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The health pandemic: how it has unleashed the energy of our people to help our charity partners navigate a virtual world

26 Feb 2021

Looking back at 2020 and how we came together as a team

As we complete a year of lockdown, I am reflecting on the significance of 2020 in terms of our enriched relations with our charity partners. It has been a time in which we have come together and our people have mobilised in the community to play their part in a national response to the pandemic.

When COVID-19 hit many of us turned to technology to connect with family and friends, to access services and continue to work. But not everyone was so fortunate.

The pandemic created much economic and social uncertainty and posed a serious challenge for the voluntary sector. It created unprecedented demand for services and support at a time when it became harder and harder to deliver.

Firstly, donations plummeted with the cancellation of fundraising events, both locally and nationally – such as the London Marathon and the Great North Run. Secondly, the lockdowns and social distancing measures themselves prevented charities from providing much needed services direct to vulnerable people.  With the closure of the physical spaces, charities rely on for beneficiaries and volunteers to come together, essential human interaction ended abruptly.

Sadly, the people most in need of support are also often those without access to the digital skills and kit to maintain social inclusion. It wasn’t long before we found our employees wondering what they could do to help people in their own communities. Suddenly the issues around the digital divide that many of our programmes had addressed took on a new significance and found a new army of support.

We needed to find ways to harness this energy and volunteer resource and to apply our expertise to supporting charities through this difficult time.

Helping our charity partners transform to meet the new demands

As a business, we were able to continue delivering our products and services seamlessly. The question for us the was, how could we help our charity partners do the same? For many, the challenge was how to pivot to virtual delivery.

We had to rethink our volunteer model and build on people’s appetite to help those around them with digital skills. This meant making better use of our own virtual collaboration experience to innovate and trial new volunteering activities – and then scale our overall impact.

Each charity had their own specific needs and we were able to bring experience of helping customers with digital transformation to help meet these needs.

For example, our partnership with Action for Children had previously focused on designing new and innovative fundraising models. But the impact of lockdowns meant the charity was no longer able to offer face-to-face support for families and children as centres and schools closed, and home visits became impossible.

The charity recognised it had to speed up delivery of new digital services as it urgently sought to connect people with an online chat facility and make it easier for those in need to access help. Our volunteers offered ideas for optimising website performance and turned their hand to helping with practical tools. This included the creation of online content covering topics ranging from mental health to potty training.

Our longstanding corporate partner The Prince’s Trust, who help young people into work, was also faced with a similar challenge. At a time when young people needed them most, how could they make more services available online? We collaborated with other supporters across the tech sector to help The Trust accelerate its planned digital transformation.

Mobilising our people to transform how we delivered projects

In our work with digital inclusion specialists Digital Unite, we had previously focused on training their trainers, with our employee volunteers helping to build the organisation’s network of Digital Champions. Lockdown put a halt to that – or did it?  We pivoted to make our own people Digital Champions. In an extraordinary uptake of volunteering commitment, employees working from home created a community-based response to the digital skills challenges, focusing on friends and family and the areas where they lived.

In another example of the pandemic creating opportunities for good, we found that we could help more beneficiaries and engage more volunteers than ever by taking a virtual, rather than physical approach. For example, as part of a volunteering event, we were able to support 88 beneficiaries with 71 volunteers as we worked with both The Prince’s Trust and Code Your Future (CYF) to support multiple mentoring and mock interview sessions concurrently. This type of training wasn’t something we had thought could be delivered virtually but we discovered that were able to support almost double the students in a virtual capacity than we could in a physical space.

Offering new volunteering opportunities

Another positive outcome of the pandemic is how we’ve been able to diversify our charitable and volunteering efforts. It has been difficult in the past to help smaller charities in small ways, but that’s changed through our partnership with Business in the Community (BITC). In an early and agile response to the pandemic, BITC created a ‘marketplace’ for charities to ask for help that is shared weekly with the business community.

This marketplace receives requests for support in areas such as food, technology and logistics. These are often pleas for help in bite-sized areas, through which we have been able to offer our volunteers new opportunities to connect with and support small charities across the UK.

Continuing with fundraising events

The creativity of our people has enabled us to continue our fundraising events, often bringing teams together for shared campaigns. For example, our annual support of The Prince’s Trust Palace2Palace bike ride became a virtual event, with over 100 participants. We’ve hosted charity quiz events, virtual bake offs and received a record number of entries for our annual Community Spirit Awards where we match the funds raised by our employees for their local causes and charities.

Supporting the innovation of our team members

We’ve always supported organisations and issues close to our people’s heart. Our global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has focused on ensuring that we supported the innovative spirit of employees in bringing their skills to society.  In the UK, one such team in Telford joined a UK-wide initiative called 3DCrowd, in which 3D printers were used to produce face shields and medical material to help address the shortage of protective equipment. They managed to do this from their own homes, with supplies provided by our business.

Pulling together

So, while 2020 was a year many of us wish to forget, it also brought out some of the best of our connected thinking. I have been both humbled and inspired by the creativity, empathy and desire of everyone involved to make a difference and by the agility at which charities have transformed to enable them to continue to serve.

The impact of COVID-19 on local communities has been huge. Unemployment has grown rapidly. Many people have been isolated and lack the skills to seek online help and support.

That’s why it is critical for organisations like ours to share what we can, leverage our skills and tap into the enormous energy and compassion of our people. We have certainly seen that happening over the last year.

Across the Group, we set up a Social Response Unit to  help our people mobilise and express solidarity, leveraging their creative and deep technology and data expertise, to address the needs of local communities as they cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Find out more here.