Alleviating hardship: How charities and other third sector organisations can use social media listening to help more people

Aleks Collingwood
Inside the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
5 min readOct 25, 2023

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We want to hear directly from charities about how you might use this research.

We recently published new groundbreaking research that uses social media listening analytics to explore the experience and impact of poverty, by listening to those with direct experience of the issues we care about. You can read that research in full, here.

I’m writing a series of blogs about this project. In my first blog, I described the reasoning behind this project, how we did it (with Demos), and what we found to be the main things that people in poverty are talking about online. In my second blog, I discussed reactions to the project so far and how MPs and policy makers could use this information to make informed decisions.

This time, I want to talk about how charities and other third sector organisations could use what we have found from social media listening to help them develop their services.

How can our research help more people?

Our research shows that people report emotions and practical issues intersecting in many ways and in multiple directions. We know that the support that charities can provide to people when they are really struggling is tremendous and invaluable. Organisations such as mental health charities, disability support, food banks, anti-hunger partnerships, community groups, those supporting people suffering with domestic abuse, to name a few, play a huge role in helping people navigate through the very difficult situations they are in.

I am going to focus on just four of the areas identified in this research that charities and other third sector organisations could not only use to tailor their advice and the support they offer, but also use to prompt reflections about who they could partner with to provide a more effective service. An example of this kind of partnership could be a charity that can provide financial support, but that doesn’t have the skills or resources to offer emotional support, teaming up with a mental health charity and working together to help a lot more people who are really struggling.

1. The importance of in-person support.

Despite the overall positive support that many people get from online forums, the importance of offline, in-person support, particularly when going for eligibility assessments, was mentioned often. People needing help understanding the systems they are interacting with, be it because of anxiety or other mental health problems, language barriers, where people had multiple intersecting conditions or because they had rapidly changing circumstances where they were left uncertain as to what rules now applied to them. Some people were literally isolated with no family of friends to help or go with them, whereas others had partners or family that were a source of, or factor in, money issues and negative emotions. Being able to offer more in-person support would be invaluable.

2. The importance of efficient and effective signposting.

So many people were discussing official letters or emails that they just didn’t understand. There were discussions about how to get legal advice, or if lawyers should be consulted. Sometimes, people were signposted by someone else in the forum to support services who could provide more information, such as Citizens Advice. People also shared links to official sources of information or other resources, and many others offered information directly. Although these forums play a role in enabling people to be better informed about their obligations and entitlements, or about processes to engage in, it is possible that this also risks compounding misinformation or misunderstanding. People would really benefit from it being easier to find out where to go to, to get help, advice, and support.

3. The importance of mental health support.

There is a vicious cycle between emotional distress and hardship. The common thread in these conversations is how one aspect of hardship — such as financial precarity — can be exacerbated, amplified and worsened by a multitude of factors, including your mental health. People were also discussing how their mental health conditions or those of their loved ones have worsened considerably because of the challenges they have faced financially. Unfortunately, it can take a very long time to access any mental health support through your GP in the UK — one person had been waiting over a year for a referral appointment. A mental health condition can make tackling your money problems impossible. Hearing what people are saying to their peers about their situations could help mental health charities provide better advice and resources to those who need it most.

4. The importance of helping people trapped in damaging relationships because they can’t afford to leave.

Discussions of relationships were often highly complex and challenging, with friends, family and romantic partners acting as both vital networks for support for some, while being a primary or significant source of distress for others. Some individuals discussed being trapped in abusive relationships and unable to leave due to a lack of resources, with systems often hindering rather than helping those fleeing domestic violence, as they feared being considered voluntarily homeless and therefore ineligible for support. One user posted about having become trapped when they had to turn to sex work due to financial difficulty and the only place they could find to live was to rent with a client, even though they wanted to live outside of the client’s control. There needs to be more support to help people escape these situations as the long-term effects of being stuck in a toxic relationship are extremely damaging.

Kudos from our Grassroots Poverty Action Group (GPAG)

JRF’s GPAG is a made up of 14 people with direct experience of poverty from across the UK. Members of the group include people who are most impacted by the cost-of-living crisis and at risk of poverty, including people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, lone parents, Universal Credit claimants, disabled people, and unpaid carers. When I went through everything that had come out of this research with GPAG the reaction was powerful. Between them, they could resonate with ALL of the findings. They are really hopeful that this research will help charities and other organisations understand more about the struggles people are facing and in turn improve their services and/or reach out to people in different ways.

What we need from you.

It would be really helpful to hear directly from charities and other third sector organisations about whether this research is useful to you. We are planning to develop and build on this research in 2024 and would value and welcome your comments and opinions. Please do get in touch.

If you would like to find out more about our Insight & Infrastructure team, or this project in particular, please get in touch with aleks.collingwood@jrf.org.uk, rosario.piazza@jrf.org.uk or sophia.knight@demos.co.uk.

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Aleks Collingwood
Inside the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Partnership Insight Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) generating timely and impactful insights on social and economic inequalities.