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Big words, big numbers, and big ideas

What NPC Ignites 2019 taught me about transforming the charity sector



By Will Hanford-Spira 16 October 2019 5 minute read

I’m told NPC Ignites is always a bit of a hurricane of ideas, faces and causes and, attending for the first time ever last week, it didn’t disappoint. I couldn’t possibly hope to capture the whole day in just one blog but here are the highlights of what I saw.

Challenging concepts

Coercive isomorphism. It gets you 35 points in Scrabble, and out of the blue became the surprise hit at NPC Ignites 2019. So what is it?

Well, as Fozia Irfan explained in our opening panel discussion, if you work for a charity you might be familiar with feeling forced to behave in a fixed way through funder expectation. The power dynamics at play pull you into a position where you risk becoming an extension of your funders; no longer an independent voice. This is coercive isomorphism. Isomorphic, meaning to become similar. And coercive, because of subtlety of the way the mismatch of power between the charity and their funders can force this similarity. As head of a community foundation, it’s a tension Fozia is well aware of and working hard to break through.

Challenging practices

Now of course it is right for funders to have expectations about how their money in used, but are these demands always reasonable?

What turned out to be most retweeted stat of the day came from Marcelle Speller, Founder and Chair of Brevio, in our breakout session on power. She revealed that currently unpublished research suggests £1.1 billion is spent by registered charities every year on grant applications. With an average failure rate of 63%, that’s £693 million every year for failed funding applications which could have been invested in frontline charitable services. Is this acceptable, and do funders realise the impact of the frictional costs of asking for funding?

What to do about it?

Both coercive isomorphism and the frictional costs of fundraising reflect the power funders hold over charities and the unintentional negative effects. So what can we do?

The first response is to recognise where power dynamics are at play. At NPC we hosted a popular seminar series on power, culminating in the breakout session at NPC Ignites. We’ll soon be publishing a guide for funders on grantee relationships, based on what we’ve learnt. Funders should be prepared to meet grantees where they are, think hard about the application journey, practice unrestricted funding wherever possible, and consider participatory approaches.

Its not all about funders though. Perhaps the high failure rate is from too many charities working in too small a space. Are we spending more energy competing against each other than against injustice? Our final panel debate raised strong arguments for consolidation, which could range from formal mergers all the way through to looser partnerships.

Mergers are a taboo in the charity sector, so naturally we dived in headfirst with our paper last year Let’s talk mission and merger. Consolidation is about more than just mergers though. It’s also about independent charities working together in pursuit of common goals. At NPC, we think collaboration works best when centred around a place. At our breakout session on creating change through place, our Place Lead, Nicola Pritchard, outlined our new framework, which charities and funders can use to plan their work.

And what about impact?

One of the big difficulties charities face in making successful funding bids is demonstrating that their services work. We certainly don’t think funders should be going soft on impact, but we do think it’s an area where teamwork makes sense. Why ask all your grantees to develop a bespoke measurement framework when you can instead facilitate shared measurement? In our breakout session on shared evaluation, Judith Rankin, Northern Ireland Delivery Manager at Sported, described how one of the major challenges to shared measurement is a lack of understanding and capacity, particularly for small charities without paid staff. Inspiring Impact provides free resources to help with this.

Measurement is all about data. Our data lead, Rosario Piazza led a breakout session on how the data revolution is driving impact. Delegates shared that their biggest barriers to charities making use of data are cultural and skills based. One of the best ways charities can get around this is by getting involved in data labs. By using government data to compare the journeys of beneficiaries to the journeys of similar people, a data lab can help organisations answer that critical question: did we make a difference?

So back to that £1.1 billion…

Of course it’s complicated, and in any sector you have to spend money to get money. We can’t expect every funding bid to be accepted and it would be very worrying if they were. But just because we can’t solve every inefficiency doesn’t mean we can’t solve any. Funders can play their part by managing their relationships with grantees in a way which overcomes the power dynamics at play. Charities can collaborate instead of competing. And all of us can work together on shared measurement so the challenge of demonstrating impact is made easier. In doing so we ensure our resources are targeted towards the greatest need. We all have our part to play.

For more big ideas on transforming the charity sector, sign up to our upcoming events, seminars and training days.


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