It is hard to believe that Pro Bono Economics is coming up to its tenth anniversary. Simon Burns, Director of Public Affairs, reviews its achievements – including its contribution to the popular image of economics and economists.
In late 2017 Pro Bono Economics — together with FTI Consulting — released a survey canvassing public views about charities and charitable giving. The resulting data showed that 86 per cent of 2000 respondents — of a sample representative of the UK adult general population — would prioritise donations to charities capable of proving the impact they were having on society. Three years earlier, a 2014 study from Fujiwara et al1 suggested that the wellbeing benefits to be had from volunteering could be placed on a par with those gained by playing sport. Sophisticated surveys and academic resources are not required however to appreciate the reasons why popular faith in the economics profession was threatened after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.
This highlights why Pro Bono Economics seeks to:
i) Help charities understand their cost and improve their social impact;
ii) Support volunteering opportunities for skilled economists; and through these
iii) Work to restore faith in the economics profession.
These three areas sit at the heart of what Pro Bono Economics is and does. As we look forward to our tenth anniversary in 2019, this article takes a deeper dive into our work in each area.
Supporting charities — better understanding of cost and improving social impact
The first statistic cited above suggests that once a charity demonstrates the efficacy of its work then increased funding will logically follow. Ideally this would be based on a rigorous analysis of relevant data, rather than reliance on anecdotal evidence.
Challenges arise however when processing large amounts of quantitative information becomes a precondition for gaining such an understanding. Complex studies such as full randomised control trials are often beyond the means of smaller charities that make up the large part of Britain’s third sector population.
To illustrate the point, recent data from the Charity Commission2 show that 123,230 or 73.3 per cent of charities have an annual income of less than £100,000. Finding spare cash for social impact measurement is a luxury many simply cannot afford. This despite the obvious benefits doing so would entail. The provision of ‘frontline’ services to beneficiaries naturally takes priority.
As our name suggests, Pro Bono Economics seeks to address this research gap.
Our executive team manages a network of 500 skilled volunteers, individuals who are willing to give up their time to support worthy causes. When suitable opportunities arise with charities active in any one of the following fields — i) education; ii) employment; iii) mental health; and iv) poverty — Pro Bono Economics facilitates, manages and assures the quality of this pro-bono work. The result is typically a research report assessing whether and how charities are delivering value-for-money.
This information provides a valuable proof point for charities seeking to convince donors of their impact, helping to secure or increase the funding of vital services (more information on the support Pro Bono Economics offers to charities can be found at https://www.probonoeconomics.com/i-am-charity).
Supporting volunteering – showcasing the benefits from giving and receiving voluntary work
Since inception in 2009 we have delivered 529 engagements with 445 distinct charities, providing opportunities for 375 volunteers. Of those 375, roughly 90 per cent have stated they would use Pro Bono Economics again in future, while 98 per cent would recommend us to a friend or colleague.
Volunteering opportunities are tailored to suit individual needs and range from spending a few days scoping a project to half a day peer reviewing a piece of analysis. There is also potential to be part of a wider team working on a piece of research over the course of several months, with the nature of input varying according to the complexity of the topic and the size of the team (more information on our growing network of volunteers can be found at http://www.probonoeconomics.com/economists-register).
While the benefits to charities of pro-bono work are self-evident, those available to the volunteers themselves are perhaps less understood. Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England and co-founder of Pro-Bono Economics has spoken at length on several occasions about the social and economic value of volunteering, highlighting the benefits to be had in terms of skills-building and well-being. Both are known to enhance the retention of workers and their productivity in the workplace, which should make interesting reading for those employers offering staff volunteering opportunities.
Such observations are borne out by our own volunteer testimonials and showcase the value of the service we at Pro Bono Economics provide, and not only to the charities we support. Volunteering has always been and will remain a fundamental part of the Pro-Bono Economics story because of the value(s) it generates across all parties to a given project, and one we will be looking to champion with increasing volume in coming years.
Supporting economics — Working to restore faith in the profession.
While the principle of pro-bono work is well-established within the legal profession, only recently has it begun gaining similar purchase among economists. This is very much to the benefit of charities and those individuals volunteering their time, as explored above. A third beneficiary however is economics itself.
Following the 2009 Global Financial Crisis, Andy Haldane and Martin Brookes (Pro Bono Economics Co-Founder) saw an opportunity to help restore the credibility of the economics profession through the power of skilled volunteering.
The provision of economic advice and analysis is of course not a panacea, but the insights it — or to be precise those practicing it — can generate are still able to showcase charities' impact and provide a clear and transparent view on cost.
Feedback from the charities Pro Bono Economics supports is invariably positive in this regard. One recent beneficiary stated that ‘Pro-Bono Economics’ report can only be described as dynamite. It's been impactful at every level of government and been widely aired in the press’. Another said that ‘Pro Bono Economics has given us confidence and shifted our understanding of the power of economic analysis’.
Our core focus is of course the charities we support and the volunteers we manage. Yet, it is the skills that are being provided — economic skills — that are effectively the currency with which we trade, and without them our operating model would not be viable.
Our work shows the value that economics can generate in a world of ever-growing complexity and competition, where such insights will be a pre-condition for survival.
At Pro Bono Economics we have been fortunate to partner with some truly fascinating charities over the last ten years, helping channel the talents of many exceptional economists. This work helps enhance, or perhaps restore the reputation of the economics profession.
Looking ahead to our next decade we anticipate curating and sharing our work more widely within and beyond the economics profession, helping sustain our vibrant charity sector and build the evidence base for better policy and practice.
Some case studies
We are committed to working with organisations that aim to improve wellbeing, and project outputs generally take the format of a written report in one of three broad categories; advice, analysis or advocacy. Below are some examples of our work.
Both a charity and a membership organisation, the PSHE Association works to improve the provision of personal, social, health and economic education in the UK by supporting teachers, providing resources and campaigning for high-quality, regular PSHE education. The organisation approached Pro Bono Economics to analyse the need for PSHE and the impact of allowing all students access to this education. The subsequent advocacy report takes the form of a literature review, examining over 1200 studies with the aim of determining the degree to which PSHE's positive impact on physical and mental health might lead to improved attainment and life chances. The study showed strong evidence that PSHE education has a positive impact on academic attainment and, contrary to critics' suggestions, does not detract from other core curriculum subjects.
Nova New Opportunities
West-London based Nova works with people from diverse backgrounds with the aim of helping them secure sustainable employment. The charity provides advice, support and courses to their clients, ultimately working to improve society one person at a time. They approached Pro Bono Economics for assistance developing a monitoring and evaluation strategy. To this end, we worked with the charity to develop a Theory of Change, mapping out the potential relationship between Nova’s charitable activities and the short and long-term impacts on beneficiaries. The advice report also undertakes a systematic review of existing data and evidence collected by Nova and offers advice on data collection moving forward. The report was complemented by a workshop to help embed the Theory of Change and associated activities into the culture of Nova.
Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families
Mental health charity Anna Freud works to transform the provision of mental health support. Their Early Years Parenting Unit (EYPU) was created for parents with personality difficulties and with children under the age of five, helping them to retain custody of their children. Pro Bono Economics worked with the charity to compile an analysis report, examining a therapy programme offered by the EYPU to determine benefits of the programme to clients, as well as public savings through reduced reliance on taxpayer funded services. The report successfully links information about EYPU clients with standardised cost information to show that large reductions in the use of taxpayer funded services is a very likely outcome of the programme.
The Trussell Trust
Partnering with local communities across the UK has been the method enabling The Trussell Trust to establish a 400-strong network of foodbanks, as well as providing fuel banks and money advice to beneficiaries. Wishing to better understand the benefits to the economy and individuals seen through training volunteers and providing goods, the charity approached Pro Bono Economics for expert economic insight. Our advice report identifies key pieces of data, both qualitative and quantitative, that would be required for the successful assessment of the charity's economic and social impact, as well as presenting a wide range of variables for consideration in any future economic impact assessment, which can be altered depending on methodology or sensitivity concerns.
1. Fujiwara, D, Leach, M, Trotter, L, Vine, J (2014) 'Measuring the Social Impact of Community Investment: A Guide to using the Wellbeing Valuation Approach', HACT: ideas and innovation in housing.
2. Charity Commission for England and Wales (2018) – Recent charity register statistics: Charity Commission updated 18 October 2018 – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/charity-register-statistics/recent-charity-register-statistics-charity-commission
From issue no.184, January 2019, pp. 20-22.