Happy birthday NPC! A chat with chief executive Dan Corry
Ahead of NPC Ignites, we thought we'd take stock of NPC's 15 years of existence with chief executive Dan Corry.
Formerly an economist, Dan Corry has now been at the helm of NPC for six years. Prior to that, he’d spent five years working in Whitehall, first as an advisor to the Treasury and later as an advisor to Downing Street on the economy.
Corry says he thinks he was brought into NPC in 2011 as it was in danger of becoming only a consultancy for the non-profit sector. The original purpose of the organisation – to make the charity sector more effective – had ended up being about trying to guide philanthropists in a more sensible way.
The organisation works in a different way these days. The think tank side of the business is just as important and works in symbiosis with the consultancy, with staff working across both sides of the business.
“The consultancy work means we are working with charities and funders, so we know what is worrying them,” says Corry. “And that guides us to what research we want to do, who we should be talking to.”
“The real point,” says Corry “is to create change and give us lessons.”
As well as increasing charity effectiveness and building powerful philanthropy, the third area of focus is on impact measurement. Indeed, says Corry, ”Some think that we’re the people that want to measure everything.”
He’s keen to stress a sensible approach though. He thinks random control trials are not always necessary and the type of measurement should be very much appropriate to the size of the organisation.
Corry gives the example of a community centre he learnt about whilst judging at the Charity Governance awards. The social mission was to bring the community together so the centre started very simply documenting who came.
The organisation found it wasn’t attracting a very wide range of people, so they put on different courses and did some outreach, delivering leaflets. Then they measured again and it had changed a bit."They weren’t doing very complicated stuff but it had got into their head that that mattered,” Corry says, admiringly.
He does admit that bigger organisations face more of a challenge though: “If you’re NSPCC and you’re trying to work out which programmes are most effective in helping kids who have been sexually abused, it’s of course much more complicated.”
A report on impact measurement published last year by Buzzacott and the The Good Economy Partnership found a major complaint is that there are too many tools. Does he think that’s a good reason for having a common metric?
“If you’re doing the same thing as some other charities, it makes sense to go and look around at what tools others are using. That’s not only so you don’t reinvent the wheel, it’s because if they’re measuring in the same way, you get some comparisons and you start to learn.”
He thinks the search for a common metric is a mistake, though, and is also wary of putting an economic evaluation on measurement, for example finding that for every £1 invested £2 of social value is created.
“Theoretically then you could compare a mental health intervention with recidivism amongst prisoners. Some of the numbers that emerge are pretty dubious I’m afraid and people talk about Social Return on Investment (SROI) inflation.”
Government and civil society
During his six years leading NPC, Corry has seen no less than four ministers for civil society. Given his prior experience working in Whitehall, what does he make of the decision to put the office of civil society within the Department of Culture Media and Sport?
“It’s the pits of the departments in terms of power in Whitehall. In an ideal world we would have the minister for civil society in the cabinet office because they need to be influencing all the departments.
(DCMS is) the pits of the departments in terms of power in Whitehall
“For a lot of the charities we work with, what the office for civil society does with the charity commission is kind of irrelevant. It’s much more important what Ofsted are doing, what CCGs are doing, what the prison governors are doing.
“What we need is someone in Whitehall keeping an eye on what all those people are doing and saying ‘hang on, if you do it like that, you’re going to screw the social sector.’”
There is no longer an MP who has the single brief of minister for civil society. Following the last election, the pack was shuffled and Tracey Crouch got both that and the sport portfolio to oversee.
Corry thinks Brexit will dominate the workload of MPs to such an extent that getting other policy advances will be difficult in any case.
However, he’s optimistic given Crouch’s credentials: “She sounds like she’s a positive change from her predecessor, she’s got energy, a bit of a profile. If she has spent time with some voluntary sports organisations she will have a pretty good idea of what the voluntary sector is all about.”
As for NPC’s influence, the government uses the organisation’s insight from time to time – it was asked to advise on how the Social Value Act could be strengthened, for example.
Corry is keen to point out how NPC distinguishes itself from the likes of Acevo or NCVO though: “We differ from a lot of the member organisations fighting for the social sector. We’re of the sector, love the sector but we’re not there to preach for the sector because a lot of it isn’t very good.”
Some things haven’t changed since he worked in government – he says social impact bonds were flavour of the month then. “Is it going to be how most charities and funders work? No, it isn’t.
“But some areas we think will be enormous – impact investing for example. Our big question there is how much impact is it going to create?”
What to look out for at NPC Ignites
One other area where NPC tries to be a critical friend and offer fresh thinking to charities and social enterprises is with its annual conference NPC Ignites.
There will be a session on Brexit of course, but also one on artificial intelligence, led by Will Cavendish. As strategy lead for Deepmind Applied (owned by Google), Cavendish tries to find ways of using artificial intelligence to impact the world positively.
Whilst aware of the concern about the use of data, Corry is particularly excited about this: “We know that if we could only harness the data we know the government already has, we could really help charities understand their impact more, particularly around health, for example.”
David Sainsbury (from the supermarket chain family), who has also worked in government as minister for science, will also be speaking. Sainsbury is a celebrated philanthropist, having given £1bn to charities. Corry says that major donors like him like coming to events like NPC Ignites “because they want to learn about charities.”
Going forward, NPC will be working on a project that will try to foster more collaboration between the NHS and social ventures. There will also be work on place based philanthropy.
So: plenty more to do then. Before we let him go back to work we ask him to reflect on the usefulness of NPC in the last 15 years. Has it made the charity sector more effective, is it a useful organisation to have around?
“There are a lot of very good people in the charity and social enterprise sector, but they have no bloody time to think,” he says.
“So we’re a resource to do some of the thinking for you and present it in an easy way. NPC is that capacity that people need.”