A Physicist Finds a Rewarding Career in Charity

Lucy Heady (New Philanthropy Capital)

One of the best-known alternative career paths for physicists is that of the "quant," or quantitative analyst, in the financial services industry. But when theoretical physicist Lucy Heady went looking for a way to apply her analytical skills outside of science, she says that she didn't consider investment banking "for a second." She explored potential careers in science policy and the media and ultimately found a good fit at New Philanthropy Capital (NPC), a charity in London set up to assess which charities are doing effective work and help philanthropists decide where to donate.

"We do a range of things, from supporting the research team in understanding the statistics that underlie social problems through to helping charities measure their impact and communicate those numbers in a convincing way," says Heady, who is head of measurement at NPC. When Heady joined NPC in September 2006, she was the only member of the research team with a science background and mathematical expertise. She now heads a three-person team responsible for economic modeling and analyzing and finding the best ways to talk about quantitative data.

"The main, satisfying thing is when you feel you've made a good case for a charity you think is really effective and can make a difference." --Lucy Heady

NPC Chief Executive Martin Brookes says Heady's analytical skills are rare in the charitable sector, which is why they are valuable. "The addition of someone with quantitative skills can make a significant difference to the way we understand social problems," he says. "I think Heady is blazing a trail, and I would encourage others to follow her path."

Stepping out of the lab

When she started her Ph.D. in theoretical physics at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, Heady already suspected that she might eventually move out of academia. "Initially, I was open-minded, and I thought I'd see what happens," she says.

By the 2nd year of her Ph.D., Heady says she "was getting more and more interested in policy and what drives people, and physics seemed very removed from that. It's quite an abstract subject." Her interest in policy was piqued by "listening to how poorly science is interpreted, both by the media and politicians. I realized decisions were being made by people who didn't always understand what they were talking about."

So, toward the end of her Ph.D. in 2005, Heady decided to explore her interest in policy by doing a 3-month Institute of Physics Fellowship at the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST). Her main assignment while at POST was to collate experts' opinions into a policy briefing on the U.K. space program.

Heady enjoyed her placement at POST and learned lessons about how hard it is to get the government to consider and adopt changes in science policy. "It made me realize how difficult it is to get people interested in it and move it up the agenda," she says. "If you see there's some problem with epidemiology and the policy relating to that, it's difficult to get that on the agenda without something happening like the swine flu outbreak."

From academia to charity

(New Philanthropy Capital)

Lucy Heady (left), head of measurement at New Philanthropy Capital, talks with Ina Epkenhans of the private foundation Bertelsmann Stiftung at a May conference devoted to measuring the performance of nonprofit organizations.

After her stint at POST, Heady returned to Cambridge for 9 months to write a paper based on her Ph.D. research, which was on using quantum mechanics to model biological molecules. During that time, she considered other types of careers and successfully applied for the British Science Association Media Fellowship.

In summer 2006, she began that fellowship, which involved working on the news desk at Nature for a month. Her experience there taught her that she was most interested in longer-term, project-based work. "Research happened on too long a time scale for me--you didn't see enough happen, but journalism is about getting it done today and forgetting about it," she says. "It was incredibly interesting, but it wasn't right up my street."

It was just as well that journalism wasn't the right fit for Heady; by the time she began her media fellowship, she had already secured her job with NPC. The job NPC advertised was for someone to analyze data, but "there's not actually a lot of data around, so it's more the whole process--trying to get data that's good quality, trying to analyze it in an intelligent way, and also trying to work out how you communicate it," Heady says. As a result, Heady says, "I built the job myself--I turned up and tried to work out where my skills were best used."

Heady now manages two researchers: an economist who spent a gap year working with microfinance projects in India and a quantitative sociologist. Heady and her team work with NPC's consulting team, which advises trusts, foundations, companies, and others about where to donate, and with other research team members. She says they get involved "if there's part of a project that involves managing a lot of data or setting up an economic model."

The organization also does evaluations to "look at how effective charities are. One of our questions is whether they're addressing a serious need," Heady says. She adds that she and her colleagues ask questions such as, "Are charities helping the people who need help most? Are they doing it the right way? And, when the charities themselves collect data, are they able to tell from that data whether they're making a difference? Are they finding out things about their services--ways they can improve and change?" As well as assisting with evaluations, Heady's team helps the communications team draft press releases and articles and runs seminars for NPC colleagues on quantitative research methods.

The topics Heady works with vary widely. One project involved phoning local authorities to determine how changes in funding might affect charities that help victims of violence against women. She says that project, which is for the Government Equalities Office, probably won't "get much press, but it's incredibly satisfying because you know it's going to directly reform policy and may actually change something about how the government interacts with these charities and how they view them."

Heady has just started work with charities across England on a project to measure the impact of multipurpose community centers offering services such as literacy lessons and exercise classes for people over 65 years old. "The impact of having that resource, you can argue, is greater than the benefits of individual services," Heady says. "But no one has looked at what data you could collect or what evidence there is for that."

One of her main challenges is to get people to understand the data and analyses properly. "At one extreme, people reject numbers entirely. They think you can't analyze the sector that way. At the other extreme, people take numbers as gospel but don't question where they have come from."

Her scientific training has been valuable in her job, she says: "A lot is about detective work. Often people don't think they're collecting data, but they are because you can use the information in a different way. Linking up different numbers to build a story is a skill from my Ph.D."

Nonquantitative skills are crucial to success in the charitable sector as well, says Colin Nee, chief executive of Charities Evaluation Services, which helps charities evaluate their own performance. "Evaluation is about a whole suite of skills, such as understanding how organizations work, critical reflection, and softer skills such as the ability to match communication style to the needs of the client, service users, and so on," he says.

The next step

Heady is now studying part-time for a M.Sc. in economics at Birkbeck, University of London. She hopes to use her M.Sc. to expand her tool kit of analytical techniques. "There's a lot of interest in the sector in doing cost-benefit analysis, making the case for investing in charities based on the future savings that can be made. If you help a teenager stay in school now, what are the savings due to the fact they're less likely to commit crime or get a better job?" she says. "There's potential for all kinds of economic analysis, but I didn't feel I knew enough about it to be authoritative."

NPC's Brookes warns that jobs exactly like Heady's remain rare: "Historically, you haven't found charities that are able to accommodate or understand what they could use Lucy for." At the same time, there are opportunities in charities for scientists to use their critical thinking and quantitative research skills. According to Ann Blackmore, a spokesperson for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, large charities that cover topics such as medical research, drug and alcohol addiction, and children's issues all need quantitative data analysis. And critical thinking skills are valuable for charities that use evidence to develop policy recommendations, she says.

Heady feels one of the benefits of her job in the charitable sector is that, by identifying charities that are doing good work and helping them spend their money better, she can improve people's lives. "The main, satisfying thing is when you feel you've made a good case for a charity you think is really effective and can make a difference," she says.

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