COVID-19 has forced charities to quickly digitise their services. We examine how this change could be for the better
The Coronavirus pandemic poses a serious challenge to the operations of charities of every type. That’s because the lockdown restrictions brought in to get the pandemic under control make charity fundraising very difficult indeed: charity shop networks are closed, and fundraising events have been cancelled. Digital fundraising, including virtual events, has become the only option for many charities, and that means service delivery activities will inevitably be impacted.
But the story gets worse - because normal service delivery channels are directly impacted by COVID-19 as well. With lockdown restrictions in place, it is all but impossible to deliver services face-to-face. And on top of this, many staff members have been furloughed or are working from home, meaning that charities have had to make drastic and sudden changes to the way they manage staff, teams, and projects.
The good news is that many agile charities have been able to make rapid switches to online service delivery. For example, the National Childbirth Trust is now offering antenatal online courses to mums-to-be, St Barnabas Hospice has put together a digital bereavement guide, Shooting Star Children’s Hospices is providing online support groups via Zoom, and many other charities are offering telephone- or internet-based support sessions for individuals or groups.
But there is more good news as well. There are signs that the sudden forced change to charity operations, and the move to online service delivery, may produce valuable benefits that will last long after the pandemic has ended.
For example, by moving to online channels for service delivery, and perhaps by adopting a different tone to suit the medium, some digital leaders have succeeded in reaching new audiences for their services. When things get back to a more normal footing it will be possible to go back to traditional service delivery channels, but also to retain this new online customer base.
Dingley’s Promise, a charity which supports under 5s with additional needs and disabilities, has ramped up its use of Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and Instagram as well as print media and radio during the pandemic. "We have been forced to quickly shift to digital, remote support and information sharing and are finding that we can reach more people, and have an even bigger impact than before, said Catherine McLeod, the charity’s CEO, on Zoe Amar’s blog. "As such, we are likely to continue with a number of the online activities even after the end of lockdown," she added.
The difficulty of using traditional service delivery methods is having other impacts too. Some charities are being forced to take a long hard look at what they have been doing, and are returning to concentrating on their core activities. By looking at what the real needs are and working out how these can best be delivered during the pandemic, many of these are likely to emerge more streamlined and focused on meeting the needs of those they seek to help.
Charity staff are key to effective service delivery, and the move to home working means that many have had to become familiar very quickly with online tools such as Zoom, Slack, Miro, Monday, Trello, Asana and Microsoft Teams to communicate and work on projects together. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some - or even many - charity staff feel that communication has actually improved thanks to these tools.
At the very least, it’s true to say that most staff are now familiar with these and other online tools, and if their continued use improves operations and efficiency, speeds up digital transformation, and makes service delivery more effective in the long term, then that will be a big win for charities.
Some charity staff may find they have spare time on their hands thanks to the pandemic, perhaps because some of their normal activities are no longer possible, or maybe because they have been furloughed.
Whatever the reason, this spare time can be used productively to learn new digital skills using free online webinars, or online training programs run by their charity using video conferencing software like Zoom or training management systems like Skillcast, Talent LMS, iSpring and Moodle.
This type of training has the potential to result in a general upskilling of charity staff, which could result in more effective service delivery once the pandemic is over.
Finally, the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced charity staff to work from home is likely to have a positive impact on service delivery long into the future for two important reasons.
Firstly, it means that valuable staff who move away, or potential hires with valuable skills who do not live locally, can still contribute to the charity: charity leaders should now have the confidence to allow flexible working because it has proven to be effective.
But perhaps more importantly, an acceptance of remote working means that charities themselves can change for the better. Since online trustee meetings are rapidly becoming the norm, that means that there is an immediate enlarging of the talent pool from which charities can draw for trustees.
"Being able to join board meetings virtually will open trustee opportunities up to a much wider range of people, such as those who don’t live in London or can’t take lots of time in the day to travel and attend meetings," explains Clare Laxton, a trustee at the National Children’s Bureau. This could open the way for a new generation of more tech-savvy (but time-poor trustees) to join charities of many types, with all the positive implications for service delivery that digital technologies can bring.