Patrick Murray, Asset Based: Building on the Strengths of Communities

Patrick Murray, Head of Policy and External Affairs at New Philanthropy Capital, reflects on his vision of the Future of Doing Good.

Greater demand on front line services mean that many organisations struggle to find the time and resources to lift their heads up and look beyond their daily activities, to think about long term strategy and goals. At the same time, they are working within a sector whose boundaries are more blurred and resources are harder to come by. Infrastructure organisations have a vital role to play, giving the smallest organisations the opportunity and time to plan and think. Meanwhile, a more asset-based, people-centric focus in the language and policy used by everyone from local authorities to funders ,means that these smallest organisations are often best placed to understand and serve their communities. The challenge is build on their strengths, whilst preserving their unique position with their local areas. Digital technology can help, for example, to build infrastructure platforms that do no require the same physical investment and resources, and are more flexible and cheaper than traditional infrastructure models. 


What is the future of doing good in the UK? It’s a big question that many organisations are facing. We know from our work at NPC that often charities and social enterprises struggle to get much beyond the all-consuming day job of delivering services, advocating for change, and supporting the beneficiaries and causes they exist to serve.

Yet the world around us is changing rapidly. Charities and social enterprises are grappling with a huge range of challenges: from the changing shape and role of the state, to a new post-Brexit political environment, to wider social trends around shifting public attitudes, massive demographic changes, and the advances of new technology. So it’s welcome that the Big Lottery Fund have fuelled the debate around what the future of doing good looks like.

At NPC we’ve also been busy thinking through how we can best support leaders in charities and the wider social sector transform their organisations to suit the modern world and deliver the greatest possible impact. We’ve started our State of the Sector programme to do just that. We published the first output from this programme, Boldness in times of change, in July. It draws on our history of nearly 15 years work with charities and funders, and talks about the about the mix of challenges and opportunities facing charities. The central argument is that we need to come up with new models, maximise new resources, and build new relationships to deliver greater impact.

Like the Big Lottery Fund’s Future Good paper we identify a visible shift towards models that build on the strengths of communities and beneficiaries (also known as an ‘asset based’ approach). This, alongside a very different attitude to collaboration and blurring of boundaries across sectors, is an important part of the picture. But a real shift towards ‘asset based’ models is harder than many realise. Changing our language to be more ‘asset based’—such as talking about people rather than problems—is easy. It’s the giving away of power to beneficiaries and communities—at the core of this way of working—that is difficult for many. But in a digital age where people expect, and demand, more personalised products and services, the charity sector has work to do.

Similarly the expectations of a new generation that demands impact be delivered regardless of organisational form—be they charity, social enterprise or mission-led business—is both a challenge and an opportunity for the wider social sector. In the rush to new business models and new forms of financing though, there’s still a big role for organisations who deliver a service where there isn’t a return to be made.

Ultimately, maximising your impact in this changing world will require very different attitudes and skills around the boardroom. We argue that too many boards are held back by their current model of governance, and in particular their attitude to risk.

There are big questions too for how charities are supported. In a world where boundaries are more blurred infrastructure bodies have a key role as a broker between sectors. But the advance of digital technology allow us to think more creatively about how we provide some of the functions of infrastructure. For example the sector could move to greater peer-to-peer networks sharing open source content rather than a more top down broadcast model.

As for funders there are big questions too. How can they support more asset based models where control rests with beneficiaries and communities rather than organisations? The People in the Lead strategy is a great example of grappling with these questions, but the Big Lottery Fund’s website still tells potential grantees that the starting point for any project is identifying the need they are seeking to address.

So, big questions abound. What are our next steps? With support from Barrow Cadbury Trust, PwC, Ecclesiastical and Odgers Berndtson, NPC is continuing our State of the Sector work with a major programme of research. The work will seek to get to grips with how leaders are experiencing these challenges, what responses are most promising, and how far the broader sector is from delivering potential solutions.

As part of this we’re NPC is holding a series of roundtables in November and December to discuss our first phase of in depth interviews with charity sector leaders and discuss potential solutions. Themes range from charities and the public, to diversity and attitudes to risk around the boardroom, to making the most of the opportunities that digital and data offer. More details can be found on our website, and do get in touch if you want to be involved.

We hope that by holding a mirror up to the sector and engaging in a conversation about the future of doing good we can provide leaders with some ideas and thinking about how they can deliver greater impact in a changing world.

What is your reaction to NPC’s State of the Sector programme and Boldness in Times of Change report? How can funders and the largest charities help the rest of the sector empower people and communities? Is asset-based the best approach? 

Tweet @PatrickMurray23 and @NPCthinks and #FutureGood

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