One hundred days at NPC

By Dan Corry 18 January 2012

In his first 100 days in office, Roosevelt passed legislation to tackle the Great Depression, JFK set a path to a promised new Jerusalem, and Obama began to overhaul US foreign and fiscal policy.

On the other hand in the new Danish political drama, Borgen, the new PM discussed what she would do for her first 100 days and much to the dismay of her spin doctor she decided to visit Greenland.

I guess my first 100 days at NPC have been a bit less dramatic (although none of us are quite sure what the charity sector equivalent of Greenland is).

Mainly I have been learning and discovering—and starting to move NPC onto a fresh trajectory, building on its core competences of rigour, impact and independence, but facing up to the issues that are key to the success of the sector going forward.

It has been a pleasure to meet so many very impressive and dedicated individuals, from those involved in funding to those at the sharp end of front-line delivery and everyone else in between. I have found a lot of energy and determination even in times that everyone knows are tough. And I have found a wealth of variety even in organisations that look similar from the outside.

But what has left me pondering most is how change and progress is achieved in this sector. The problem, as everyone knows, is that outside the text book model of the perfect market—where better, more innovative firms producing good products continually replace  less good ones producing things nobody wants—driving positive, progressive change is hard.

This kind of change is not easy to achieve even in the private sector where a whole host of market failures mean that the model often doesn’t work. It is tougher still in the public sector, a sector I spent many years in, where prices and profits do not drive decision making and where the classic drivers of innovation and productivity like new entry and exit work rather weakly, if at all.

Much of this is replicated in the not for profit and social sector, but with even more bells and whistles. The motivations are all good, but the mission-driven approach sometimes acts not as a spur but a barrier to progress.

The original NPC model hoped that change would be driven exclusively by driving funding towards the best players. Thus a sort of quasi-market would develop. This agenda is one we still believe in, but we are realistic on the extent and pace at which it can achieve results. The same impetus lies behind things like social impact bonds, where the idea is that payment by results combined with risk capital will drive people and funds towards interventions that work.

But perhaps one of the most important things I have re-learned in my first 100 days is that, just as in public services, much improvement and positive change is driven by organisations wanting to feel they are doing a good job vis-a-vis their peers—as well as supporting their beneficiaries—and not only by a search for rewards for being good. Head teachers care as much about their ofsted results from a sense of professional pride as they do because they think it will influence parents choosing where to send their child to school. In the same way, charities should and do care about their impact because they want to know how their work is changing the lives of the people they aim to help, and whether they are doing it better than others, just as much as for the funding opportunities it may bring.

What does all that tell me? First, that NPC’s focus on helping funders and providers understand their impact and how to measure it must remain core to any theory of change for the whole sector. But second, that as a charity dedicated to helping the sector do more with its resources, NPC needs to operate in a variety of areas that can help enable and inspire improvement and modernisation.

That is why we will be doing more in my next 100 days on social investment. It is why we will soon be conducting research into the way that commissioning is affecting charities. And it is why in addition to all our consultancy work we are getting people in the sector together to discuss key issues through our new series of seminars.

Not quite a Kennedy 100 days impact maybe, but some important shifts of emphasis that will keep NPC relevant and on our toes.