Sending a text message to supporters can be an effective way to communicate and save money.
In January more than 300 residents on the Aylesbury estate in south London, Europe’s largest social housing project, found out about job opportunities through a text message.
The message was sent by Patrischia Warmington of Creation Trust, a charity that aims to transform the Aylesbury Estate into a thriving neighbourhood through delivering social and economic change. The text helped to ensure that more than 200 people turned up to the showcase, and attendance was significantly higher than previous employment events in the area. Patrischia and Charlotte Benstead, the manger of Creation Trust, had a very positive response from residents about the text. They are both certain that the message played a major part in the success of the showcase and have used texting regularly ever since.
In the middle of a long running economic downturn and austerity programme, charities are feeling the pinch, with small local charities like Creation Trust often most at risk, according to the thinktank IPPR North. In this climate, new digital technologies can help, as they have the potential to deliver ways of working more effectively for less money.
However, digital technologies and especially social media are not a silver bullet. Setting up a Pinterest account wouldn’t have helped Creation Trust to get 200 people on the estate back towards employment. Instead, charities, local community groups and frontline public sector staff should draw on their expertise and common sense when deciding how to use digital technology. This process can be guided by asking three simple questions: what outcome are we hoping to achieve, what technologies do the people we are working with use, and what links the two?
Creation Trust followed this process when they chose to use text messages. They knew that almost all residents had mobiles and that texting is a good way to send timely reminders that are easily shared. So sending information by text would be a great way to achieve positive outcomes. The only difference between Creation Trust and most similar organisations is that they knew about a simple web based services to manage texting to groups of people – in this case Activist SMS, built with support from the Big Lottery Fund’s People Powered Change, the Young Foundation and Thumbprint Co-operative, an organisation with more than a decade of experience in using texting in socially valuable ways, including the Guardian’s text message poetry competition in 2001.
Most organisations don’t know about Activist SMS and other similar services, but once they do, they always recognise the potential from their own experience. Every day tens of thousands of texts will be sent from personal and work mobiles to organise events, check on progress and send reminders about meetings. Texting is the Cinderella technology of social change: Twitter and Facebook get the media attention, but texting and email do all the work.
Texting is now so familiar that frontline workers and people active in their communities can take ownership of services like Activist SMS immediately. This ownership means workers and volunteers can focus on how texting can help them achieve socially valuable outcomes and this often empowers them to come up with creative solutions.
Lifeline, a charity providing drug and alcohol treatment services, demonstrates such creativity. Lifeline sends its clients a positive quote in a text on a weekly basis, designed to provide a light touch contact with the agency, and boost clients’ mood and resilience. The texts have been an immediate success. “A client told us they got the text just as they were coming out of the magistrates court, so it came at just the right time,” says Mark Tomlinson, team leader at Lifeline. The prototype is sponsored by Kirklees Drug and Alcohol Action Team (DAAT). Ian Smith, a DAAT membersaid: “If such a simple innovation helps one or two of the people supported by Lifeline each year with their recovery, the value in people’s lives, let alone money saved, will be huge.”
Kirklees council are enabling more innovation with texting, encouraging the smallest neighbourhood groups to use the service. Linda Wilkinson, council’s head of market development and innovation, who commissioned Thumbprint Co-operative to work with community groups and the local authority on the co-design of these services, sees the potential of texting as a technology to support mutual neighbourhoods.
“Texting is such an accessible way of communicating. Everyone can and does use it to keep in touch. As councils increasingly look at ways to assist the development of supportive networks – either across communities of interest or in neighbourhoods – this simple technology has been shown to be effective. It puts control firmly in the hands of individuals. It’s cheap. And it works,” Wilkinson says.
Mandeep Hothi is programme leader at The Young Foundation.