July 2015 newsletter – Pro Bono Economics

Pro Bono Economics was registered in 2009 and we marked its foundation in the July 2009 Newsletter (no. 146). We later reported on its progress in January 2012 (no. 156). The Director of the charity is Sue Holloway and she provides a further update below.

Lots of charities are doing great work, but they can struggle to prove this and make their case to funders.

PBE was set up to help fix this problem by providing charities with economist volunteers who help with analysis and data. It has also sought to help the economics profession volunteer and support an effective charitable sector. By using economists and drawing on their professional expertise PBE wants to ensure that the analysis done for charities is rigorous.

We are now six years old and, since we were set up, we have received applications from nearly 200 charities, started 100 projects and completed nearly 60. In this time we think we have clearly established a few things. Firstly, that there is enthusiasm from the economics profession: we have around 350 economists on our books and have used 220 to date. They tell us the work is ‘enjoyable, satisfying and liberating’ and, in addition to the value they create for the charity, they obtain a private benefit, through personal satisfaction and development. They may repeat the experience, or recommend the experience to friends or colleagues. We know that volunteering improves well-being, promotes better mental health and can contribute to a happier and more productive workforce.

I think it’s fair to say that for all the team working on this project the experience has renewed our passion and interest in economics. I got to roll up my sleeves and get to work on the data, which as a manager I don’t always have the time to do. Working in a team also enabled me to develop new skills because I could see how my colleagues tackled certain issues and learnt from them. I was able to bring this new insight and skills back into my day job. — Andrea Lee, Department of Health

Secondly, there is a demand for the rigorous and high quality analysis our economists provide. The work varies: it can be advice on data collection; calculating cost-benefit analysis of a charity’s work; or identifying ways charities can establish what would have happened without them. The support we provide can help them use their own resources efficiently and communicate the results more effectively, thus improving their own fundraising efforts.

Many charities make the mistake of only considering the direct benefits to their client group, and don't think beyond this to the financial and economic benefits, which can be extremely valuable. PBE helps to understand and articulate this, so we can not only say ‘we do good’, but that this good has wider impact. — Gracia McGrath, CEO Chance UK

Thirdly, PBE adds value by helping each side understand one other, as they don’t necessarily ‘speak the same language’. Charities need help clarifying the questions they want answers to (which can sometimes mean asking them to think in more detail or start collecting useful data). Economist volunteers need help managing projects and understanding the world of charities. This is the brokering and support role PBE plays.

Fourth, and most importantly, charities value the work of PBE. Although we are too young to have a full analysis of our impact, we have clear evidence that it is significant.

Centrepoint is a leading national charity that works with young people, aged 16-25, who are homeless. They provide accommodation, health services and a range of support to help young people back into accommodation, into education, training and employment. They asked us to help with a cost-benefit analysis of their services, and we matched them with economists from Oxera Consulting who considered the likely path of a homeless young person, considering employment, crime and health issues. The analysis assumed that if Centrepoint does not intervene now, the same intervention would be carried out by another organisation at a later date. Therefore it primarily captures the benefits of early intervention through the reduction of crime and other problems, and through higher employment and taxes.

The results showed what we had intuitively known for a long time – that intervening with young people at an early stage could prevent public spending in the long-run. But now we have the robust, independent analysis we need to support this argument. — Balbir Chatrik, Director of Policy and Participation, Centrepoint

Our work to date has extended across a range of areas, from reoffending to the cost to society of low levels of numeracy, to eating disorders, to homelessness, African street children, maternal mortality in developing countries, and older people. There is the potential to do much more, including helping the charitable sector more widely understand the importance of data, measurement and evidence.

The work the volunteers do is free to the charity, but nonetheless imposes a cost, in terms of engaging with the team and providing data and background information. We hope it also leaves a legacy of a better understanding of the power of data and analysis to support and strengthen the equally important narratives of how each charity is changing lives. It costs us just £4,000 on average to support a project. The value to the charity is likely to be far greater. The market cost of projects, if charities had to pay, varies hugely but it can reach over £200,000, fifty times the cost of running a project. The charity pays nothing. This work, analysis and advice would be out of many charities’ reach without PBE.

The economics profession has shown that they value what we do; we currently have more economists ready to volunteer than we can place with charities, and we could get many more projects from charities if we had the time to promote our work. However, the greater the number of interested charities and volunteers, the greater the strain on our resources. The small central team has a key role in managing the charity/volunteer relationship and ensuring a high standard of economic analysis. We do the latter through sharing resources and best practice with the volunteers, commenting on work at appropriate stages and arranging for an independent economist (i.e. who has not been involved in the project) to peer review the final analysis. We also work with the charity on how the results are publicised, helping them to communicate clearly what the analysis is and isn't saying — avoiding the simplistic interpretation and taking the caveats seriously.

There is still more to do to spread the word that economists are willing and able to help charities demonstrate the value of the outcomes they produce. Over the next five years we would like to double the number of completed projects. This involves both increasing the pipeline, and matching more of our volunteers to projects which can use their enthusiasm and expertise. We will continue to provide these opportunities, in order to make a valuable contribution to the third sector while at the same time enhancing the professional development of the economists who volunteer with us. We also want to do more to develop guidance on methods and share information on the latest research and published costs. This is both to support volunteers and ensure they can hit the ground running when they embark on a project, and also to increase the quality of analysis across the sector, not least by maintaining a high standard for our own work.


To do all this we need three things:

• more discussions with charities to build demand and ensure a pipeline of feasible projects — if you are involved with a charity who might benefit from PBE's services, start the conversation and put them in touch with us here http://www.probonoeconomics.com/charities-register

• continuing support from economist volunteers – get in touch here http://www.probonoeconomics.com/economists-register if you are willing and able to spend a couple of days scoping a project, or half a day peer reviewing a piece of analysis, or if you would like to be part of a team who can work on producing a piece of analysis over the course of many months — the input will vary according to the complexity of the analysis and the size of the team

• on-going funding for the central team — if you would like to donate, see our website http://www.probonoeconomics.com/donate-now or contact us at info@probonoeconomics.com


Pro Bono Economics is a registered charity and company limited by guarantee.

Sue Holloway is the Director of the charity and has been in post since September 2010. She has been a professional economist since 1997. She occupied a number of posts within the Government Economics Service before joining PBE, including managing the GES and Deputy Chief Economist at the Department for International Development.

The trustees of the charity are:
Lynne Berry, Martin Brookes, Matthew Brumsen, Andy Haldane, Nicola Pollock, Dave Ramsden and Jo Tilley-Riley

The patrons of the charity are:
Dame Kate Barker, Sir Alan Budd, Bronwyn Curtis, Gavyn Davies, Sir Howard Davies, Lord John Eatwell, David Giampaolo, Rachel Lomax, Lord Gus O’Donnell, Lord Jim O’Neill, Robert Peston, Vicky Pryce, Lord Adair Turner, Sir John Vickers, Sushil Wadhwani and Martin Wolf

PBE’s current funders include the Barrow Cadbury Trust, the City Bridge Trust, the Garfield Weston Foundation and the Monument Trust.