From learning to leadership – using shared experience to drive shared growth

Madeleine White explores what shared learning actually means within the charity sector, using insights from the NPC Ignites annual conference which explored how this influential sector could catalyze its own relevance and impact within an unprecedented period of change.

 Speaking at last week’s NPC Ignites Conference, Red Cross chief Mike Adamson stated that too many charities are interested in preserving highly paid jobs and are disconnected from long term need….

Designed to align charities with the latest thinking, NPC Ignites was convened to tackle these issues of protectionism, irrelevance and retrogression head on – instead, offering new directions around innovation, collaboration and leadership. Speakers from charities, funders, government and the private sector lined up to explore how established charities are able to learn from organisations that are popping up and moving faster than the traditional sector.

NPC Ignites was about learning together in order to work together. The creation of an evidence base, able to support shared learning, leading to a collaborative approach to developing and delivering of innovative solutions, was at the heart of this conference. The aim was to collaboratively explore how to best deliver impact for the causes and beneficiaries charities exist to serve, whilst setting stakes in the ground in terms of people-driven technology, relevance, sustainability and partnerships to define this path to progress.

Ultimately, the message was clear: by being relevant, progressive and sustainable, charities are able to leverage a lead role in partnerships able to achieve real social change. This is not for reasons of historical legacies, or histrionic reactionism but, is instead based on their ability to create a framework that can lead stakeholders from industry, government and business into connected and effective relationships.

Julian Kelly of Lankelly Chase set the challenge:

“Instead of funding bubbles of innovation that burst on contact with the system needs a new approach is needed – one of collaboration and learning.”

Technology: Reconnecting technological progress to social progress 

 Technology is key to that learning – but it needs to be harnessed with values whilst ensuring that implementation processes are understood and can therefore be effectively actioned. Digital tools will need to truly serve humanity instead of driving a machine that self-replicates without purpose at best, with a more sinister market-driven agenda (monopolism) at worst. Defined by principles and values, many would argue that the philanthropic sector is the only one truly qualified to create a framework that is able to ensure technology remains relevant and connected to real human need.


Central to this framework is the ability to harness not only the value of data, but also the energy of the data creator. If the individual ‘creator’ understands that regular reporting will lead to direct opportunities for them, much can be achieved. They own their data, but the framework commodifies the connection, learning and action it can achieve within a wider purpose. This ‘bottom up’ approach therefore focusses the power of the individual to drive change. For example, individual entrepreneurs, if given the right platform can cluster by function, market or preference, serving the private sector supply chain and policy makers’ economic development goals as well as their own goals.  It reflects what is rather than what funders, development organizations or governments are saying should be. Authentic scale created by – and serving –  individuals at the coalface, speaks truth to power.

Technology is able to disrupt the current paradigm and is indeed already doing so. But for disruption to achieve lasting value (in terms of supporting the Sustainable Development Goals for example) it needs to evidence where and how innovation-driven growth is occurring. This transparent charting of progress is not about compliance, instead it is about inviting and inspiring shared learning that can directly influence overall action and policy. If understanding is shaped by what is actually leading to progress (with due attention paid to failures also), corporations, funders, governments and community organizations can take ownership of what they believe to be their building blocks and make use of them together. Because the building blocks have been defined and created with strategic outcomes in mind, this way of working gives every stakeholder (irrespective of size or influence) the chance to build above and around and across incumbent models. This leads to disruptive innovation, as it charts how voices from the frontline lead to changes within the system, while allowing others to use this learning.

So, individual data has been harnessed and deployed and the ensuing metrics have become the building blocks of change, what next? We need to be able to make use of our learning and match it to our desire to create long term sustainable change. We need to connect across geographies and generations, sectors and cultures; reanimating the fundamental principles of how the web was built. Metrics give us the why, but we also need to tackle the how.  A connected lifelong learning pipeline, that uses digital tools, but isn’t defined by them, seems to be the way to go.

We should teach and examine the educational basics and then create collaborative, exploratory tasks based around real need to further development and exploration. This requires leadership around an entirely new way of thinking, educating and examining. It is only by ensuring that  the maximum number of people are reached (and kept engaged) – from an early an age as possible that the power of internet can be harnessed for positive social impact. This learning pipeline needs to be owned and husbanded by all. From schools and higher education institutions to private and public sector learning and business organizations; all should deploy the physical and digital tools necessary to ensure we, as a global society, are agile enough to function within a dynamic system that reflects the unpredictable currents of the free market.

A mass-collaboration based on scoping a new way forward is within reach. But to move beyond a retrogressive cycle, communicating what we know instead of discovering what we need to know, everyone needs to understand their value to – and responsibility within –  this process. Innovative leadership models (within what is traditionally a very hide bound charity sector) must be driven by the beneficiaries and supported by those able to translate evidence into policy, markets and investment.

Relevance: In order to influence mainstream economy non-profits must embrace a language of collaboration

 According to former Whitehall mandarin Sir Bob Kerslake, if faced with a problem, it is unlikely that Whitehall will ever come to the voluntary sector as a first port of call. At this present time the sector’s contributions tend to be pigeonholed as transactional, rather than strategic. He goes on to say that order for the non-profit sector to live up to its potential influence, charities must start evidencing, and then successfully communicating impact in a strategic way. As we have explored, technology can be used to create the collaborative frameworks needed to shape a meaningful evidence based, but how can this then be communicated?

In order to deliver an original purpose or value, in ways that were previously unimaginable a common language needs to be created that defines:

  • Where to collaborate – creating space and opportunities for people to contribute in a meaningful way
  • What to collaborate about – it needs to matter
  • How to report what is needed to ensure positive collaboration happens – data needs to be easily understood and accessible

A great example of this in action comes from a new guide for companies to strengthen micro-enterprise market systems ‘Growing Together’  which has just been launched. Created by SABMiller, CARE International UK, Business Fights Poverty and the Harvard Kennedy School Corporate Responsibility Initiative, with input from ACRE, this report is an important milestone in terms of a shared understanding of a collaborative market systems approach.

They have defined the following pathways:

  1. Understand micro-enterprise needs to gather insights on what constrains and motivates them
  2. Identify market system roles, capabilities and incentives to determine who should be part of a collaborative approach
  3. Establish the value proposition to outline how addressing micro-enterprise needs can achieve greater commercial value and social impact
  4. Coordinate effectively to ensure all stakeholders are committed and aligned to create value for all
  5. Measure results to demonstrate the impact achieved

Growing together was launched as a kind of ‘Rosetta Stone’, offering an enterprise toolkit that is aimed at companies themselves but is easily accessible and understood by those working to support enterprises of all sizes. It is offered as an example of business, NGOs, educators and policy makers working together to share a corporate vision that is truly aligned to supporting the ‘little people’ (entrepreneurs within a connected supply chain) – digging beyond the lip service into real action.

Social investment: How to use measurement + evaluation to shape learning around

 According to a recent report by Big Society Capital, social investment in the UK alone is worth at least £1,500m[1], serving around 3,000 different charities and social enterprises. An international example comes from FSGs recent report on Catalysing Impact Deal Flow in East Africa. It clearly highlights two key challenges to successful investment – the matching between investors and enterprises and the preparation of enterprises in order to receive investment. As policy makers and investors consider social investment to be a fundamental part of a sustainable financial tool kit, it is worth considering the growing size and influence of this market. The key challenge it faces, of course, is turning what might historically have been philanthropic giving into an income stream able to create a surplus.

Impact investment guru Clara Miller kicked of this topic by highlighting that in her estimation the idea that non-profits can fix everything alone is not going to work; so how to use status and intent to create partnerships and leverage and influence?

clara-milllerAs president of the Heron Foundation, an award winning institutional investor that helps people and communities help themselves out of poverty, Clara went on to explain that her foundation uses leverage to deliver positive outcomes. To translate: they use their status as asset owners to influence much bigger players, such as pension funds, to create a supportive environment for wider social impact investment projects.

Other examples of leverage and influence were given by Mubin Haq, of Trust for London, driver behind the Living Wage Campaign. Started in London, this now has over 3000 employers signed up nationally. Seed funding and influence were provided by the Trust but it was its convening power that turned it from cash machine into catalyst.

Anna Hakobyan of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation chose to illustrate another type of partnership able to drive social change at scale. The CIFF uses social impact bonds, working with partner British Asian Trust in India for example, to deliver educational projects. The partnership is not just between the funders, but extends to delivery partners, who are paid by results. These results are monitored through real time data – from delivery to monitoring programmes, understanding impact and post impact (with success being defined as sustainability 3/4 years post exit).

Challenges CEO, Eoghan Mackie
Challenges CEO, Eoghan Mackie

As a final example it is worth exploring Challenges, a hybrid of an NGO and social enterprise group that has explored both sides of the equation, supporting socially motivated enterprises to become investment ready, while also facilitating the raising of capital through a variety of investor types.

Challenges has spent the last two years testing new cloud based platforms on its own portfolio of enterprises.

Key aims:

  • Creating proactive programming for traditional style development and private sector partners
  • Identifying the power of data (created by individual enterprises) as a collective commodity, it can be harnessed to drive positive change
  • Using enterprise defined key performance indicators (KPI’s) to create a common language, able to match investors and enterprises
  • Creating educational tools – in person and via Challenges College e-learning technology that helps capacity build individuals, whilst preparing enterprises to receive investment.

In this way Challenges is paving the way for stakeholders, such as investors or corporations, to evidence positive participation back to the communities they live and work in. As an example, they show how entrepreneurs, their suppliers and a wider labour force can contribute relevant skills and understanding within a corporate supply chain.

This kind of information helps support a wider entrepreneurial ecosystem. It also drives policy, as participants are able to collectively ‘co-shoulder’ the kind of far-reaching responsibility that helps nation build. National governments, a global financial system (which urgently needs to redefine what they consider ‘value’ means) the UN and other multilaterals are thus given the tools to work together and are so able to achieve a more self-reliant, sustainable work-force. By showing innovation and boldness through collated evidence and sharing learning it is quite possible that a much wider swathe of the investment world may be tempted to join in transforming ideals into deals.


 In a successful ecosystem, which includes big business and the global financial markets (because the former are pretty much shaped by the latter), traditional market-driven organisations are often not sufficiently transparent, accountable or subject to adequate legislative governance. In the final keynote speech of the day, Richard Hawkes, Chief Executive of the British Asian Trust made the case that the charity sector needs to meet that challenge, helping to create a bridge between what have hitherto, been the very separate worlds of private sector principles and social values.

“Our sector shouldn’t be about self-preservation of organisations…We cannot continue to measure success by the amount of income we are generating for ourselves, instead we should look at the amount of evidence we are generating that can lead others into change and impact.”

To ensure this vision becomes reality, a generation of collaborative leaders needs to be created, empowered to deliver outcomes and funding opportunities with commercial bite. In other words, a commitment to shared learning by us all, as learner leaders, is the only way much-needed systemic change can occur.

We need to understand that an ecosystem that is built together is much more likely to be effective. A toolkit that is drawn and shaped by interconnected stakeholders is much more likely to be agile, and a sector that understands that it best delivers its original purpose by inspiring people in ways that might today still be unimaginable, is much more likely to offer the dynamic leadership required for the 21st century. And so, by being bold not reckless, by being confident not brash, by being accountable to vision rather than tradition, the charitable sector will become irretrievably embedded in a ‘global’ landscape able to deliver on its promise; sustainable change.

[1] Source March 16: Big Society Capital