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Communicating with your service users in time of change

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One of the strengths of the voluntary sector is the way it adapts and transforms to stay relevant and engaging. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that many VCSE groups have adapted their service delivery to meet clients’ needs in a way that some ponderous, less flexible, commercial organisations have found problematic.   

Keeping your service users or clients informed and engaged is crucial, and never more so than in a time of change. For all VCSE organisations whose main activity is direct delivery to service users a major concern is maintaining contact with, and support to, their vulnerable clients.  

Barriers to client communications 

A recent survey by CharityComms identified three main obstacles, the first of which will come as no surprise to the many smaller VCSE organisations across Norfolk. 

  • Absence of face-to-face delivery 
  • Managing digital content 
  • Moving services online 

 

On that first point, those deemed most vulnerable and at risk were people living with physical disability or mental health issues. Housing, education and training issues were not far behind. In the absence of face-to-face communication, the telephone has proved a practical interim substitute for many, though not a replacement. Many smaller charities have experienced difficulty with organising digital content and moving services online.  

The biggest resource barriers are: 

  • Cost 
  • Lack of in-house skills 
  • Time 

 

You can find the full survey here

Solutions to client communications 

The capacity to communicate electronically with most service users already exists via the laptop or desktop computer of course. There’s little or no need for additional cost investment there, and many organisations have turned to established if hitherto under-utilised communication tools: 

  • Video meeting formats – notably Zoom and Microsoft Teams - have proved exceptionally useful during the present crisis, and for many may become a long-term integral communications tool 
  • Social media – principally Facebook and Twitter. Facebook’s facility to use closed groups is very helpful for maintaining privacy, enabling moderation of input, and perhaps encouraging a stronger sense of community and belonging than with ‘public’ Facebook   
  • Emails – have been with us for decades now and their use is limited only by lack of broadband connection, as is the case in some rural locations 
  • Website – the electronic ‘home’ of your organisation. Try to keep it up to date, with inspiring content, perhaps including moderated content from service users. 

 

If you know your online community well, why not encourage them to create their own connections – with due regard to any specific safeguarding issues pertaining to vulnerable individuals of course? Involving service users opens conversations which can informally connect those with shared interests and concerns.   

A recurring response in CharityComms’ survey, and one which will be familiar to many Norfolk VCSE organisations, is expressed as “Most of our audience are online but the most vulnerable are not!” It is acknowledged that this is a reality, particularly in areas of poor broadband connectivity; for many VCSE groups, conventional print and post may prove to be the last resort medium of communication, though no less valuable.   

Involving your service users 

The great majority of VCSE organisations operating across Norfolk rely on that highly valued resource – volunteers. And in time of crisis it is just possible that specific volunteering skills and expertise may be found from amongst those who your organisation helps and supports. If a direct-delivery charity wants to fully represent its service users, it should include them on the board of trustees. Many of Norfolk’s direct-delivery client-led charities already do that of course, and they can have a unique perspective on the prevailing challenges. By involving service users in your work, you can feel more secure that you are responding accurately to their present needs.   You can find more discussion on this here

How to phrase your messaging considerately 

Don’t pretend that everything is normal and that it’s business as usual. Be honest about operational difficulties and reassure your service users that they are not alone, nor forgotten. Make communication with them a regular thing. And think of creative ways to help them during these difficult times. CAN’s own Operation No Cold Shoulder, for example, is posting out activity packs to people in lieu of actual group activities.  

When looking for updated sector content, don’t forget to check CAN’s own information pages here.  Or ask us for advice. Call 01362 698216 or email [email protected]. We are here to help.