Free-conomics (Ep. 103)

(Photo: Ken Hawkins)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “Free-conomics.”  (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)

The gist: economists are a notoriously self-interested bunch, but a British outfit called Pro Bono Economics is giving away its services to selected charities. Martin Brookes is one of its founders:

BROOKES: When we first set up Pro Bono Economics, there were some economists who thought it was wrong, in principle, to give a service to charity for free. That if the service of analysis of their data was valuable, they should have to pay for it.

If the supply side was reluctant, so was the demand side:

BROOKES: If you go and talk to fundraisers, one thing that fundraisers don’t tend to do is use data. They don’t tend to sell a charity to a potential donor by telling them numbers. They tend to sell the story by telling a story about a beneficiary.

But PBE is making its way, matching up volunteer economists with charities who want help in maximizing their efforts. One of PBE’s first partners was Barnardo’s, which helps victims of child abuse. Here’s the report compiled by Bank of England economists Greg Thwaites, Amar Radia.

Martin Brookes is also interested in a ranking of charities by efficacy, which unsurprisingly has encountered a bit of pushback from charities.

I have not heard of anything like PBE in the States; have you?

(HT: EJW — thanks! — from this blog post)

Seminymous Coward

Regarding ranking charities, I'm aware of 2 already existent efforts, one of which is American: . The UK-based uses QALYs/$ as the metric, which is fundamentally the correct answer ( ). Charity Navigator has a strong focus on administrative cost control and transparency, though, so it certainly provides a solid insight as well.

vimspot evaluates and pseudo ranks many charities. They only end up with a few charities that meet their criteria for efficacy and "room for more funding"

Brian Smith

This is being done by Convergent Nonprofit Solutions (, a consulting firm in the U.S. that develops Return on Investment analysis, or Organizational Value Proposition, to nonprofit clients in the U.S.

As professional fundraisers, we definitely DO use data in telling the story. A testimonial from the client helps, but showing the economic impact of an organizations is as powerful a story. I like the idea of ranking by efficacy, as long as the metrics include the "warm fuzzies" that many organizations create. Doing good is as valid a metric as doing well.


"some economists thought it was wrong, in principle, to give a service for free"- thus verifying Freud's observation that some people don't get enough love during their upbringing

Genevieve Riutort

I work for the Westside Food Bank in Santa Monica. We are proud of our efficiency and would be glad to work with an economist such as Pro Bono Economists! Waiting for the mad rush of volunteer economists....


It's not exactly the same, but Analysis Exchange partners web analytics professionals with non-profits to help them with data:


DataKind is a rather new organization that pairs up data crunchers with charities. I participated in one of their weekend "DataDives" in DC that helped three local charities answer some of their data questions.

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I'm not surprised that fundraisers tell stories rather than providing data: stories sell better than statistics. But I think that what they really ought to do is talk about how everyone else is increasing their giving (plus a story). If we will conserve energy, get more exercise, etc., because we learn that everyone else is doing it, then we will probably find a few extra dollars for charity if we learn that everyone else is doing it.


I know it's not an American charity, but some of us would appreciate it if you did at least 30 seconds of research into what Bernado's do; their focus is a lot wider than child abuse.

Jonathan Poupart

The above address takes you to a US non-profit charity evaluator organisation. It's based in the US and, no, it's not totally financial but then economics isn't just about money and the economics of charities is probably even further from the regular, classical, marketplace economics textbooks.

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Hello Stephen, It has been a couple years since this Podcast, I was wondering if you found any organizations in the US with similar objectives as I continue to look with no avail.
Thanks for the podcasts, read 3 of your books and loved them.
David R.