Matt Whittaker, CEO, and Gus O’Donnell, Chair, Pro Bono Economics

Following an extremely tough two years, 2023 was the year the pay squeeze that had afflicted households across the country came to an end, as inflation fell faster than expected. But in practice, the living standards challenge still remains all too real for all too many today. Unemployment is on an upward trajectory, housing costs and debt repayments are increasing rapidly, and various tax and benefit changes are hitting lower income households. Meanwhile, each recent economic shock has left families more exposed to the consequences of the next, while ongoing budget pressures are being felt in public services and having significant consequences. 

But it is not just the nation’s economic health that is under strain. Only two in three of us report having ‘good’ or ‘very good’ health today, down from three in four on the eve of the pandemic.

So while the country may have turned an important corner in relation to the cost of living crisis during 2023, the wellbeing of the nation’s citizens has been left in a precarious condition. Some 3.1 million adults report low levels of satisfaction with their lives, an increase of 750,000 in just three years. The number of adults recording high anxiety scores stands at 12.8 million, some 3 million higher than the low recorded a decade earlier. And the UK sits second-bottom in the OECD league table of life satisfaction among 15-year-olds.

That is the context and driving force behind all that Pro Bono Economics (PBE) does – from the direct support we provide to charities that aim to tackle low wellbeing in the UK, to the bigger picture policy work we continue to develop. Given the scale and urgency of the challenge, we are delighted to have achieved so much over the course of 2023.

This includes delivering a total of nine major policy wins that will better equip civil society to fulfil its potential. We have secured changes designed to enable and encourage more philanthropy in the UK; to improve charity data, which is key to a more impactful sector; and to improve links between the Civil Service and civil society.

Through our work with coalitions of children’s charities, poverty organisations, and those supporting disabled children, we published hard-hitting research on some of the most pressing issues affecting people with low wellbeing. This research is now being used by hundreds of charities to make the case for policy change.

Through our partnerships with the Bank of England, Nottingham Trent University and charity membership organisations, we provided insights to almost 2,000 individuals across civil society in attendance at sector events. We also provided important detail on the challenges facing charities at the highest levels of government, prompting the Chancellor to announce a £100 million fund for the sector in his Spring Budget.

And we helped 137 organisations from a huge range of areas – including women’s refuges, LGBT+ community centres, black creative networks and rare disease charities – to measure, improve and communicate their impact and make better use of their data. In doing so, we matched our 500th economist volunteer in 2023, as part of our ongoing determination to help the profession to deliver impact.

In support of all of this, we have made some significant internal changes over 2023 too. We have widened the organisations we work with to include grant-makers, local authorities and public sector bodies, like integrated care systems, in order to have impact at scale and at source. And we have invested in our team, improved our culture, refreshed our strategy, and expanded our board to be stronger, more inclusive and ultimately more impactful.

Against the backdrop of another challenging year for the country, we will be working hard to deliver still more and deeper impact in 2024.