How can charities change the world?

Our new report Past Imperfect, developed over the last 18 months examines data from the fields of Cancer, heart disease, disability, poverty, and the environment to t

Our new report Past Imperfect, developed over the last 18 months examines data from the fields of Cancer, heart disease, disability, poverty, and the environment to try and see what changes, for better or worse have taken place over the last few decades. This blog is an edited version of our conclusions, as much as anything to encourage people to read the whole report!


Charities tackle big complex problems. In order to achieve lasting change charities may need to run services, change public attitudes, change government policies or laws, change the way that companies or public services behave, and much more. Given the scale of these problems, charities should not be surprised that eradicating or even diminishing them is a huge task.

Attributing success is very difficult. Closely linked to the fact that these problems are complex is the reality that attributing the credit for who solved the problems is very difficult. This is not just between individual charities, but between charities and government or other players. The reason that attribution matters is that a charity wants to know it is making a difference in its investment in an area of work. But any charity that wants to know its role 100% will clearly struggle.

Some problems aren’t solved by charities at all (and some are). Different problems are solved to a greater or lesser degree by charities and NGOs depending on geography, politics, societal norms and culture. Finding treatments for cancer is globally tackled by charities (as well as companies and governments), while who tackles poverty varies between countries.

Collaborations and partnerships are critical. Given the complex nature of the problems it is inevitable, indeed probably critical that those organisations who want to tackle these problems collaborate in some way, shape or form. Collaboration makes sure that resources are not duplicated, that all the different facets of an issue are addressed, and that those with specialisms use them to best effect. No charity is an island.

The problems being tackled aren’t static. Perhaps the most sobering of all the issues in the first section of our paper is how the problems that were being tackled in the 60s and 70s are often not the problems of today. Charities attempting to tackle today’s problems may not have the scope and scale necessary if they are resourced up for yesterday’s problems, so there may be a time lag before charities and other players can get the services up to speed.

Changing government behaviour is critical. There is one thread that runs through each of the areas that we looked at. Governments and other institutions are absolutely vital players in solving the problems: whether it’s in taxing and banning cigarettes in public places, or addressing NHS provision for diabetes and obesity, or creating policies that reduce or create poverty, or legislating on the emission of greenhouse gases.

‘No change’ can be a major achievement. In terms of what charities are trying to achieve, deciding what success looks like can also be an issue in itself. At the most fundamental level, it can be because an achievement might just be to stop a change happening (as with climate change), to reverse a change (as with a government policy) or to promote a change (for example increasing vaccination rates).

Some problems, such as infectious diseases, are irreversibly changed for the better. Even within the limited number of areas we have examined, there are clear differences in how reversible any progress or success is. Progress in the areas of health and disease, particularly where the solutions are medical (as opposed to lifestyle) are usually all but irreversible. The best example of this is the area of vaccinations and infectious disease.

While others, such as poverty and the environment are always reversible. Progress in overcoming poverty or reducing environmental destruction will always be highly reversible. A crude generalisation would say that these differences in reversibility are largely down to whether the solutions or problems are centred on human behaviour. The more that progress depends on human behaviour, the more reversible any progress is likely to be, or the more likely it is that progress will be patchy or incomplete.

There are multiple strategies that charities can use to change the world. Any organisation who is interested in the success of its work over the course of time needs to have a clear sense of how its mission will deliver that change. There are a number of strategies for delivering change by charities: delivering services directly, changing government laws or policies, changing corporate behaviour, changing public attitudes, or acting as an innovator for new, more effective services delivered by others.

For those who are interested, our report finishes with an outline of how we think individual charities can use our data and our analysis in their own organisations.

Joe Saxton


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Past Imperfect 2016

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