Reflections from a decade at NPC

By John Copps 20 March 2013

Experience is something you only get by putting the hours in, my school football coach was fond of saying. After nine-and-a-half years at NPC I’ll shortly be hanging up my boots, hopefully a little wiser than when I started. Nearly ten years is a long time in anyone’s book so I thought I’d give a few reflections on what I’ve learnt in that time.

I joined NPC at the start. In truth it had been founded a year or so earlier but hadn’t made much of a splash. I remember our first birthday, which happened to be in a venue opposite an NCP car park. The confusion among the arriving guests made us all realise how far we had to go to make a name for the organisation.

NPC has always believed that more evaluation and analysis will lead to a better charitable sector. At times, this turned us into a campaigning organisation and accusations of measurement fundamentalism, or even being the ‘Impact Taliban’. In my view that’s never been more than a caricature. Measurement and evaluation is about helping people make good decisions—its proper role is to add to experience and judgment, not replace them.

Early on, NPC was best known for its work with wealthy donors—trying to use evidence of charities’ impact to get more money out of them, and in so doing reward the best charities. That was a time of contrasts: I remember spending a morning with young people that couldn’t read and write on the Aylesbury Estate in south London, and the afternoon in a Mayfair club with a man worth more than £200m trying to convince him to give away some of his fortune. We worked very hard to attract new donors to the sector but the effort didn’t lead to the change we had hoped.

If there’s one thing I think NPC got wrong back then it was that we were part of promoting major donor fundraising as something that it wasn’t. Of course, it is nice for charities that can get it, but it almost never makes sense to build a strategy around it.

Most of all I feel fortunate to have met lots of brilliant people while I’ve been doing this job. In NPC’s little blue book I wrote that its people are the greatest asset any charity has. When it was being edited, my colleague tried to remove it on the basis that it was too clichéd. I resisted because it’s true.

I’ve also learnt that we shouldn’t under-estimate the skills required to be successful in the charity sector, and the expertise we have. I’ve seen a fair number of people with backgrounds in business try to make it and fail, because they just didn’t have what’s required.

That’s not to say that charities can’t learn from for-profit organisations. The lessons just need to be applied carefully. Perhaps the most challenging thing I have done while here is to set up NPC’s Well-being Measure. Although the charity sector is always awash with ideas, it is not always the greatest place to grow a venture.

The sector has been excited by the concept of social enterprise for longer than I can remember, but how much progress has really been made? I heard recently that most of the bids to one of the new social investment funds are coming from private companies, not charities. Back in 2005 I remember very clearly going to an event on social enterprise only to find there were more consultants than actual social enterprises. It is unclear to me how much has changed.

The greatest missed opportunity over the last decade? The ‘Big Society’. Tragically, I think the sector missed a trick here. There was a chance to cement charities as a bigger part of the national consciousness. The sector needed to take it, shape it, and own it. But we fluffed our lines and the moment has passed. Now it’s become a toxic brand and Stephen Bubb is right: the idea is dead. Or to quote Monty Python, it’s pining for the fjords.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I say goodbye, thank you and good luck to NPC. It’s been a fun journey and I think I leave a little wiser than when I arrived. But I’m not leaving the charitable sector—in May I’ll be taking up a position at The BB Group. I’m on LinkedIn if you want to stay in touch.