Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Pro Bono O.R. gets a mention in the Charity Times!

By Tracey Gyateng

Turning data into intelligence

Tracey Gyateng argues that a better a use of data by charities helps them improve their operational effectiveness, the service they provide to their beneficiaries and the outcomes they achieve

BIG OR small, all organisations collect data — whether it’s a simple count of service users or a more detailed database of donors and their attributes. Data is required from funders as part of the reporting process, as well as by the management team and also other stakeholders you’re collaborating with. We are all busy collecting data, but are we all collecting insightful data? That is data
which can be used to support and improve the functions of our work. If not, or more likely, if the answer is only partially — then how do we move towards making data more effective?

As a sector, we are all at different stages of using data for intelligence. For some organisations, the focus is on the day-to-day deliverables, with data primarily collected to satisfy funder or internal requirements. At the other
end of the spectrum, some will be collecting vast amounts of data — but perhaps do not have the resources to make best use of it, or are collecting
superfluous data due as processes are not streamlined or funders request it.

The ideal goal is of course to minimise wastage, but also to collect meaningful
data that can be used. It is a tricky balance to achieve — but the opportunities we can gain from collecting the right information and the time that can be saved by only collecting data we use is something we should all be striving towards.

Collecting the right data
Intelligent use of data can significantly increase the effectiveness of charities.
Broadly, charities can use data to increase their effectiveness in three ways. First, to improve operational effectiveness in service delivery or support functions such as fundraising. We all know that supermarkets use data collected from loyalty cards to understand our grocery purchases, can the same be said for charities’ donor databases? Are we looking at the characteristics and methods of donating for each donor so that we can communicate with them more efficiently? Are we analysing the data collected from social media?

Some charities have large datasets about their donors which are ripe for data
analysis. How about looking at your data to classify your donors? Through our Money for Good1 work we have developed a free to download tool Know your donors which produces typologies of donors. We are working with a number of charities to help them use the tool to better understand their donors. Another idea could be to map where your donors are in the country to see if there are any opportunities for location specific initiatives.

Not only should we look at how we could expand the use of data, but also cut down on data which is not useful. At NPC we use a timesheet system to track how our time is spent. This can be a challenge to complete when you have to recall and then allocate all the time you’ve spent during the week. The management team recognised that only the records related to specific projects were being analysed and used, and so removed the burden of having to attribute time spent on nonproject work.

This has made timesheet completion easier and faster, as staff no longer have to worry about coding their time spent catching up on admin or conversations with colleagues about tasks — or what they did at the weekend. In all seriousness, demonstrating to staff the need for data collection and how it is valued is vital for engaging them and receiving their continued buy-in, and ensuring that the data collected is used is key and removes wastage and saves time. My ten minute reduction in time sheeting each week reclaims a day of my time over a year.

A second reason to use data more effectively is to understand needs or
issues. A recent study by the Centre for Social Justice highlighted that some
areas are poorly served by voluntary organisations.2 Can we be certain that
the areas we are delivering in are those of highest need?

The answer is yes, if we have undertaken a needs assessment. For example, a charity working to support disadvantaged adults could make use of The Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion (CESI) Social Justice Toolkit3 which pulls together indicators at a local authority level and enables benchmarking. And CESI are not alone in creating tools to support needs assessment — Shelter’s Housing Bank4 and Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s data store5 are other useful tools which use open data to help organisations understand need in different areas. The third reason to collect the right data is to improve understanding of results and impact. It’s relatively easy to measure the outputs of a service — how many people were seen, how many courses were conducted — but the real challenge lies in assessing the difference your service make to your beneficiaries. This requires tracking individuals post-intervention, which can be costly and complex.

As a result, many charities only collect data immediately after an intervention and are then reliant on anecdotes for indications of longer-term impact. Often the data needed to measure long-term impact is held by the government — for example, if your intervention aims to support people to self manage a health condition, one outcome could be a reduction in their frequency of A&E visits. Data held by local hospitals and the Health and Social Care Information Centre could help you measure that. To access this and other types of data, you will often need to have collected the consent of your service users first. However there can be tension in gaining consent, especially when working with vulnerable individuals who may be wary of documentation and form filling.

Overcoming barriers
It’s clear that the right data can bring important insights both for the operations of your charity and to help the beneficiaries of your service. It’s one of the reasons why many organisations, including NPC, are excited about the open data and big data agenda. Increasing the supply of data is certainly important to support the effective use of data. The NPC Data Labs project supports charities to get access to government administrative data to measure the impact of interventions.

The Ministry of Justice’s Justice Data Lab was an outcome of this work and means that charities now have a clear process for measuring reoffending rates of their service users compared to a matched comparison group, a vast improvement to the opaque and incoherent process which stood before. We are currently working to expand this project to enable access to data to support impact measurement within employment, substance misuse and health service delivery.

But increasing the supply of data alone won’t automatically lead to an increased use of the data. Firstly charities need to be made aware of the datasets that are relevant to their work and publicly available, or that could be requested, and how to access them. Speaking with academia, infrastructure organisations such as NCVO and working collaboratively with similar organisations can help direct charities to data which will be useful. This of course needs to be preceded by the charity being certain of their mission and understanding how their activity leads to an outcome.

Another barrier to using data effectively for many charities is the lack of staff with requisite skills. At the minimum it requires someone with an aptitude for, and interest in, analysis. For anything more advanced it requires specialist skills and knowledge. Many charities cannot easily recruit for or free up time for staff to dedicate to data analysis. With tight resources, some charities feel they can’t prioritise data analysis.

But for those who need help to understand and use their data there is an increasing number of organisations which can provide free support such as Pro Bono Economics, Operational Research Pro Bono and DataKind UK. Larger charities are also increasingly publishing data visualisation and analysis tools, as are funders such as the Nominet Trust who supported the Global Value Exchange and Data Unity.

There is a missing ingredient however in this call for increased use of intelligent data. Overcoming these barriers — recognising data’s potential, understanding its supply, and having the awareness, capability and capacity to deal with it — is still not sufficient. We know from our experience of encouraging impact measurement in the sector that just because something makes sense and is possible, it doesn’t mean people will do it.

Data does not always give the answers you expect. It might show that your view of the most important needs, or how well your service works, is only partially right, or even wrong, and that you need to change things. Changing established work patterns can be difficult and sometime staff can be antagonistic to change. Charities, or individuals in them, need a real desire to understand whether they are doing the best work possible and to identify how to improve this — however uncomfortable it might be. It requires persuasive and engaging leadership highlighting the benefits of the change and clear communication of how these benefits have been realised to really happen.

Moving forward
Another block is the lack of incentives. Many funders and commissioners do not require charities to use data in an intelligent way. Requests for data, whether on need or results, are generally satisfied with a token effort of inserting a few numbers that offer no genuine insight into the question at hand. This can be compounded by funders and commissioners requesting varying levels of similar but not the same data, which takes time, overcomplicates and can further disengage charities from using the data. Funders could support charities to provide better data by writing clear guidance on what is needed and why and providing training if necessary to skill up charity staff.

Attitudes towards ‘failure’ in the sector act as a disincentive to real scrutiny of data, in case it highlights that something is wrong. Worse, the pervading narrative in the sector of high-performing charities working to tackle acute unmet needs means that any result less than superb, or analysis of need less than disastrous, can be seen as a weakness. The current environment — reduced funding, fierce competition for resources, more resultsrelated payments, and a readiness to criticise charities — creates an even greater aversion to risk, which in turn is a disincentive to data use.

Results-based funding mechanisms, such as payment by results and social impact bonds, provide a reason for some to engage with their data, but a much wider change across the sector is required. Funders have an important role to play in championing the open reporting of data and should support charities to understand why an intervention may not have worked to reduce the fear that charities have about admitting to ‘failure’.

Making use of intelligent data is an essential way for charities to improve their operational effectiveness, the service they provide to their beneficiaries and ultimately the outcomes they achieve. Charities need to continually review the data they collect against their mission and funder requirements, remove unused data and make the most of the increasing amounts of open and big data which is being made available. There’s a risk that if charities don’t do this they limit their potential to provide solutions to those most in need.

Tracey Gyateng is Data Lab project manager at NPC:

1Bagwell, S., de Las Casas, L., Abercrombie, R. and van Poortvliet, M. (2013) Money for good UK: Understanding donor motivation and behaviour.
New Philanthropy Capital.

2 Centre for Social Justice (2013) Something’s Got to Give. The state of Britain’s voluntary and community sector.




Monday, 24 February 2014

Wondering how Pro Bono OR can help? Here is what a few of the organisations who've received support had to say...

What do those who’ve received Pro Bono O.R. have to say…

Wondering how Pro Bono O.R. can help your organisation?  Here is what a few of the organisations who’ve received Pro Bono support had to say:
Work for Us
There is a clearer understanding of people’s roles and funding being applied for as well.  This all makes for a more positive workforce with a clearer understanding of the way forward.
(Project and Communication Manager)
The work is already supporting our planning and development for next year and allowing us to focus our thoughts and decisions on the places of most importance for our organisation. It has helped us to come up with new solutions already.
We’ve benefited hugely from your work and support in all areas of the project, and from an organisational perspective you’ve enabled us to take a highly professional approach to increasing the efficiency of our charity.
(Performance Manager)
I have just started to digest the work you did for us and wanted to say a huge thank you. This will be so critical to our growth and I am very grateful indeed for your time and expertise. The team have described you as "a joy to work with".
(Principle Partner)
The Cardinal Hume Centre
We valued the opportunity to work collaboratively and without doubt benefited from the analyst’s expertise and commitment to the project.
 (Operations Director)
Joseph Rowntree Foundation
JRF is an endowed foundation funding UK-wide research and development work. We have begun a major new programme to develop an anti-poverty strategy for the UK – costed, based on the best international evidence and politically-balanced. A fundamental part of this programme is to use and build simulation models of poverty to test out, refine and demonstrate the impact of our strategies. One of the main problems with previous strategies is that they do not demonstrate how policies might achieve the desired targets. Through the use of models, we aim to at least show in theory that the strategies would have an impact. We are very pleased to have gained the expertise of two external operational researchers through the Pro Bono OR scheme, who will be giving JRF and the research teams their independent and expert advice as we commission and use the poverty models in 2014 and 2015.

(Head of Poverty)

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Thinking of becoming a Pro Bono O.R. volunteer? See all the positive comments our current volunteers have to say...

Thinking about becoming a volunteer?

See what our volunteers have to say:

Sue Merchant
"It’s a chance to make a difference, practice getting to the heart of a problem quickly, meet some very dedicated people and use techniques which you might not in your every day job"

Ian Seath
"Working as a pro bono volunteer is a great way to contribute some professional expertise to some truly worthwhile causes.  The Third Sector is full of people who feel passionately about their Mission, so working with them is invariably a positive learning experience"

Sam MacKay
"Being a volunteer was a great way to make a real difference for an organisation with people that were clearly passionate about what they do. At the same time I’ve added some interesting people to my network and expanded the breadth of projects I’ve undertaken on my CV"

Jane Parkin
"I’ve really enjoyed working with third sector organisations and found the staff extremely positive about the contribution we make"

Paul Randall
"It's win:win. Both you and a good cause benefit" 

Huw Evans
"Working on pro bono assignments has provided opportunities to work with a variety of organisations, some of who have never worked with a consultant because they felt it wasn’t an option open to them because of expense.  The variety of organisations has provided wider experience of the Third Sector and enabled me to develop approaches that were capacity building for the organisations (opening up their minds to new ideas, approaches, insights and possibilities) as well as enriching my experience with opportunities to enhance my CV.  The pro bono approach can be attractive to retired OR practitioners in that it allows you to pick and choose assignments and continue to apply your experience and skills usefully in society.  I’d recommend pro bono opportunities as a way of developing practice, raising the profile of OR, enhancing your CV, having fun meeting people in different organisations working with limited resources to do good things"

Requirements to become of volunteer:
·         Member of The OR Society Or,
·         Studying in HE and with Tutor endorsement for the project? Or,
·         Min 1st degree in O.R. related subject? Or,
·         Practitioner with a track record? Or,
·         The OR Society accreditation? Or,
·         Part of the O.R. Community

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, send an email to or visit
For further information please see my blog: or connect with me on LinkedIn (Felicity McLeister) and Twitter (@FMcLeister)

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Pro Bono O.R. helping Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF)

“Joseph Rowntree Foundation is an endowed foundation funding UK-wide research and development work. We have begun a major new programme to develop an anti-poverty strategy for the UK – costed, based on the best international evidence and politically-balanced. A fundamental part of this programme is to use and build simulation models of poverty to test out, refine and demonstrate the impact of our strategies. One of the main problems with previous strategies is that they do not demonstrate how policies might achieve the desired targets. Through the use of models, we aim to at least show in theory that the strategies would have an impact. We are very pleased to have gained the expertise of two external operational researchers through the Pro Bono OR scheme, who will be giving JRF and the research teams their independent and expert advice as we commission and use the poverty models in 2014 and 2015.”

Chris Goulden - Head of Poverty

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Tweet chat Tuesday 18th February at 10am

To join in the tweet chat just type  and follow the conversation.  This is a chance to hear more about Pro Bono O.R.  
What is O.R.?  
What projects are we currently working on?  
How can you volunteer?  
How can you recieve Pro Bono support?  
To answer all these questions and any more you many have, join me for a tweet chat next Tuesday at 10am (UK) 

Monday, 3 February 2014

Pro Bono O.R. update: Find out how the project is going and news on the current projects. Know a UK third sector organisation who could benefit? Please share.

Pro Bono O.R. has been gaining momentum over the last couple of months.  We now have our first completed project, another three currently underway and a further four that are about to commence.  To give you an idea of the type of projects we are doing I have provided a very brief project summary of all the projects.

Summary of Projects:
Work for Us - Completed
Help managers and trustees to build insight into the current situation and to develop a robust strategy [for survival and turnround].
HARVS - Active
To get a robust picture of the costs of running the wellbeing service and of any issues to be addressed in the light of forthcoming funding cuts and contract changes.
RSPCA- Active
Develop a stocks and flows model to illustrate how many dogs are “in the system” and how they move through that system, over their lifetime. 
Springboard- Active
Develop a resource planning tool that can be used to examine different options together with a short report.
Projects that are currently at ‘assigning a volunteer’ stage:
Organisation A:
 (1): Support developing and embedding coherent outcome frameworks across the whole organisation in order to demonstrate impact and effectiveness.
 (2): Support to help the organisation develop a structured and pragmatic approach to applying for funding.
 Organisation B:
The orgnisation requires an expert OR modeler to join an advisory panel to advise on the design of a poverty systems model that can be used to test out different policy options for relieving poverty.
Organisation C:
Facilitate a discussion on future strategy at a meeting of the trustees and senior staff.
Organisation D:
Help the organisation implement an impact measurement framework.

With demand increasing I have recruited new volunteers and now have over 100 volunteers, 70 of whom are currently available to work on projects.
I have also established relationships with organisations such as Reach, Cranfield Trust, Small Charities Coalition and BVSO who are supporting and promoting the project.

If you are interested in receiving Pro Bono O.R. support, becoming a volunteer or just want to find out more information, please write to

If you are not already a member of The OR Society and are interested in joining please visit or send an email to

Additionally you may be interested in becoming a member of our Third Sector Special Interest Group (ORiTS). For more details visit:

Build Your Impact with Pro Bono Operational Research: Free half-day workshop for charities

Operational research is the science of better decision-making. Pro Bono OR was created to allow UK-based organisations in the third secto...