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Data: coming full circle

By Sarah Sandford 23 November 2023 4 minute read

In this blog, Sarah Sandford, Principal: Data at NPC, reflects on her journey with NPC and shares some important updates on our data projects.  

I first joined NPC in 2003. Twenty years later, in August 2023, I returned as Principal for Data with the same enthusiasm and perhaps a deeper pride about NPC’s role in the sector.  

Back then, I was fresh out of Cambridge with a passion for maths and the charity sector, which I did not yet know how to bring together. My four years at NPC were incredibly stimulating but did not necessarily help do that. I met some fantastic charities and some committed funders, but the quality and quantity of data in the sector at that time made meaningful analysis very hard. Charities were often doing the best that they could, but they faced systemic challenges that were not initially understood by NPC’s founding team, who (as newbies in the sector) took a few years to fully understand the challenges charities and funders face. NPC’s initial bluster about ‘fixing’ philanthropy gave way to a humbler more service-driven approach to increasing impact. Today, NPC has developed tools to help charities navigate and make sense of data, including our soon to be relaunched data bank. 

NPC encouraged me to learn economics and I left to study for a master’s and a PhD, where I focused on the questions that I encountered at NPC: why are there so many charities? Do the more effective ones get funded? How do donors influence small charities, and can we prevent undue pressure and influence? It also taught me a range of techniques to measure impact through Randomised Control Trials and other rigorous methodologies. 

Since then, as an academic and consultant. I’ve worked on philanthropy all around the world and observed some important differences. French philanthropy seeks to echo the unifying influence of the state in public life by creating structures and favouring larger charities and funders. ‘Global South’ philanthropy, which, as much as generalisations can be made, often innovates through less rigid distinctions between family business, family philanthropy, and government action. 

But wherever you go, the challenges and opportunities around data and measurement abound. Disaster Relief Charities in Pakistan conduct censuses as an input into logistics. French work integration social enterprises try to track the career path of their beneficiaries. UK charities working with young people at risk of offending ask themselves if they should participate in Randomised Controlled Trials. All grapple with aggregating and interpreting their data, so that they can draw measured conclusions.  

These can be really tricky issues, not only for programme staff and executive teams, but also for established data experts bought in to help them. At NPC, we believe that the stakes are too high for overwhelm or a lack of resources to win through. Our aim is to help you to benefit from data insights without necessarily going to the trouble of becoming data experts yourselves. Our local needs databank, conceived in the darkness of the pandemic and put online as a stopgap, is being rebuilt with the help of colleagues at the wonderful Data for Action team. The idea is to collect charity data on need and provision, so that all charities can build their programmes based on evidence-based needswhere your work and funds could have most impact. We’re working on an accessible interface as well as consulting support from our expert team to help charities and funders take a deep dive into the data. If you used the earlier databank, or you might like to use the new one, I would love to hear your thoughtsso that when we relaunch it in early 2024, it is an accessible resource for the sector.


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