Kirsty Marrins: Technology enables three successful peer-to-peer support services

Sue Ryder, the RNIB and Mind show how technology can connect and help people with shared experiences

Kirsty Marrins
Kirsty Marrins

The role of charities is to support people and provide services, but they can’t be everything to everyone. That’s why peer-to-peer support services are so important – they connect people through shared experiences. The services can take the shape of face-to-face meet-ups or social activities, or they can be virtual. Here are three charities that have used technology to grow and evolve their peer-to-peer support services through online communities.

Sue Ryder Online Community

Launched in 2015, Sue Ryder’s online community is for people whose loved ones are dying or have died, and is a space where they can share experiences, ask questions and just talk to people who understand what they’re going through. Over the past three years, it’s gone from strength to strength and has given support to thousands of bereaved people.

It became clear that the community was a very valuable source of comfort and information for people and the charity looked to the next stage of its development, working out how it could use technology to reach more people in their own homes.

After conducting discovery days where existing users and "cold" users were invited to feed into discussion, the charity is evolving the community and piloting a new online video bereavement service. Members of the community will be able to book one-to-one chats with a trained bereavement counsellor, which will give people additional help and support at a time that suits them. The service is being piloted for six months, but the feedback so far has been very positive.

Connect by the RNIB

RNIB’s online community, Connect, is a place where people who have little or no sight can come together to share experiences and make friends. What became clear was that members really wanted a community that would be owned by them, that was easy to contribute to and which felt part of their everyday life. So when Facebook announced changes to its group’s functionality last year, the charity thought it was the perfect time to test it.

The RNIB has 13 Facebook groups, 12 of which are based on location and one that is exclusively for parents and carers of children with visual impairments. "In under a year the groups have grown to be really energetic and vibrant online communities with their own personalities," says Nathan Murray, social media manager at the RNIB.

Group members support each other in a variety of ways, from sharing advice on finding employment to arranging coffee meet-ups with people who live nearby. "Engagement has grown steadily since we set the groups up and, although growth rates have dropped, we are still seeing new members joining," says Murray.

For now, the groups are moderated by a team of staff and volunteers who help to keep the conversation flowing and ensure that everyone is following the house rules. As the groups develop and become more familiar, they're beginning to self-moderate, with community members keeping each other in check and helping to make the groups a welcoming, safe space to talk.

Elefriends by Mind

Mind's Elefriends began as a Facebook group to support a campaign called The Elephant in the Room, but it soon became apparent that people wanted to use the group to talk about their mental health experiences as well as support the campaign. So, in 2013, a dedicated online community was developed to enable those conversations to take place in a safe space, where people could set up anonymous profiles.

The speed of growth has been both rapid and impressive. Elefriends has grown to about 100,000 members, with interaction on the site taking place about once a second. In 2015 an app was developed as a more discreet way for people to access the community – when they are at work, for example. About 60 per cent of access to the community comes via the app. For a mental health online community, it’s essential that it’s moderated by professionals, so the community is moderated by Mind staff between 6am and 2am daily.

Even just a decade ago, peer-to-peer support services would have been limited because of location and the resources needed to organise meet-ups. Now technology has enabled charities to build or create safe online spaces where hundreds of thousands of people can get and give support, help and advice, share experiences and even build friendships. That’s pretty amazing and something that we, as a sector, should be really proud of.

Kirsty Marrins is a digital communications consultant and a trustee of the Small Charities Coalition

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