OR studies  for charities by volunteer OR analysts

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The UK ‘Pro bono OR’ scheme: studies carried out free for charities by volunteer OR analysts

The information below sets out how the UK volunteer scheme was set up, and operates, to help other countries who are considering setting up similar schemes.

What is the scheme about?
In common with IFORS and its constituent societies, the UK Operational Research Society (ORS) is keen to spread the word about the value of OR so that as many organisations as possible can benefit from it.  One group of organisations in the UK which has a great need to be as efficient as possible is that of charitable organisations, i.e. not-for-profit organisations which focus on philanthropic  and  social well-being goals.

Charities are known to face many challenges in particular:
•     ‘We have lots of different options for the future but it’s impossible to decide which to choose in such uncertain times.’
•     ‘We’re under huge pressure to do more with less, and we don’t know how we’re going to do it.’
•     ‘It’s hard to stay objective when we’re faced with such emotionally charged decisions.’
•     ‘We know we’re doing a good job – but how can we prove it?’

Knowing that charity funds were limited the ORS decided to try to find a way of providing OR services at minimal cost to charities , demonstrate the value of OR to them and enable ORS members themselves to do valuable work for society. It therefore started to explore the idea of setting up a volunteer scheme for this purpose in 2011. The scheme now developed has three main aims:
•    To help charitable organisations to do a better job, impacting upon desired outcomes, and build capacity by using the skills of O.R. volunteers.
•    To promote awareness and understanding of the benefits of O.R. to charitable organisations and to wider audiences.
•    To give O.R. volunteers an opportunity to practise in a wider arena and develop their knowledge and skills.

Each project varies in the number of hours a volunteer commits and the length of time a project takes to complete.  Projects have varied from ½ a day to 10 days of volunteer time and in length from 1 day to six months.  Client organisations pay the volunteers travel and other relevant expenses if the volunteer wishes but do not pay them for their work.

Currently the ORS will work with any charitable organisations of any size in the UK.  In its first year 7 projects have been completed and a further 14 are currently on-going (as of Oct 2014).  There are over 200 registered volunteers, of which over 60 have applied to work on projects and 34 have worked on or are currently working on projects.

How was the scheme developed?

Initially a 2-year pilot scheme was run by a few volunteer members of the ORS to test out the feasibility of the scheme eg would members actually volunteer, would any charities use it, would volunteers have enough time available to do useful work, would members and charities find it worthwhile, what benefits would accrue?

The pilot demonstrated that the concept was viable and valuable for both volunteers and participating charities but that dedicated resource was required if the scheme was to expand. As a result the Board of the ORS agreed to the recruitment of a part time paid co-ordinator and to the formation of a formal steering group, accountable to the ORS Board for governance.

How is the scheme run?
How many staff are needed?
A part time coordinator (21 hours per week) maintains a list of volunteers, publicises the scheme and matches volunteers with requests for studies.  (This time has been found to be sufficient to date and is envisaged to remain at that level.)  The coordinator is accountable to the ORS office manager and the steering group which comprises six volunteer ORS members. The main expense for the society therefore is the cost of the part-time co-ordinator and it should be recognised that any society wishing to set up a similar scheme must have sufficient funds to pay such a person unless they can find suitable volunteers to carry out the role.

How is the scheme publicised?
The scheme is published widely on social media (Facebook, Twitter, blog, webpage, LinkedIn) see example publicity tweets.  The coordinator spends a lot of time building connections with people in the charity sector and writing articles and press releases (see example).  Organisations who receive support have also been positive about promoting the scheme to their connections and publicity spreads here by ‘word of mouth’.

How are volunteers recruited?
The majority of volunteers are ORS members and are recruited through bi-annual mail outs.  Others have been recruited through targeting organisations with O.R. departments, through social media and by the co-ordinator’s attendance at conferences. A special interest group of the ORS has been created which meets regularly to talk about completed studies. Summaries of all studies are placed on the ORS website and a selection is included here .

What control documents are used?
In order to manage the scheme properly and avoid possible problems a number of documents have been designed for volunteers and charity clients to complete. These include:
•    Registration form:  Organisational details are completed by the charity.  The rest of the form is then completed by a member of the Steering group.  This is used to gather details about the organisation and the project that can be sent to volunteers.
•    Project guidelines:  These are sent out to all charities who are interested in Pro Bono support in order to outline the process of how the initiative is run
•    Project proposal form: this forms the basis of the ‘contract’ between the charity client and the volunteer analyst.
•    Feedback forms: these are for use by the client and analyst to let the ORS know what went well and what not so well in the project , and are designed to help the ORS learn from experiences and improve the service.
Copies of these forms are available at: http://www.theorsociety.com/Pages/Probono/otherusefull.aspx

Advice on setting up a scheme
This may be obtained from Felicity McLeister :  Felicity.McLeister@theorsociety.com

Example tweets

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Example publicity article (Jan 2013)
Faced with complex decisions and wondering which direction to take?  Deciding on how to allocate scarce resources?  Want to prove you are doing a good job?   Pro Bono O.R. can help.

Operational Research (O.R.) is about finding ways to apply analytical methods to make better decisions.  Third Sector organisations face extremely complex decisions about the direction they should take and how to allocate scarce resources.   An O.R. practitioner comes armed with an array of analytical tools plus the skills and experience to identify the critical factors and issues, explore the different options and explain the impact of them in real terms.

No matter what size or at what stage your organisation is, no matter what kind of decision, problem, or opportunity you face, there’s probably a way for Pro Bono Operational Research (O.R.) to help.

Here is what a couple of the organisations who’ve received support had to say:
•    Crimestoppers: ‘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)
•    Participle: ‘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”.’ (Partner)

We have over 80 volunteers across the UK who are currently available to work on projects.  This puts us in a great position to offer Pro Bono O.R. the third sector organisations across the UK.
For more information please visit: http://www.theorsociety.com/Pages/Probono/Probono.aspx or email felicity.mcleister@theorsociety.com