How can we support families during the COVID-19 outbreak?
Like all charities, Action for Children’s work has been hugely affected by the coronavirus crisis. Many of our on-the-ground services — including Children’s Centres and Nurseries — have had to temporarily close their doors or shift to phone and online support. And some of our fundraising activities — events that bring in hundreds of thousands of pounds to fund our work in the UK — have been postponed.
The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind as the whole charity has sprung into action to react to the situation. I have been so impressed with the energy and tenacity of people across the organisation and how quickly everyone has responded to the new and emerging needs of families in the UK.
I lead the Digital & Innovation team at AfC and — working closely with children’s services and business development teams — we are rapidly expanding our ability to support families online.
Support through 1–1 chat
Our TALK service — a 1–1 online chat service for parents to get free, non-judgemental help and advice from our experienced parenting coaches — was in pilot mode when the lockdown started. We’ve brought the rollout forward to scale the service and meet demand, training 5–10 family support staff a week to use the platform and increase our capacity to provide online support.
We’ve seen a huge shift in the questions and stories from families using TALK. After the outbreak, our conversations quickly became focussed on basics like getting food, where to find food vouchers, or quick access to emergency funds for parents. And there have been a lot of queries about staying at home with children — about their behaviour and restlessness, homeschooling, or siblings fighting. There have also been questions about the rules and logistics of the lockdown — are children allowed to move between houses if their parents are separated? Can they go to the park? Can child maintenance payments be stopped?
One of the primary functions of the TALK service has always been signposting parents to get more help, but we’re also seeing that these services are suddenly not there anymore. For example, food vouchers can’t be distributed through children’s centres by staff who are no longer in physically contact with parents.
Getting parents the information they need
Our TALK team have quickly become coronavirus experts and the digital team have also been working to understand the problems that families are now facing. We’ve done this through 1–1 interviews with parents (in the UK, but also in Italy so we could see what might be coming), following conversation trends on social media, Mumsnet and Reddit, as well as the conversations we’re having with parents on TALK.
Since the support available for families in the UK is changing on a near-daily basis, we need to be constantly reacting and evolving how we advise them. We need to signpost parents to places that are still able to help. So we are researching resources and support for families, and working with children’s services colleagues to continually create new and up-to-date advice.
Before the coronavirus hit, we had plans to create a new information, advice and guidance site for parents, which would go live around Christmas 2020, but instead we launched parents.actionforchildren.org.uk on 23 March. It was built in a weekend to direct families to coronavirus-specific help and support, and also signpost to our support for parents of under-5s, those worried about their child’s mental health, or their relationship with their partner.
It’s a work in progress (the most M of MVPs) and we’ll be iterating with the help of our awesome tech-for-good partner Super Being Labs throughout the crisis, and eventually evolving the site into a resource for parents in normal times.
Fundraising for the families hit hardest
At the same time as all of this, we worked with our Fundraising team to launch a Coronavirus Emergency Appeal to help families whose finances have been hit by the virus and have been left unable to afford basic essentials such as food, nappies, cleaning products, gas or electricity. We launched the appeal in two days thanks to impressive work at all levels so we can quickly support those who need it most.
On a personal note, it has been nice to feel like I’m making myself useful in this weird time. And I’m thankful to work for a charity that has encouraged and enabled its staff to act quickly without excessive red tape, whose teams are so up for cross-discipline collaboration AND one that was so well set up to work from home (shout out to the IT team!)
I know there will be tons of other people doing some of the best work of their lives at lightening pace, with no time to talk about it. And I’m desperate to hear what’s been going on at all the other charities, so I’ll look forward to when third sector digital teams have a chance to reflect on and share the work we’ve been doing.