Communities Essential Guide to Digital Tools — for Mutual Aid Groups

A toolkit for grassroots communities needing to move their work into the digital realm for the first time.

Phoebe Tickell
Mar 25, 2020 · 8 min read

In a time when self-isolation and “social distancing” is becoming the norm, communities and grassroots groups are turning to online tools to coordinate, share information, support each other, and connect.

This guide offers some quick and easy virtual and tech based tools you and your community group can make, at low cost and high impact. This toolkit comes from a piece of research done with London communities around their main pain points and needs. Common problems and challenges that local community groups were facing in their work together were identified— ranging from community garden projects, food banks, support groups and other self-organised community action.

This guide is aimed at people who may not be very tech-savvy, and may only rely on email as their one digital tool up until now. In this basic toolkit, there are suggestions for a minimum viable tech toolkit which can set communities up for fast, efficient and effective virtual collaboration.

The majority of these tools are free and come with comprehensive instructions. There’s usually also bespoke support available from the providers that you can pay for if you need it.

If you want to retweet the toolkit, click here.

Team communications

Make a WhatsApp group with your team members

It’s good to have a space for instant chat between team members. This can be used for quick-fire messaging and logistical chat — e.g. discussing when and where to hold your meeting. WhatsApp avoids clogging up email with lots of back and forth.

If you find that your WhatsApp group gets too busy to follow, consider setting up multiple groups with different focuses. WhatsApp can be used both on a smartphone and on desktop site so is especially useful if you have projects that involve being on the move.

Website: https://web.whatsapp.com.

Use Google Docs instead of Word for documents

Google Docs allows you to create documents in the cloud, which you can collaborate on by creating a link that you can share. Multiple people can edit a document at exactly the same time. It makes it much easier to work on documents as a team.

Website: https://docs.google.com

To share a Google Doc use the blue “Share” button on the top right of a Google doc. To add comments on the document that others can read, highlight the relevant text and click the plus symbol to the right.

If you need to do a lot of group decision-making, use Loomio

For more complex online communication and discussion, you can try out Loomio, the collaborative online decision-making tool. Loomio can be used as a forum to discuss ideas and deliberate on a decision, and then their voting tool allows you to vote on topics when you have a proposal to vote on.

It is a place for slower, more deliberate discussion, where you can also track back to how decisions were made. Community groups are able to get access to Loomio for free. Just send them an email at contact@loomio.org.

Website: https://www.loomio.org/

Use Google Drive to store files and documents

Create a shared Google Drive folder where you can save files and make shared documents. It’s secure, fast and free. The real benefit of this is that you can work on documents with your collaborators or colleagues, and have it update in realtime on their computer. Therefore, no more sending documents back and forth by email.

You can also use the “Suggested edits” tool to add edits where the changes are tracked, and your collaborator can choose to accept or reject those changes. You can also use the function to add comments.

Visit https://drive.google.com to create a google drive account (if you use Gmail, you already have one). It might be helpful to create a desktop shortcut.

The “+ New” button on the top left lets you create a new folder, or a new document which is called a “Google Doc”.

Effective Meetings

Use a shared calendar to confirm dates

Use Google Calendar with your whole team for quick and easy synchronisation. Create a shared calendar and input your team events on there, or simply share calendar events with your team. Google Calendar automatically sends meeting reminders and allows you to email everyone attending at once.

Website: https://calendar.google.com

Use Doodle to schedule times that work for everyone

Doodle is a great tool for scheduling meetings around everyone’s availability. Pro tips: choose a range of times across schedules, and set a deadline time for people to fill out the Doodle.

Website: https://doodle.com/create

An example of a Doodle poll

Use a Google Doc for the Agenda

Write your meeting agenda in a Google Doc and share it with everyone so they can review and add to it before the meeting starts. Aim to share this at least one day before the meeting.

Take shared notes on a Google Doc

Have one or more people with laptops take notes in the agenda document so that it’s all kept in one place. Aim to rotate the person facilitating the meeting each time. Google Docs can be shared, updated and commented upon during and after the meeting by multiple participants, by people who are attending remotely, and later by people who could not attend. Name meeting minutes with the date of your meeting and keep in a Google drive folder for future reference.

Use Zoom to hold meetings online

Free video conferencing technology has become so good and easy to use that you can seriously consider replacing some meetings with online meetings if it makes things more convenient. This is only really relevant if you have members who are remote or cannot make in-person meetings easily.

We recommend a service called Zoom for video conferencing. It’s free, easy to use, and you can record your sessions which saves as a video on your computer. This means anyone who misses the meeting can catch up later by watching the recording.

An example of a Zoom meeting with 49 people on the screen

Before joining a Zoom meeting on a computer or mobile device, you can download the Zoom app from the Download Center. Once you download the app (fast and free), create an account. This allows you to schedule meetings and generate a unique website url that you can share with people to direct them to your Zoom meeting room.

If you are receiving a Zoom meeting invite url, you will be prompted to download and install Zoom when you click a join link. You do not need to have an account to join a meeting. More information on joining a meeting here.

Website: http://www.zoom.us

Here is a Zoom cheat sheet

Struggling to track tasks everyone needs to do between meetings?

There are tonnes of tools you can use for project management — but many of them are complicated and can be confusing. If you want to coordinate tasks online and keep it simple, try Trello for project management. Trello allows you to make lists, boards and move cards across a board in columns. This can be a great tool to make a Kanban board — which is sort of like a shared To Do list with a task on each Trello card.

Take a look at this simple guide on How to Make a Kanban Board with Trello.

Website: http://www.trello.com.

Example of a kanban board on Trello

Engaging with the community

Make a very simple website

Websites are easy to get bogged down on and spend too much money on. Our advice is to keep it as simple as possible and AVOID building your own website from scratch at all costs. There are many very easy to use website builders to use nowadays which can set you up with a professional looking, well designed and intuitive website in 1 hour. Our advice:

  • Use Squarespace to make your website: www.squarespace.com. It may cost a little, but it’ll save you a lot of time and money in the long run.
  • Tutorial videos for how to get started can be found at bit.ly/squarespacetutorial.
  • Keep it as simple as possible. Most people just come to your website to contact you.

Focus on the important things:

  • What your project is, so people know they’re in the right place
  • Your contact details (email address, phone number)
  • Collecting emails (see www.squarespace.com/email-marketing)
  • Google Unsplash is a collection of professional photos that are free to use.

Use one shared email inbox for your entire board

There is probably already a contact email address for your partnership, e.g. hello@yourproject.org or something similar. So either you will have one person who answers it all, which is a burden, or multiple people logging into the same inbox, which is confusing.

Use www.helpscout.com to set up a single email address for the partnership with a shared inbox where all board members can see and respond to emails, while keeping their identities separate. The website has detailed instructions on how to set it up.

Overlooked ways to use Social Media to engage local communities

  • Pre-existing local Facebook groups can be used to engage with your community, and are often very popular with local people. Use bit.ly/facebooknearyou to find the largest local groups.
  • Mumsnet is an alternative social media platform and forum for parents — find local groups using this link:
    bit.ly/mumsnetnearyou.
  • Nextdoor is a social network specifically designed for neighbourhoods, and is quite popular in some areas:
    https://nextdoor.co.uk/

Need to make posters or images to share online?

Use Canva, an online marketing and design tool which makes professional looking graphics easily. https://www.canva.com

If you want to run a survey, use Google Forms

Google Forms is a free tool that allows you to ask questions from your community. Learn about how to use Google Forms bit.ly/googleformssurvey.

This toolkit is adapted and updated from a Digital Toolkit I made with Edward Saperia last year for the charity Local Trust, who works with local communities across London.

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Phoebe Tickell — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on complexity approaches, systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development.

The Digital Fund

Learning & Insight from The National Lottery Community…

Phoebe Tickell

Written by

Cares about the common good. Building capacity for deep systems change. Complexity & ecosystems obsessive. Experiments for everything. 10 yrs #systemsthinking.

The Digital Fund

Learning & Insight from The National Lottery Community Fund’s Digital Fund team.

Phoebe Tickell

Written by

Cares about the common good. Building capacity for deep systems change. Complexity & ecosystems obsessive. Experiments for everything. 10 yrs #systemsthinking.

The Digital Fund

Learning & Insight from The National Lottery Community Fund’s Digital Fund team.

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