The long view on the state of the sector
One of the most exciting things about State of the Sector 2020, is its potential to compare its findings with our original research conducted in 2017 to see what’s changed and the direction the sector is travelling in. But some NPC staff and alumni have longer memories than that. Iona Joy sadly left us this year to join the King’s College Hospital Charity, but before she did she shared the changes she’s seen in the state of the sector in her career so far.
The social sector has changed out of all recognition during my career. When I first joined NPC, I remember we elbowed our way into conferences (generally uninvited—we weren’t popular), and were struck by how no-one ever talked about effectiveness (of charities, interventions or anything). Impact wasn’t mentioned. There was quite a lot of discussion about how hard it was to do good, but little attempt to gather any evidence of this good. And suggestions that it might be an idea to gather evidence was generally deemed as too difficult. Number of visits to something was usually equated with the number of people reached (regardless of whether people came more than once). ‘Lives touched’ seemed to be the benchmark everyone lived by.
It was quite lonely. Few shared our vision of a sector motivated by doing better, improvement, and learning. Those that did were often City types looking for the ‘Magic Metric’ which spat out a numerical answer to social impact. They also talked a lot about the importance of ‘being commercial’ and with not much humility. Some ideas, e.g. Impetus and its venture philanthropy model, were good. A lot were not. But at least the field was sparsely populated, and we could develop methodologies starting with a blank sheet of paper. There was no-one to tell us how to do sector research, so we applied what we knew from elsewhere and adapted it.
With time sector leaders wanted to get to know us. We also found that having demanded more accountability for impact, we had spawned a whole industry of charity evaluation specialists, consultants and so forth. Some more extreme even than us, demanding randomised control trials for the tiniest multi-faceted local intervention. Some of this stuff got quite complex and expensive. Were people actually learning from it? And was the leadership up to implementing change?
The sector also increasingly debated valuable topics such as how to tackle system change, the value of social capital, involving those with lived experience in designing and delivering solutions, power dynamics. I’ve witnessed much greater levels of collaboration. Although there’s a fair way to go in terms of diversity on boards and senior teams.
We’ve also come full circle somewhat on evaluation and data—measure what you treasure, rather than some impossible question requiring longitudinal follow up. Short feedback better than 30 page surveys. And we now hope people have a much better understanding of good data—confusion between numbers of people using the service and number of visits still lingers but less frequently.
And I’ve learnt my own lessons:
- The Magic Metric doesn’t exist. Quantifying social impact financially as you would health QALYs can lead thinking away from doing what is best for the people affected. But gathering evidence of who is responding to what and why is very useful.
- Leadership is fundamental to success. It is the same whether you are a business, a charity, an army, or a country, and is important at every level of an organisation. But leadership comes in different shapes and sizes, depending on the circumstances, type of organisation, or stage of organisational development. An entrepreneurial start up will need different leadership to a mature service deliverer. The culture of an emergency relief organisation will not be the same as a community organisation patiently building social capital.
- Things take time. It takes time to observe what an organisation achieves—I’ve learnt a great deal observing charities benefiting from the long term support of the Stone Family Foundation. It takes time to develop and implement an ambitious strategy. But tasks can be mixed with quick wins, so when planning, thinking about different time horizons is one of many helpful tools.
- It’s not enough to have good intentions. Sometimes you must make tough choices and prioritise scarce resources. We are too reluctant to have difficult conversations about what is possible, what is best, and what we should drop.
I’ve now decamped to King’s College Hospital Charity, which sits on the border between the NHS and the charity sector. I witness the realities of a broke, busy London hospital every day. The Charity, only recently independent from the Hospital, has ambitions to be progressive. However, we are 100% funded by donations—many from grateful hospital patients. And we currently rely on cash-strapped time-poor NHS staff to generate and implement projects. So, we are in the very early stages of demonstrating our worth, persuading donors to be less specific with their donations, and generating fundable projects beyond a single ward or clinical speciality.
In the meantime, I’ve learnt that much can be achieved for people by giving grants for basic purposes, e.g. volunteers guiding and comforting confused and scared hospital users, making a ward more dementia-friendly, funding practical liver transplant research. We will get onto tackling the system when we are ready.
State of the sector, our comprehensive survey of the opinions of charity leaders is returning for 2020. Theo Clay, lead researcher on the project sets out what's changed, what's stayed the same, and what we hope to achieve.
As part of our ongoing work to better understand the issues facing the social sector, we spoke to 18 charity leaders, foundations, charities, public sector organisations, cross-sector organisations and professional services firms from across the UK.