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7 ways charities can embrace technology to improve their services

It’s no secret that the charity sector has been one of the hardest hit by COVID-19. Between the shops closing, volunteers unable to help, and a drop in fundraising opportunities, almost every aspect of a charity’s day-to-day has been impacted. And even though stores are allowed to open again soon, the whole sector will still be feeling the effects.

By Matt Haworth · June 17, 2020

For support services that depend on in-person contact – such as casework, support groups, and counselling – the restrictions have led to many significant difficulties.

43% of charities reported increased demand for their services, while 48% report a decline in voluntary income and a third off total income. And 52% have had to reduce their previous levels of service.

It’s right to reflect on these difficulties. But rather than lamenting the losses, we think it’s time to lift our eyes and look to the horizon for opportunities, too. To do right by the people who need help the most and explore unique opportunities. We as a sector must embrace this change if we’re to excel at delivering our support to people now and into the future.

While it might not be everyone’s first choice, digital can do things better, offering opportunities to make services more accessible and effective. Some may view digital transformation in a negative light for excluding people who aren’t tech-savvy. While this might be the case for a few and shouldn’t be taken lightly, there are also plenty of opportunities digital brings that face-to-face processes can’t.

In a survey, 39% of private practice therapists said that, after the past few months, they are now more open to working by phone or email if the need arises. While 29% said they feel they can now embrace phone/online working as part of a new way of working.

But how can we go beyond just working online? How can we ace it for our communities?

Here are seven ways your services can benefit from technology and take you beyond face-to-face limitations…

charity service user using an app

1. Tailored support whoever and wherever you are

By embracing digital tools and methods, you’re no longer bound by location. Rather than matching users with a support worker based on their proximity, you assign users to the best individual for them, regardless of where they are in the world.

For example, a caseworker who’s part of the LGBTQ+ community might forge a more empathic connection and bring more expertise to support a homeless LGBTQ+ person. This caseworker might live 30 miles away and ordinarily be out of range. But by embracing tech, this no longer matters.

2. Bite-sized engagement over time

We all know the struggles of hour-long, face-to-face Zoom meetings, so it’s no surprise that these could be off-putting for some people in times of stress. Digital methods make it possible to have bite-sized engagement over time.

It may be easier for some users to open up by talking to somebody over text or by swapping audio messages than face-to-face, receiving slower, more long-term support. Alternatives like this also allow support workers to help even more people and benefit from greater flexibility across their schedules, too.

3. Bringing new peer-to-peer groups together

Support groups have the potential to be even more valuable by bringing together a greater number of people. These people with similar experiences, who could benefit from opening up and sharing with one another, might not have attended a face-to-face group together. This might have been down to their working hours, conflicting schedules, or location. With more flexibility in who they can meet with, there’s a greater chance of people finding a valuable fit with the people they’re talking to.

4. Immediacy of feedback

No matter the industry, a regular feedback loop encourages improvement and allows us to gauge the true impact of what we’re doing. Without this, we’re left hoping we’ve made a difference but with no concrete evidence to prove it.

An example of this within a charity would be with a listening helpline. A helper might take a crisis call, provide support, but then never hear from the caller again. With digital services, you can automate an anonymous feedback process through a messaging service or Google Form. This allows you to get a handle on the impact of your service and how it’s being felt and understood by the people who use it. It encourages reflection on how to improve and do better next time.

5. Reaching new people

For those with complex needs – which might include suffering with agoraphobia or being a single parent with a busy schedule – digital alternatives to in-person groups could be a more convenient, preferred method. It lets them have tough conversations from the comfort of their homes behind the barrier of a screen. Digital tools allow you to reach users in a setting they know well, encouraging positive engagement.

6. Delivering services at scale, cost-effectively

Virtual meetings are cost-effective – mainly because they don’t need a venue. Also, over text, a support worker can juggle several casework conversations, thus increasing their capacity. In a time when fundraising income is lower than usual, technology excels at helping you support the same amount of people with reduced budgets.

7. Getting creative

Digital support brings a brilliant opportunity for creative connection. As face-to-face relationship building is no longer possible, some practitioners and support workers are finding creative ways to build emotional connections in ways that suit the digital medium. Examples might include sharing music, watching a video together, quizzing, or collaborative drawing. Even when apart, there are ways to connect and be together.

Moving forward

When looking for digital alternatives to your services, the obvious thing to do is to create a digital copy of an existing service, matching it as closely as possible. But this won’t always work.

For example, a peer-to-peer mutual aid group that used to meet face-to-face once a week at a community centre might function well enough doing a one-hour video conference call once a week instead. But it’s much harder to take turns and build relationships over video conferencing.

Instead, maybe an ongoing, 24/7 peer-to-peer group chat would work better. Allowing people to chat via text, share photos, links to songs, and whatever else is inspiring them to stick with their recovery.

All this isn’t to say we should make a shift to purely digital methods from now on. But as we ease out of lockdown, there’s every chance that some lessons learnt will stick around and improve the way we work long into the future.

There’s no reason that the peer-to-peer group chat mentioned above, for example, would have to close just because the face-to-face sessions resume. It could continue to act as a complement to the existing service, boosting its effectiveness, and enabling the inclusion of those who can’t travel to the group regularly or at all.