, it needs an obsession with impact, and it needs creative new solutions. I think NPC is really helping us do those things.’

We’ll keep trying. And if we’re all sitting uncomfortably in the process, let’s take that as a good sign.

You can listen to Polly Neate’s keynote speech here, or catch up on the insights from the day in this Storify summary.

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