Paul Streets: Digital is important, but face-to-face is still vital

The sector must play to its strengths and ensure people are not just reduced to algorithms, writes the chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

At the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales we aim to help small and local charities thrive, including by providing funding to help them develop their digital capabilities. But we also acknowledge the critical need for the human touch. Human interaction is vital to reach the digitally and societally excluded.

The small organisations that we fund establish face-to-face relationships with people whom society routinely ostracises as offenders, ignores as homeless, chastises as sex workers, rejects as migrants or misunderstands as mentally ill. The human touch is the only way to re-establish trust and create the kind of bespoke, but direct, customer service and support to which digital platforms can only aspire.

In the thirst for growth, some of the big names in the sector see silver in digital bullets, adopting the best commercial sector practices in their fundraising techniques. But they risk becoming remote and indistinguishable from the myriad commercial organisations that invade the virtual space.

The thirst for scale by a government seeking blanket solutions delivered by fewer, larger providers has driven too much public sector contracting. Standardised payment-by-results specifications distort services in favour of the contract manager as the "client" rather than the person who comes through the door with multiple needs and strengths.

It's time the charity sector played to its strengths. Rather than follow the commercial sector and reduce people to digital algorithms, the sector needs to keep the human connection at its heart.

When I visit the small local charities we support, I am repeatedly humbled by how much time they spend working one to one with the most disadvantaged. Their staff display great compassion and create more hopeful futures for those who face seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Local heroes I've encountered over the past few years include Kim Shutler-Jones, chief executive at the Cellar Trust, which supports people with mental health problems in the Bradford area, and Ruth Robb, chief executive of Azalea, which supports street sex workers in Luton. There are thousands more like them working in the charity sector. Their approach is truly person-centred, never assuming that technology can gain the insights that can be gleaned by staff on the ground, nor filtering out who they will help based on whether it helps them hit the targets against which they're funded. Don't get me wrong, technology and measurement tools are indisputably important, but not as much as the insight you can glean from the person in front of you as they stare silently into the mug of tea you've just made for them.

So my new year resolution is to ensure the full story of the sector is told: one where the vast majority of charities operate locally and support the most vulnerable with a helping hand. That story requires a different measurement of success: not based on commercial sector metrics of growth and a rise in income, but voluntary sector values measured by the quality of human interaction and lives changed. Viewed that way, the sector is a bright jewel in our national crown.

Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales

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