Our series of case studies continues, with an in-depth look at how one charity is using tech to work through the current pandemic
Bath and North East Somerset Third Sector Group (BANES 3SG) has been coordinating a new grassroots local community of charities, businesses, students and residents to help organise the voluntary sector response to COVID-19.
Its Compassionate Community online hub has been responding to rising demand in hard times through mutual support activity. 3SG had already grown into a community of 200 charitable organisations, supporting and sharing relevant events, training and job opportunities. In April 2020, 3SG launched new and dedicated COVID-19 web content. As the community looks to life beyond lockdown, 3SG is doing a full review of needs and priorities moving forward.
3SG’s biggest task in the initial few weeks after the pandemic’s arrival was in mobilising volunteers to ensure enough people were available to reach every corner of the community and meet the unmet need. Many of those usually volunteering for charity work are older people and they had to shelter themselves prior to lockdown as they were in the at-risk group. From being the biggest source of volunteers, they became the group most in need of volunteer support. The 3SG email inbox became flooded with requests for access to food. Training in new technology was also a challenge, with many volunteers unfamiliar with new tools required by remote working.
Following the arrival of the pandemic, in just five days 3SG managed to recruit over 1,000 new ‘connectors’ to its newly launched Compassionate Community hub, taking volunteer numbers above 2500, with 60 local and regional organisations signed up to a Compassionate Community Charter.
The CC initiative was already up and running, so it was easier and quicker to form useful partnerships - including a new hub driven by technology run by a partnership of Virgin Care, the local authority and others. A new hotline ensured a faster response to people in need. And a new 3SG-backed Sustainable Food Partnership also formed, listing local food providers to support people unable to leave their homes or access online deliveries, including through hyperlocal ‘street champions’.
3SG needed to rapidly scale up its tech tools and approach to cope with the volunteer coordination effort and community support requests. It made a swift change to its website, ensuring that information became easier to find. Training for community connectors was also offered via Zoom - each session involved 50 people.
Street champions deliver food and other support to people in the five or fewer streets nearby if they are vulnerable and self-isolating, with initial contact by phone or text. A payment system has been put in place for food deliveries to avoid the need for champions needing to handle money. The hub answers calls and identifies the most appropriate organisation or volunteer to meet their need, or signposts them to other services that can help.
A WhatsApp group formed organically with people sharing support, stories and information. 3SG is also using Podio to manage volunteers.
3SG linked up with the Kids of Bath parenting website, which took over 3SG’s Instagram account to boost its following from 100 to 600 in just two days.
Within two weeks of the new hub being in place, the hotline ensured a faster response to people in need. By early May the hotline had received thousands of calls, ensuring over 800 tasks had been completed by community connectors, including essential shopping or picking up medicine.
The Virgin Care partnership has helped create a new ‘aches and pains’ physio service run by three GP practices across the Bath and North East Somerset area.
“Access to technology has been key to 3SG being able to react quickly in a fast-moving situation,” says BANES 3SG director James Carlin. “Fortunately we had a website that could be easily modified, an active social media network for sharing updates, a good knowledge of creating Google forms and volunteers with experience in Podio and case management systems that meant we could organise the tasks being completed by our volunteers.”
Carlin says the recent establishment of the compassionate communities hub made it easier and quicker for new partnerships to form. What has been harder has been that many 3SG volunteers are in older and vulnerable groups themselves. A lack of familiarity with new technology has also been a challenge.