For years there has been a narrative about small local charities not being ‘digitally engaged’ – and not wishing to be. It is so wrong, and Covid-19 has proved it.
I recently spent a fascinating couple of hours with a cross-section of six charities we fund in south-central England covering domestic abuse, homelessness, learning disability, refugees, rape and sexual abuse, and mental health.
Their story of service transformation is as remarkable as it would be surprising to those who regard small charities as digital dinosaurs. Each of them had continued to operate throughout Covid-19, and each had moved to provide a significant amount of service online.
In the process they transformed not only their own operations but also the lives of those they reach, providing support to people who would never have considered going digital previously.
This has not been easy. Dealing with tricky issues like domestic abuse and rape crisis online are hard when you live in a tiny house or flat with little private space and you can’t go outside – whether you are a staff member or service user. One charity described staff using Zoom from their bathrooms.
But, as they have proved, it was never a question of whether they were able to make this switch; there was just no burning need to drive the shift. And they didn’t have, and couldn’t afford, the kit.
Covid-19 supercharged the need, and we provided the kit and the training. In the past six months we supplied more than 1,300 laptops, tablets and training sessions to hundreds of staff in small charities, reaching well over 300 organisations. In many cases charities have now even increased their reach.
But this positive story of support carries with it some real concerns. Each told stories of especially marginalised groups who had not, and will not, make the digital transition.
Sometimes those are people with the most acute need, such as homeless people who have become more isolated.
Counterintuitively, young people with mental health issues might be expected to be more digitally engaged, but they are desperate to have face-to-face meetings.
So, while Covid-19 might have done something to bridge the digital divide, there are a significant number for whom any tenuous bridge has now become a yawning chasm.
The positive story is that, by adapting, each of the charities has been able to continue to provide services at a time when services from some large charities and the public sector simply shut up shop, leaving people feeling even more abandoned.
Six months on, most are beginning to reinstate some face-to-face work. 'Walk and talk' feels like a common approach, for clients and for engagement with staff.
But offices are being geared up for social distancing, and all envisage a future with a much more mixed service model, with digital as part of the mix.
Their main operational concern is that what has worked in decent weather will be a real problem when it’s cold – with vulnerable people having to queue outdoors to access services and maintain social distance indoors.
Asked where they will be in 12 months’ time, few know.
All are concerned that the beneficence of good short-term funding support won’t be turned into long-term support, and there's a nagging fear that funders who have been more permissive in the past six months will revert to "project-itis" during a time when all of them can be sure of the need, but none of them can be exactly sure how they will be meeting it.
If this has proved anything, it is that the best of small local organisations know their clients groups better than any funder or contractor ever could.
They are capable of adapting what they do in a way that would be the envy of most commercial and public sector bodies.
Funders like us would do well to learn from that, and back sound organisations to do what they do best – in the way they decide to do it.
Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation