Why tech has become the charity sector’s best friend

Charities are predicted to lose £4bn over 12 weeks due to Covid-19 but many have turned to technology to stay in touch with their users. Chris Maguire reports.

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It’s hard to think of an industry that has been hit harder than the charity sector during Covid-19.

The combination of cancelled events, closed shops and a fall in donations has left charities facing a £4bn blackhole over 12 weeks because of coronavirus.

However many charities have fast-tracked their digital transformation plans and turned to video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Mircrosoft Teams and Skype to stay in touch with some of the vulnerable sections of society.

The Carers Outreach Service has been supporting unpaid adult carers in North Wales since 1991 in response to the lack of support available for unpaid family carers.

When Covid-19 struck the charity reluctantly had to remove its staff from hospitals and end their home visits but were determined to carry on helping people.

The charity applied to the Steve Morgan Foundation for financial help and were awarded £21,000 from its Covid-19 Emergency Fund.

Former Redrow founder Steve Morgan has pledged to give up to £1m-a-week for the initial first 12 weeks of Covid-19 to help charities in North Wales, Merseyside and Cheshire continue to help the most vulnerable people in society.

Carers Outreach Service used the money to buy laptops to allow their staff to work from home, preventing any of the them needing to be furloughed.

Chief officer Llinos Mair Roberts said: “Technology has come such a long way in the past few years. However, it is over recent weeks that we have fully appreciated this. From the majority of our team being office-based to the full team being fully operational at home in less than a week, we have welcomed different ways of working and supporting unpaid carers. 

“Some staff members are extremely technology savvy whilst others not so much.  Microsoft Teams is great for keeping in touch with colleagues throughout the day with GIFs and emojis to lighten the mood every now and again. Zoom is much better for staff meetings although it is limited to 40 minutes free time and sometimes it can take staff 10 minutes to switch their microphone on!

“However the best thing about Zoom is that you can just send a link to anybody and they can just click on it and join a video call.  This is great when we’re supporting unpaid carers.  It’s easy and quick.

“We are also doing a virtual cuppa and a chat with one of our social carers group and we are planning a virtual quiz night too.”

RainbowBiz CIC in Flintshire is a social enterprise that works with the most marginalised members of the North Wales community. Covid-19 forced them to close their Hippy Shop in Mold, which used 100 per cent of its profits to sustain the work of the social enterprise.

They turned to technology as a way to stay in touch with their users and director Sue Oliver said their first social event proved such a hit it lasted for eight hours!

“Having researched several video conferencing platforms, we felt that Zoom had everything we needed,” she said. “The people you invite do not need to buy the software to join meetings and we are able to invite people using lots of different methods, via email, message or simply by sharing a link online. 

“We did have a few initial issues trying to support some people to get online.  Zoom was such a hit with the people we support that our first online social lasted eight hours!  Some people were playing guitar, others singing, we had flutes being played and even a piano at one point.  It was so wonderful to be able to connect with the people we support in this way and spread a little cheer along the way.

“We have now decided to open up our socials to our colleagues and online followers, in order to make even more online connections and support more people. Tackling isolation is tricky when on lockdown, but it certainly is not impossible.”

The Open Door Centre is a charity which provides mental health support to young people in Wirral and is predicting a big spike in demand post Covid-19.

Operations director Greg Edwards said: “Technology has always been helpful through the course of our work. Little did we think it would have such an increasingly important role as we have seen so far during the coronavirus pandemic.”

The charity’s core mental health support programme, known as Bazaar, is online which has meant that existing and new members have been able to access support from home albeit without the face-to-face mentor support delivered in the centre.

“This is particularly useful for issues around depression, anxiety, isolation, stress and panic attacks; issues affecting even more young people at present due to the uncertain situation we are within,” explained Edwards. “Staff can still check-in with members’ progress through phone calls and monitor symptoms remotely.

“Skype has been a new, important tool for the charity. The staff can meet daily using this technology and our Empowerment and Wellbeing Team have been conducting one-to-one support sessions through Skype with their beneficiaries and have found that young people can feel more comfortable talking to them in the comfort of their own home.”

The Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation is a charity that was set up in memory of two children killed in the Warrington town centre bombing 27 years ago.

Based at the Peace Centre it was established after the deaths of 12-year-old Tim Parry and three-year-old Johnathan Ball in the IRA bombing in March 1993.

Chief executive Nick Taylor said they’ve always used technology but the restrictions caused by Covid-19 have meant they’ve expanded it further.

“Following the London 7/7 attacks in 2005 we adapted a new private social media tool called Yammer to ensure those who were bereaved or injured could receive peer-to-peer support,” he said.

“It has been rolled out for use for every major terrorist incident since.  Equally our work to prevent terrorism is normally delivered in face-to-face context, but over the last few years we have introduced an online portal and more of our training is now available in an online format

“15 years ago, this was all ground-breaking, but has placed us in a strong position to adopt technology to support our beneficiaries.  Isolation and distancing are real challenges to our work, not least in keeping our teams together and so the use of Office 365 supplemented by Zoom conferencing, is a must at this time.

“It’s also caused some early adoption problems.  Not everyone likes cameras and to be seen on screen.  There have also been some amusing moments.  Zoom allows you to select a bespoke background and seeing employees sat on a virtual beach or in the drawing room of a stately home is not unusual.

“Neither has it been unusual for those a little slower at technology uptake to have taken these scenes literally and to have been a bit confused by the settings.”

Stick ‘n’ Step has been helping children with cerebral palsy for nearly 20 years. It was set up in Wallasey in 2002 and opened a second centre in Runcorn three years ago.

The charity uses conductive education techniques pioneered in Hungary to help improve young people’s mobility and cognitive learning skills and teach tasks like being able to use a cup, going to the toilet, getting dressed and putting shoes and socks on.

It has 112 people aged from 0-25 on their books. The coronavirus forced Stick ‘n’ Step to stop their face-to-face sessions. The charity furloughed some of their staff but didn’t want to stop all their life-changing work so looked to technology for a solution.

The charity received emergency funding of £21,000 from the Steve Morgan Foundation and have been able to carry out virtual remote sessions through video tutorials and phone consultations.

Janet Ratcliffe, trusts and grants fundraiser at Stick ‘n’ Step, said: “We didn’t want to undermine the progress the children have already made and many of the families have already told us how helpful they’ve found the virtual sessions.”

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