NPC spark graphic

Where next for charities and society?

For 20 years NPC has been helping philanthropists and charities to maximise social impact in the lives of the people they serve. To mark our 20th birthday, we’ve been talking to leading figures and people doing things differently to ask: Where next for social impact? In this essay, our Head of Policy and External Affairs, Leah Davis, responds to the arguments made by our essayists and interviewees on the relationship between charities and the state. We’ll be discussing all of these themes at NPC Ignites – Book your ticket here.


I feel very strongly that the role of charities is to make a better society— we achieve that both by helping the person is in front of us, but also by using what we learn to ensure that others don’t have to experience it. I think that means changing how charities do things, as well as fighting injustices caused by the state and by the private sector.

I’ve been at NPC for fifteen of its twenty years, and in each of those years we’ve been trying to make a better society. Our focus on impact is why we ask about different ways of doing things. Our first sector report, on domestic violence, led to the author realising that existing methods for dealing with domestic violence reached people too late, so earlier intervention was needed. Richard Harries’ essay about Putnam’s work on social capital reminded me of how much that work influenced our thinking on community and community organisations, the legacy of which is now in our work on Levelling Up and social investment. We haven’t always been right—we now focus much more on user involvement and lived experience, and we’re more nuanced in our approach to measurement than in our earlier days. But we have helped to shift the focus from outputs to outcomes, and we’ve always tried to help funders and charities tackle the big issues in society, and we’ll continue to do so.

And those issues are big. While society is undoubtably better than 100 years ago, our lives and the pressures we face are more complicated. Sometimes it feels like charities are too absent from the big societal changes. What, for example, are charities doing about the impact of climate change on their beneficiaries? Or on the impact of technology? Or increasing inequality? It can feel like it’s easier to help the person in front of us, rather than deal with these complex issues that no-one knows how to solve. This leads us to hope that experts in technology or climate change or inequality will deal with these issues, and we look forward to hearing the answers, but deep down we know that we can’t just leave these questions to others.

Because the threats are existential, and the number of them seems to continue to grow. Charities can’t just concentrate on the issue at hand, they need broader ways of working. In our essay series we have read Polly Neate’s thoughts on campaigning for social justice; Nerys Anthony describing how Systems Change is needed; and interesting thoughts on how charities need to involve their users. All of them are inspiring, and all of them are right about the need to prioritise this work. And we need to see more of all of these solutions to make our society better. All of them strengthen each other—we need the views and voices of people affected by issues if we’re to understand the systems and policies that work against them.

And let’s not forget that charities are part of society, which means they suffer the same problems as society. We can end up fostering discrimination as well as fighting it; contributing to climate change as well as arguing against it, so we mustn’t be afraid to scrutinise our own behaviour. Much of our thinking comes from outdated Victorian models. In a world where I seem to be asked to give my opinion on everything I consume, why are we still having to argue for the including users in decisions about what would work best for them?

As a sector, we need to bring our ways of working up to date—be that investing more in digital, getting better governance, thinking about how to include users, or using data to make decisions about needs and impact. This is where NPC is helping organisations adapt to the future. We’re looking at how involvement can be meaningful, rather than tokenistic; how social investment can help the private sector be part of the change that we want to see in society; and how charities need to be insiders and outsiders, thinking about the system they are working in, and imagining how it can work better for people. I am looking forward to being part of that change, and I hope you will be too.


We hope you found our 20th anniversary essays and interviews engaging and thought provoking. We’d love to hear what you think the future holds, and what you believe NPC should be focusing on. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #20yearsofNPC or through our events. As a charity ourselves we rely on the generosity of those who value our work to help us to continue to produce research and guidance to support the sector in maximising social impact. Visit the 20 years of NPC page to find out more. We’ll be discussing all of these themes at NPC Ignites – Book your ticket here.


Take me back to the essay and interview hub >


Thankyou to PwC for sponsoring our essay and interview collection.

Pwc logo


Read more essays and interviews in our 20th anniversary collection