Andrea Lee was part of a team of volunteer economists matched with Family Action to investigate the costs and benefits of a support service offered by the charity for women at risk of developing depression during and after pregnancy.
1. How did you find out about volunteering with Pro Bono Economics?
Pro Bono Economics came to our department while I was working for the government and did a presentation on their work and how to get involved.
2. What motivated you to volunteer with PBE and work pro bono for a charity?
I was interested by the idea of something new and different. I hadn’t had much experience in frontline charity work and it certainly made a change from working at my desk. While supporting charities was definitely a motivation, I was also curious to see what the team and I could make of it. I knew small charities often suffered from a lack of substantive data analysis and that we could make a difference by sharing our expertise and knowledge.
3. What did you hope to achieve with the charity, and to what extent did you?
I was looking to get a real result with the charity, something that was practical and would help to positively change the lives of those they worked with. I definitely didn’t want to write a report that gathered dust on a shelf. This was an opportunity to use my skills in a way I hadn’t previously and would open up the possibility of learning new skills.
I, and my fellow team members, aimed to help the charity understand their impact, not just with this evaluation, but through creating opportunities for future analysis. We started out with only a little data but with cooperation from the charity, some wisdom and advice from an ex-colleague and expertise from an academic we were able to piece together a framework and analysis. I’m really pleased that Family Action have taken steps to evidence their impact across the range of services they provide and feel very proud that our work was included in their first Impact Report in 2014. I hope that in some way our early efforts helped to demonstrate the value of using evidence, research and evaluation to understand and improve services.
4. What advice would you give to other volunteer economists who are interesting in doing the same thing?
I would definitely encourage others who are thinking about it to get involved. Not only will it give you the opportunity to work with a different type of organisation, but you will undoubtedly meet new people with different perspectives and skills to you and you will certainly learn a great deal.
This isn’t to say it will be an entirely easy task, as it will be important to schedule the time necessary to keep the project going. Working off and on and alongside our day jobs mean that our project took a total of two years. During that time some of the original volunteers were not able to continue as they moved on to new jobs. So start with a team bigger than you think you need – never turn down volunteers! – have a good project plan so work is clear and people can hand over to new team members. And above all set out to do the best you can for the charity.
5. Would you get involved with PBE again, and if so, would you do anything differently?
Yes, I would. My experience volunteering with PBE has inspired me to do something similar in the Department of Health by helping economists, statisticians and researchers to form teams and solve problems for the health and care sector with 4 or 5 days of their time. My big tip to pass on is to establish what data is available and how accessible it is. If you haven’t got any data and there is no prospect of getting any then you can still help and advise the charity but it’s a different kind of project and all parties have to realise that. I have learnt a lot about the value of project management, time management and working in teams and I realise how fortunate I am to be part of such a diverse professional community, which PBE has further shown me during my time working alongside other volunteer economists.
6. And finally, how did Pro Bono Economics help to facilitate the project?
We couldn’t have done it without PBE, they were vital when it came to kicking off the project in the right way. They made a clear case for why the project we were undertaking was not only aiding the charity, but was something really worth doing. On a couple of occasions when we were struggling and finding it hard to keep the momentum going PBE stepped in to provide encouragement and motivation. PBE were key when it came to maintaining communications between the charity and the volunteer team, especially when there were new staff at Family Action PBE was very helpful in rebuilding the relationship. When it came to the end of the project, the volunteer team was running out of steam so I was very grateful for PBE’s role in the peer review process, advice on presentation, publication and handling and dissemination of the report.