Home News and Opinion 15/06/2016- Article in Research Matters magazine on Barncat's pro bono day
15/06/2016- Article in Research Matters magazine on Barncat's pro bono day PDF Print E-mail

'When it pays to work for free' is the title of my article for 'Research Matters' the quarterly publication of the Social Research Association. The SRA is a UK based organisation with an Irish affiliate, providing a forum for exchange of views and personal development for researchers in all types of social policy research.


As part of a series of articles by freelance researchers about their experience of working independently, I have written about the experiment of offering a day's work free of change as a follow up twelve months after the completion of any substantial contract. The current issue of Research Matters is for members only, but you can see back issues here and my article is reproduced in full below:


'When it pays to work for free'

Hannah Grene 'Research Matters', June 2016

For me, the greatest advantage of freelance working is the way I get to approach the work itself. I get the luxury of concentrating fully on the research topic at hand, spending days in libraries or reading publications online, conducting interviews and drafting reports, without the background chatter of a busy organisation. But this comes at a price - when you hand in the report, you have no further power to influence how or whether it is used.


For most of us working in social research, we undertake research not (just) for the intellectual pleasure of it, but because we care about policy issues. Too many excellent research reports end up on the shelf of a policy chief who thinks the work is probably very important but just doesn’t quite have time to read it.


I started by thinking that it would be a good idea if research contracts included an allocated day for follow up, some twelve months after the research was completed, to see how – and whether – the research had made a difference. However, this poses a funding problem. Research is often completed in a specific funding round, or on an earmarked budget, and a fee for an extra day in the following year’s budget just causes headaches for finance departments.


I therefore decided to offer a day’s work free of charge on each of my major projects, to be taken up by the contracting organisation after the completion of the project. I kept the terms for this pro bono day open – in the case of an evaluation, it could be used to see which of the recommendations had been implemented and with what results, or in the case of a policy research piece, to analyse whether any change to policy measures or public opinion had occurred.


Lessons learned

I have been offering this pro bono day for five years, and here are some of the things I learned. Firstly, I quickly realised that I needed to be clear about when the day could be taken up – it is very tempting for managers to treat it as an extra unpaid day for completion of a larger-than-anticipated project. I therefore specified that the day should be taken up six to twelve months after the completion of the projects. Exceptions can be made, however, when there is an immediate policy need related to, but distinct from the research piece. For example, I used the pro bono day for one client to help them draft a submission to a government consultation on childhood literacy, drawing on my recently completed review of their literacy project.


Secondly, it has proved to be a good business investment. The evidence from the follow up helps me to demonstrate the impact of my research in bids for new work, and I have been told by organisations that my inclusion of a pro bono day helped my tender stand out from the crowd. When work is quiet, I will proactively follow up on outstanding pro bono days. This is an excellent way to maintain a relationship with previous clients, and often leads to further paid work, as I am now back on their radar – and showing how committed I am.


Thirdly, and most importantly, it does seem to work for its primary purpose – tracking the impact of the research and enhancing its effectiveness. Following up puts the researcher back on the radar, but also the research, reminding organisations of their commitment to use the research findings to influence their work. It is important to maintain a bit of perspective here – in large organisations, priorities change and personnel move on. However, my view is that if you are prepared to spend a sum of money commissioning a piece of research, it should be worth your while to reflect on what the impact has been, a year on. I would therefore urge independent social researchers to consider adding a pro bono day to their offers – and I would also urge commissioning managers to ask their consultants whether they would provide it.


Barncat Consulting, Ballinaclash, Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow. Email: hannah@barncat.ie




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