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Where next for philanthropy?

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.


When NPC was founded twenty years ago, the challenge it faced – to help philanthropy maximise its own impact – seemed vast, but surmountable. I remember the optimism of those initial years – when I joined in 2004 we felt that the tools we were bringing to bear could really transform the field. Our sector research would help clarify the landscape for philanthropy in fields from violence against women to mental health; our due diligence frameworks would help structure how philanthropists assess potential grantees; and our evaluation and reporting approaches would help everyone to learn from funding relationships. The tools of evidence and analysis seemed destined to succeed.

We’ve achieved a great deal, both for individual philanthropists and for the sector as a whole. And yet, despite much progress, the challenges philanthropy faces today are greater than twenty years ago. Many of the tools of the evidence trade have flourished – there is more data than ever, more analysis, more research. But, if anything, that data shows us that inequality is not falling, poverty in the UK is not being tackled, social justice is not yet being achieved, and climate change is not yet slowing. Meanwhile the increasing recognition of the role that power dynamics and inequalities play in how philanthropy itself works suggests that it’s not the tools we use that matters, but the purpose we put them to and who decides what that purpose should be.

So as philanthropists wrestle with these challenges, what will the future bring? As always, we hope philanthropists will be smarter – using research and evidence to target their work, and using data to drive their decision-making, so they can progress with good strategies. But I believe this is not the end goal for how philanthropy works – it’s merely the starting point.

Philanthropists must be more humble, recognising the limited contribution that any one individual or institution can make, yet simultaneously more ambitious if they are to play a meaningful role. You can only do this by finding ways to operate more collectively and connectedly. Openness can play a role here – contributing your work to others and taking their work into your own.

Philanthropy will have to be more equal – whatever that means. The challenge of how a field built through individuals and institutions amassing wealth can contribute to equity, rather than perpetuating inequity, is huge. Philanthropists and foundations will need to give away power (and money) faster than they continue to amass it. An important start is the people making decisions being representative of the communities they serve. But real equity would go far beyond this. Perhaps it would mean the dissolution of philanthropy, as foundations spent down to meet urgent challenges at the behest of those they aim to serve. Or perhaps philanthropists can play an ongoing and valuable role by using their autonomy to create a neutral space – a forum – in which we can recognise and reconcile different interests.

It feels as though philanthropy is at a crossroads – torn between dreams of its purpose and the reality of its current identity. But we’re confident that philanthropy can change, and that we can help it to do so. The future of philanthropy rests on how much it can change, how quickly, and whether it can still retain aspects that make it unique – on whether, as Fozia Irfan asks, philanthropy can really shift power to those who need it, not just tinker around the edges of grantmaking. We at NPC will always be working hard with the philanthropy sector to achieve the transformation philanthropy needs, and seeking out those brave enough to pioneer, explore and risk failure in the course of learning how to transform.


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.


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Thankyou to PwC for sponsoring our essay and interview collection.

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Read more essays and interviews in our 20th anniversary collection