We talked to director of national operations at the Children’s Society, Nerys Anthony, about how the charity has been adapting to the COVID era - and sharing its learning with others
The Children’s Society is one of the UK’s most high-profile charities, with a reputation for delivering great services and campaigning work. The arrival of the pandemic this spring left it facing similar organisational challenges to others in the sector - how to continue service delivery in the new era and meet rising demand - at the same time as the enforced closure of its shops put the charity under what TCS director of national operations Nerys Anthony calls “huge financial pressure”.
In service delivery to vulnerable people in any sector, trust is always key. “The majority of our work pre-lockdown was face to face,” says Anthony. “The ability to build and maintain a relationship with young people through trust was essential to the success of our work. With COVID and lockdown we could not do this as effectively.”
Lockdown without doubt led to a spike in demand as the number of young people vulnerable at home rose. “For many, home is not a safe place,” she says. “Lockdown meant they were trapped with their abuser. Or gangs they lived in fear of were able to reach them 24/7. For others, their school - the only source of structure, safety or hot food - was shut. For others still, digital poverty, lack of connection to the wider community was an issue. Home is not always where the heart is.”
Technology has been deployed across the charity’s operations to help it adapt. Within days of lockdown in March, Microsoft Surface Pros and smartphones were configured and sent to staff home addresses. Risk assessment - an absolutely key area - was opened up via phone, text and video call (gaining consent from parents/carers if under 16).
Meanwhile, “rapid due diligence” ensured all recommended charity software was safe, legal, ensured safeguarding and abided by relevant information governance requirements. Security considerations have meant Zoom, so popular elsewhere, cannot be used by The Children’s Society.
“This effort has involved cross-team collaboration, working at pace and in ways we’d never worked before,” says Anthony. The operational response added software training, a digital advice line and online resource hub.
The result, she says, has been positive in many ways: “more collaboration, less silo working, geography becoming irrelevant, more rapid decision making - and an acceleration of digital transformation.”
For team working, the charity uses the Microsoft Office suite “with greater collaboration happening than ever before,” explains Anthony. “Office was already embedded so we’ve just started using these in different ways rather than purchase new suites.” Different teams then use Miro and Slack for running workshops and communicating. The charity has secured 100 free Miro licences so expects the whiteboard software to really take off.
“We saw a huge acceleration in the use of Teams in the month after lockdown and ensured training for the whole organisation within a fortnight,” she adds. “That has meant we are connecting well as an organisation - and still supporting young people in ways that work for them.”
So what among the charity’s digital responses has been unusual or remarkable? “Open sharing has been a huge change for the organisation,” enthuses Anthony. “We have been using this crisis time to share more generously our work and expertise - to help others”.
Donations have clearly been welcome of phones, data and wi-fi enablers from two phone companies. After establishing a safe process to distribute them, much of this kit has gone to young people and families in need. “This isn’t ground-breaking but we’ve never done this before.
“We have a surprising number of young people, who don’t have phones and are facing digital poverty in this crisis,” she adds. “To enable them to get what they needed we worked with safeguarding and information governance colleagues to ensure we got this right and understood risks but worked with young people.”
As with many other charities making rapid change, culture and confidence are big on the list of challenges. “Staff confidence and the ability to use the kit and software” are without doubt an issue for The Children’s Society, too.
That’s been a particular challenge for front-facing young people supporting staff work in their jobs to help young people. The success of working face to face with some digital engagement has been variable, largely depending on the confidence levels in the tech.
TCS has just launched a pilot with Deepr to look at human connection via digital methods with one of its services in Newcastle. Currently testing after a rapid design sprint, Anthony says this is “really promising work”.
Other than that the charity has only anecdotal mechanisms to find out how forms of engagement are going for frontline practitioners. The Children’s Society has adapted its quality assurance tool and created a COVID special version, asking services to self-assess and feed back on how things are going. Staff surveys, case file reviews and young people’s feedback is also being sought to build a picture of delivery and support for young people.
“Don’t underestimate what can be achieved when everyone is facing the right direction with a massive shared priority,” advises Anthony.
1. Adapt and modify support - essential development to online communication channels - website, email, telephony, software.
2. Learn and get staff feedback on tools - essential right now to keep gaining feedback from the colleagues - and use of (and trust in) data to inform decision-making is also important.
3. Form collaborative working groups with skills to focus on impact - new relationships with colleagues and collaborative, fast-paced working, bringing together specialist skills to focus on priority outputs and impact.
4. Understand priorities - to achieve big change in a short time, internal and external collaboration is essential and is strengthening day by day - for instance, with a 27-strong group of staff, with a passion for young people’s engagement and insight mid-COVID.
5. Connect with peers and networks - reaching out to external support networks gathering information, sharing what learning and hearing from other charities is essential right now. “We are all learning so much, in such a short space of time. It is our duty to share our experiences if that will help others,” says Anthony.
Charity type: Campaign and direct services
Sector: Children and young people
Annual income: £49m
Full-time equivalent staff: 772
Back in March, we were lucky to have the Children’s Society’s Kirsten Naudé (Director of New Ventures) participate in a panel discussion on putting #BeMoreDigital into action. You can listen to the podcast below.