Coronavirus had forced an explosion of digital creativity around charities’ digital services – but will they keep the momentum going after lockdown?
It’s week six of the UK coronavirus lockdown. While we’re all looking forward to a return to normality, the term ’new normal’ has almost become a mantra and it’s clear that this is going to be a long game. It’s likely that there will need to be some degree of social distancing measures in place for at least a year, until we have a usable vaccine.
As Charity Digital CEO Jonathan Chevallier said in his vlog for charities: “Those of you who rapidly digitised services thinking it was a short term stopgap and you wouldn’t have to think too much about it, or maybe put off digitising them because you thought it would all blow over quickly, it’s looking like that’s not going to be the case.”
Right now, charities are experiencing a 43% increase in demand for their services, according to a survey by the Charity Finance Group and NCVO, forcing many to adapt their services rapidly for online platforms. But while it’s been inspiring to see the resourcefulness and quick thinking of many charities there’s also a need to make sure these services are sustainable in the long run.
If there’s one positive thing that charities have taken from this crisis, it’s perhaps the opportunity to explore things they may never have thought of trying before.
We’re all learning new things about our audiences and the things that work, and charities are no exception. Charities are experimenting with digital, unlocking the benefits of scale and engaging with some hard to reach groups. This has led many to give serious thought as to whether they should be offering some of their services digitally alongside face to face ones in the future.
We recently heard from Charity Digital trustee Zoe Amar about how Soundabout, a charity who empower people with severe and profound learning disabilities through engagement with music, has had to quickly develop virtual events for Facebook. From doing this, they’ve discovered a demand for digital services that they never knew existed and that has significantly expanded their reach.
Amar says: “They’ve gone from seeing eight people plus carers in face to face group sessions to reaching a cumulative total of 12k via Facebook live broadcasts and doubling followers on the platform. Daily visitors to Soundabout’s website (where families can access these events afterwards) have quadrupled.”
“Cook told me that, ‘Ironically, the new situation has opened up for us exciting new avenues of service. In the past, people either had to attend events, often a distance from where they lived, or our dedicated music practitioners were required to visit families frequently far apart from each other.’”
Breast Cancer Care’s award-winning BECCA app – a service with over 300 daily ’life hacks’ to help women adapt and rebuild their lives post-treatment, has been running for four years now and reaches about 36,000 users, proving to be a service that grows and grows.
As an app that provides ongoing support to women, the principle of building for sustainability was always a strong driver from the start. Keeping content updated regularly can be labour-intensive, but the team decided to invest in machine learning technology to automatically scrape and filter content from the web, reducing the dependency on staff time and allowing for a wider range of relevant, constantly updated content to be pulled in to the app that might previously have been missed.
There are also myriad examples of charity services that took an existing tool and repurposed it, making it cost-effective in the long run.
When Refugee Action needed to deliver their crucial online training in a way that offered more flexibility for service users whilst not outstretching their extremely limited staff and resources, they decided to forgo the all-singing, all-dancing platforms.
Instead, they looked at what they already had and opted to use a WordPress plugin that could be quickly and cheaply deployed. It was a tool that was already being used internally for their website, and plugins are cost-effective and easy to adapt and maintain.
Just because services are put together quickly, it doesn’t mean they have to seem cobbled together. The Digital Design Principles from CAST are a great foundation for any charity wanting to explore new service models that are robust and have staying power. For instance, figuring out what your service users need, the digital channels they want to use, then trying projects in short test-learn cycles where you can quickly iterate on what’s working and scrap what isn’t.
Rather than planning everything upfront based on assumptions and risking investing a lot of up-front resources, this approach focuses on testing and solving one problem at a time - this is the virtuous cycle that lies at the heart of digital development, and it forms the basis of the ’Agile’ methodology on which every successful tech development firm runs.
Building the smallest, cheapest version of something and testing the ideas as you go is also a hugely effective cost-saving strategy. Likewise, another core digital design principle is that digital services don’t have to be based on entirely new and shiny technology that’s unique to your charity. In fact, it’s always worth exploring what’s already out there you can use or build upon.
“Very often it is much cheaper and quicker to repurpose existing digital tools than to build something new. If you are spending money and time on a new digital thing, you should have a bulletproof reason why,” say CAST.