What does Pro Bono Economics do?
Pro Bono Economics helps charities and social enterprises understand the impact and value of their work. We do this by matching highly skilled economist volunteers with charities that need this expertise.
Pro Bono Economics was established in 2009 to help charities and social enterprises understand and improve the impact and value of their work. After the financial crash in 2008, PBE co-founders Martin Brookes (now CEO of Tomorrow’s People) and Andy Haldane (Chief Economist at the Bank of England) wanted to demonstrate how economists could use their skills to help charities and consequently re-establish public trust and respect in the discipline of economics.
How is PBE funded and where does the money go?
PBE is funded through donations from businesses and individuals, as well as grant-making trusts and foundations. Though we provide our service for free, we have a small central team that runs the organisation and manages projects. Our projects require a significant amount of day-to-day management. We want to grow our central team so that we are able to take on more projects and provide a better experience for volunteers and charities.
What is the process?
Charities interested in working with us should submit an enquiry. After this, we will assess the application against our selection criteria. If this is successful, we will organise a phone call with the charity to explain the process further, following which the charity will be invited to submit a proposal or project plan. We work with them to refine this idea and, if it looks feasible, allocate an economist, or team, who can get into the detail and determine the best approach.
We will then invite them to send us a proposal or project plan if we are able to help and if the charity falls within our three main areas of interest: education, employment and complex needs.
From there, we match the charity with an economist, or team of economists, with relevant expertise. During the matching meeting, the project plan is discussed and a suitable timeline agreed. Our projects are reviewed in-house and then externally by a volunteer peer reviewer. Once the report is finalised, our communications team discusses options for publicity with the charity.
Sometimes a charity may not have enough data, the right data, or data over a long enough period of time for a piece of analysis, and so our economists may work with them to identify what will be needed to allow analysis in the future. We hope that the charity would get back in touch with us once all the data was collected – possibly after one or two years. There are many other ways PBE can help charities. Sometimes it is simply a conversation that helps them to better understand the challenges and complexities of estimating their impact.
Do you only help charities?
We will work with registered charities and charities registered as Industrial and Provident Societies. Organisations registered as IPSs must demonstrate that they are a charity, i.e. confirm that HMRC regards them as such. Any type of organisation other than those listed above, including Community Interest Companies and those that describe themselves as social enterprises, must be able to provide us with evidence that a key component of their mission, stated in their governing documents, is to meet specific social/environmental objectives.
We work with charities from across the UK. We do not currently help charities that are based outside the UK.
Is PBE a free service?
We do not charge charities for this service, as our economists work as unpaid volunteers. We encourage charities that can afford to make a contribution to the costs of running PBE to consider making a donation, but we never make this a requirement of doing a project.
However, this does not mean that there is no cost to the charity. Assembling the data and making relevant information available to the volunteers can be a time consuming process. We therefore ask all charities to think about whether they can commit the time and resources to any project with us.
Who monitors the quality of PBE's work?
Projects are undertaken by an experienced economist, or a team of economists with senior oversight. If a project is taken on by a team in a commercial organisation or a government department, the organisation will be responsible for the first level of quality assurance.
The second level of quality assurance is provided by Pro Bono Economics, with economists on the central team and on our board of trustees. Our trustees carry out a regular audit of our working practices. Most importantly, we have a peer review process for every piece of analysis, using an experienced economist, independent of the project, to carry out a review. This allows us to be sure that our output is high quality, transparent and unbiased.
How will charities use the results?
Charities often use results from their reports to fundraise and campaign. They will also use recommendations from volunteer economists to develop and improve their services for greater impact.
If the results show that their interventions are not effective, or not cost effective, and there is no reason to think that better data might give a different picture, we would expect the charity and its board to consider why this might be the case, and use this information to help think about how they might make changes.
For projects that result in advice on data collection, we would hope that the charity follows the advice, and comes back to us for analysis, once sufficient data has been collected.
We undertake reviews with each charity one year after a project is completed. This is important, as it allows us to demonstrate our own impact. We generally look to share our reports, with an aim towards synthesising the projects and making them open source. We also share our findings by holding discussion events for relevant stakeholders, or through other methods of dissemination.
What skills do I need?
Most important are the ability to identify an appropriate counterfactual and experience of doing cost-benefit analysis or working on evaluations. We can use volunteers with different levels of skill and experience, and recognise that most will not have knowledge of the area a particular charity works in. Where we can, we will supply guidance on methodology and technical issues, as well as access to subject-specific papers and reports.
To scope a project, we use senior economists with extensive experience of working with data, who can spend a relatively short amount of time with a charity, assessing the data they currently collect and whether it is fit for purpose.
Peer reviewers are senior economists who are independent (i.e. not involved in the initial project or in any way connected to the project economist/team), and can offer their view on the quality of the analysis produced by the volunteers, making specific comments about anything which could be improved.
Economists producing economic analysis will vary more in their levels of skill and experience. If you have only just begun your professional career we would still be happy to consider you as a volunteer working within a team, most likely a team of colleagues.
How much time will you need from me?
this will require reading and commenting on a piece of work and should not take more than a day.
If you work on producing a piece of advice or analysis, the amount of input can vary, from a few days to a few weeks, though elapsed time can be six months or more.
We prefer to work with a team from a single organisation for larger projects. This means that, should one economist no longer be able to assist due to a change in circumstances, another volunteer can take their place. We are aware that your availability will vary, so we ask our volunteers to update us on changing circumstances.
Will I work alone?
If we identify you as a scoper or peer reviewer, both of which involve short pieces of work, you will most likely work individually. If you are producing analysis or advice, you are unlikely to do this alone. If you are in the early years of your career you will always work with a more experienced economist. Whatever role you undertake, we are here to provide help and support and we will always offer back up when needed.
What help and support can I get?
If you volunteer as an individual, as opposed to working as part of a team from your workplace, we will make sure that, if necessary, we match you with other economists on a project to ensure the work is manageable and that you have the support or assistance you need.
We will try to ensure you have access to materials relevant to the subject you are covering: other reports, related literature, guidance on methodologies, cost data etc. We can link you with data experts, or people with experience of working on projects, who can give advice. Whatever project you are undertaking, we will be on hand to help with any problem.
What kinds of charities do you help?
For 2017, we are accepting enquiries from charities that work in education, employment, mental health and complex needs.
Our eligibility criteria are as follows:
- Be headquartered in the UK
- Be a charity or social enterprise
- Have a turnover of between £100k - £10 million (for larger organisations we may ask for a contribution towards core costs)
- Have at least 2 months’ financial reserves (preferably 3 months)
- Work in one or more of the following areas:
- Mental health and resilience
- Addressing complex needs; multiple deprivation, financial inclusion, poverty, homelessness and substance misuse
How do you help charities?
We help charities in many ways, but most commonly in data advice, analysis of interventions and research to support advocacy and campaigns using national datasets.
For charities that are looking to find out how cost-effective an intervention is, our volunteers use tools such as cost-benefit analysis, but have a range of skills that they can deploy. Our volunteers often spend time advising charities on data collection methods.
In general, looking at the impact of one of your services is more straight-forward than providing analysis on your organisation as a whole. We do not offer help with proposals to other organisations for work or funding, and we do not respond to tenders.
What do we need to think about before applying to you?
Some charities come to us with clearly formed ideas of what they would like. Some charities approach us with a more vague notion of wanting to tackle the impact issue, but without a clear idea of where to start. The first way is not always the best, as we often find that what is hoped for is not feasible.
However, we can increase the chances of success by encouraging charities to ask themselves some basic questions before applying. Read our five tips for charities to see if you are ready to undertake a project with PBE, and refer to our eligibility criteria.
How much time will the project take and how much input is needed from us?
This is difficult to answer and we simply can’t tell until we have received a Terms of Reference and the volunteers have produced a project plan. The scoping process will help to gauge how much data and other support is required from you, and you will be best placed to assess what this means for your organisation.
Some charities have found projects easy, needing only a light touch with data close to hand. For others, it has meant a point of contact working hard to engage stakeholders, digging out data hidden away in filing cabinets and on myriad spreadsheets. The most successful and speedy projects are those where the charity is engaged and able to commit time and resources with a project manager driving the work forwards.
Our average project length is six months. If the outcome of the advice is data collection, a charity can expect to be collecting data for at least a year before anything can be done with it. It can be a commitment of several years.
What if the results are bad news for the charity?
We have a ‘do no harm’ policy. This means that if the data suggests a given intervention is not having a discernable positive effect, and the charity does not wish this to be in the public domain, we will not publicise the details of the report.
However, we will ensure that the board of the charity sees the report, so that they are able to take appropriate steps. As with any project, we would follow up to identify whether our work is having an impact. A more likely scenario is that there is some data, but that it is simply not enough to know whether the intervention is having a positive impact or not.
In these cases we may recommend that further data collection is carried out. We also have an agreement that states that all parties (the charity, PBE and the volunteers) must agree what is published. This ensures that nothing ambiguous or unclear will reach the public domain.
What happens after a project is completed?
A report that is very specific to a single charity and is unlikely to be of wide interest may be published on our website without fanfare. If there is a really good news story, or information that may be of interest to others, we may, in conjunction with the charity, do something more high-profile.
How the report is used is up to the charity – fundraising, campaigning, or improving their performance. We will carry out a review after every completion so that we can understand how the charity expects to use the report, and we will revisit a year later, to see what has happened in practice.
Can you do an SROI analysis for us?
Social Return on Investment is a framework used to help understand the social outcomes generated by an organisation.
We are not SROI practitioners and are not SROI accredited, nor are our volunteers. Our volunteers are economists who will bring to any project a range of skills and tools, and will use the most appropriate methodology to address the issues at hand.
If you are specifically seeking an SROI analysis we would recommend that you approach the SROI Network who have a directory of practitioners. However, take the time to think about whether an SROI analysis is right for the needs of your organisation. It may be that there are other types of analysis are more appropriate.