Listening to our Online Centres Network

James Richardson, Research Manager at Good Things Foundation, explains how we're responding to the needs of the network during Covid-19.

I started my career in the third sector working for a community organisation and Online Centre in the south of Sheffield.

As well as helping people to get online we put on a diverse set of events including a job club, social get-togethers for older people, a group for Asian women and training for young people excluded from education. We kept our door open – literally, from April to September – for anybody who needed help with anything.

One day a learner, a woman in her sixties who lived alone, called our reception to say she was experiencing chest pains. Since she lived nearby, the centre manager charged over the road to help, calling an ambulance as she ran. The lady turned out to be fine, but what struck me was that it had seemed natural to her to call us first, rather than her GP, the hospital, or her family. It was the first time I’d properly appreciated the role of community organisations. We didn’t just serve the community – we were the centre of it.

The events of the last two weeks have reminded me just how important that role is. Through an online survey and calls to the Online Centres Network, we’ve been doing our best to understand the impact that the coronavirus has been having on the people they work with, and how we can support them in these extraordinary times. We’re already doing what we can, but we need to listen to make sure we’re providing practical solutions and not getting in the way.

Many of the responses we’ve received are not easy to read, not least because we’re powerless to help. One centre mentions that a learner with suspected coronavirus has disappeared and that the police and ambulance service are looking for him. Another, providing a drop-in for homeless people, has managed to continue to provide milk for clients who can’t eat solid foods. Many centres provide food banks, and all of them say the same things: they don’t have enough food to go round and lockdown rules have massively increased the complexity of getting it to the people who need it. One centre described the impact of coronavirus in just three words: ‘fear, confusion, vulnerability.’

Our community network is already operating in some of the most deprived areas of the country, and is working with people with complex needs, so they’re used to dealing with difficult situations.

But the current circumstances are unprecedented, and the lockdown is particularly challenging for a sector based on offering face-to-face support services. Physical venues have had to close, reducing opportunities for social contact, and learning of all kinds has ground to a halt. Groups that meet to exercise, to cook, or to create have had to disband. Services ranging from debt and benefits advice to employment and skills support are reduced to telephone alternatives.

Across the network, people work and volunteer because they can see the problems facing their community and want to make a difference – I can only imagine their frustration at not being able to do their job.

I wrote a blog once outlining that digital technology is just one way of meeting your needs – for social contact, education, entertainment, information, managing your affairs – and that it’s fine if people choose to meet those needs in other ways. But, like everybody else, I hadn’t reckoned with a global pandemic. Personal access to the internet has never been more important: nobody is enjoying lockdown, but at least if you’re online you can see your family and friends for a chat, order your shopping, keep up to date with fast-moving events, and maybe even get some work done if your children will let you (I write this hiding from mine in my attic).

But there are still almost 4 million people in the UK who have never gone online at all, 2.5 million of whom are aged over 65. Again and again, our network says its biggest concern is for those who remain offline, whose risk of loneliness, poverty, hunger and health problems – already much higher than average – will only be increased by enforced social isolation.

To try and address this problem, we’re working with FutureDotNow and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to launch the DevicesDotNow initiative, which will collect and distribute donations of devices and connectivity solutions from businesses across the UK. We’ve already received expressions of interest from more than 100 of our centres, and equipment will start to be delivered this week.

But simply ‘being online’ isn’t enough: somebody who’s used to only using social media and Netflix is going to struggle to use online government information and service portals without help. We want to help centres deal with these issues, by helping them to promote online learning materials and use digital platforms for remote learning and support. This is where it’s critically important to listen – we wouldn’t have thought to recommend WhatsApp as a learning tool, but centres have pointed out that it’s something even the most limited internet users are already familiar with. We’re not only collecting these kinds of insights, we’re also helping centres to share best practice so that good ideas are disseminated as quickly and as widely as possible.

Finally, we’re making additional emergency funding available so that centres can keep delivering services to their communities even while their physical premises are shut. Although we’ve released all of our programme funding as scheduled – while relaxing delivery requirements – centres are reporting the loss of other income, and overheads still need to be covered. Their communities need them now, and will need them when coronavirus has been beaten. We need to make sure that they’re still there on the other side

From all of us at Good Things Foundation, we thank the Online Centres Network without whom our organisation would not be able to reach those who need it most. We will support them as best we can at this time.

A profile photo of James

James Richardson

Research Manager

James is part of our small team of talented people who carry out research and evaluation, making sure that Good Things Foundation always knows what's going on in its network and how we can help, as well as forming partnerships with a broad range of research partners.