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How open and collaborative comms were core to UK’s new Covid-19 charity launch

27 July 2021

covid:aid is the UK’s first – and so far only – nationwide charity set up to support all those significantly affected by Covid-19. A modern startup-style nonprofit designed to embrace the power of community and radical transparency, it places communications at its core to build a collaborative participatory movement.

An open and collaborative community-focused platform, covid:aid provides an online support service, showcasing information and advice, enabling peer support and helping existing grassroots Covid groups. As a charity, it is also engaging in user research to build an innovative digital toolkit to help other charities and organisations provide services for those with Long Covid.

How did it come about?

It was an idea that initially came about as I researched how I could best channel my anxieties, worries, and anger about the second wave of the pandemic.

After repeated googling to ensure that I wasn’t mistaken, I realised that – yes – there wasn’t yet a charity wholly dedicated to helping all those millions whose lives had been turned upside down by the illness. The reasons for this were understandable: including that there wasn’t a time to set up a charity before the pandemic hit, other charities had pivoted to provide vital support, and there had been a prevalent thought that Covid-19 would go away…

From my vantage point, it felt like there was a strong need to set up a charity which could provide a place for people affected to go. People were already experiencing physical and mental effects which would remain with them for the rest of their lives, Covid-19 seemed likely to remain with us in some form for years to come, and we were in a generationally unique moment – one in which every single person’s life in the country has been dramatically altered.

A guiding thought was that by working in a distinctly modern open and collaborative manner – complementing and boosting existing organisations and groups, and collaborating to identify unmet needs – there was an opportunity to fill a gap and ensure a consistent approach. But how on earth do you set up a new charity and communicate its need in the midst of a pandemic?

Getting others on board: embracing a participatory ‘New Power’ approach

The first thing to do was to present the idea to others, and through doing so understand how ludicrous the notion of setting up a national charity in the midst of a lockdown might be. A manifesto document was created, which contained a broad introduction to the idea before delving more into the setup, strategy, and services. This was produced in an accessible presentation format, though with enough detail throughout its 50+ pages.

Communicating the need for the charity was essential. Its purpose and mission, the approach that we would take, our plans and next steps, other explanatory details, plus a ‘how you can help’ call to action all had to be front and centre. Then the other sections acted almost as an elongated appendix: revealing the amount of detailed thought that had gone on behind the scenes, and showing that there was a depth to the proposal which would be reassuring to anyone able to help.

Drawing on a talk given by Henry Timms (executive director of the 92nd Street Y and co-founder of #GivingTuesday), the notion of ‘New Power’ values were adopted for the set up of covid:aid. This meant involving concepts such as open-source collaboration, crowd wisdom, radical transparency, encouraging participants, and developing a movement mindset – an approach that felt perfect for current times. It enabled the harnessing of a unique moment that the nation (and the world) found itself in, where every person shared the experience of having their life fundamentally changed, and could also see the effect that had on family, friends, and others. If there was something to be positive to be taken from this collective trauma, I hoped that it would be the ability to bring us together – finding ways of supporting each other and figuring out a positive path forward.

So how to do that?

Using communications to build a network and engender trust

Acknowledging that there had been a large number of organisations, groups, and individuals who had been doing amazing things since even before lockdown hit was a big part of building trust. As a charity covid:aid could recognise these efforts, and through its existence would be able to highlight the best of what we are capable of. As a charity it could also connect together all these threads of what others were doing to ensure a holistic approach.

Clearly communications had a vital role to play. Each stakeholder would have different aims and objectives with what they had been doing, and it would make sense to tailor an approach to each. However, by being open and collaborative – and relying on the same manifesto and messaging – we could show that there was nothing to hide, and allow every person we connected with to potentially spread the word. As participants we could look to get everyone that we spoke to onboard in some way, so that even if they weren’t directly involved they would still feel a pull in ensuring that covid:aid succeeded in its aims.

This created a rolling momentum as ‘me’ became ‘we’. From the moment I got initial trustees on board so we could successfully register as a charity – receiving confirmation on March 17 after all the groundwork had been laid and application sent off as soon as possible – I was able to increasingly reframe the mission from being an individual vision to a collective effort. There were trustees, an increasing number of talented and enthusiastic volunteers, and those advising and supporting in other capacities. Each new conversation shaped the charity, and by speaking about this we could build a participation premium.

Having officially launched on May 26 with a great website in place which could we hope becomes a go-to destination, covid:aid is still very much in its early stages as a charity. But across our digital channels and communications we have made it a priority to appear of a comparable standard to major nationwide charities from the off: we wanted to build trust and maintain our momentum through rapidly growing an audience who themselves could quickly become participants. Digital has enabled us to do this, delivering an increase to our UK audience of more than 150% in a month.

We are quickly learning what our participants want, and how we can look to mutually support each other. As well as providing online support services, showcasing information and advice through our podcast series, enabling peer support and helping existing grassroots Covid groups, we’re building an innovative digital toolkit to help other organisations provide services for those with Long Covid too. We are also recruiting more volunteers to specific areas of need and expanding our scope as we enter a new transformative stage.

Open communications is something covid:aid wants to continue delivering and in May we started openly publishing and sharing our monthly reviews. Delving into all aspects of covid:aid’s performance – it felt important that we continue our radical transparency – through doing so we can not just build support but provide learnings that anyone from the charity sector and beyond can take on. Our communications aren’t merely about sharing our purpose and achievements, they are a core part of our purpose and achievements so far.

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Image: Nick Fewings

Michael MacLennan

founder and chief executive, covid:aid

Michael MacLennan is the Founder and Chief Executive of covid:aid. A Communications Director at international critical issues firm Brunswick, he has also been Global Digital Editorial Manager at Red Bull and worked on innovative digital projects at the BBC, Barclaycard, ITN, STV, and The Herald.