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Tuesday, 27 October 2020


Innovation in the face of coronavirus

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CHARITY learning professionals are facing tough challenges trying to support staff and volunteers through coronavirus. Alongside unexpected, urgent new demands there are some silver linings too, with great examples of fast, innovative thinking. Martin Baker explains how members of the Charity Learning Consortium are solving some of the challenges of supporting a workforce through a pandemic.

Trying to meet everyone’s needs

Charities often have a diverse, geographically spread workforce, with varying demands. But in the current situation, the difference in needs may be much greater. They may have some staff furloughed, with charity shops and some services closed, whilst at the same time there is greater pressure on front line services, and they may still be recruiting. So different staff may be facing very different demands. 


Members of the Consortium are using their learning management systems (LMS) as ‘one-stop shops’, adding all kinds of resources to support staff. The Orders of St. John Care Trust has also opened up its LMS to volunteers as well as staff, so everyone is being directed to the same place for everything.

Top tip: Learning pathways are really useful for charity learning and development (L&D) practitioners to guide people through relevant resources.

Rapid, virtual induction

New staff continue to be recruited by charitable organisations, and they may start their career working from home, never having met their work colleagues.


Charities like Saha and Change Grow Live are creating virtual inductions using a mix of eLearning, online workshops, Q&A sessions and ‘meet your manager online’. At Saha, Paul Hodgkinson has created an online Learning from Home and Away guide and is also recording radio show style podcasts, interviewing the CEO, to welcome new staff. At Leeds University Union, new starters receive compliance content digitally and then attend a webinar to meet their manager and teammates. This really helps teams to put names to faces and gives everyone a chance to get to know each other.

Top tip: Find hints and tips for rapid online induction here

Keeping up with extra demands 

Some charities are facing huge demands for learning and development resources from furloughed staff. The appetite for eLearning, in particular, has soared. This type of engagement would usually be welcome, but it brings with it extra demands at a time when charity L&D staff are already trying to juggle everything. 


Charities like the National Deaf Children’s Society and Barnardo’s are using the ‘less is more approach’. They’re maintaining a tight focus on quality rather than quantity, validating what they’re sending out to ensure that it is relevant and accurate, trying not to overwhelm people with too much content and focusing on essential needs. 

Top tip: Ask, don’t assume you know what people’s needs are. Hillcrest is doing a staff survey to identify new priorities.

Going virtual overnight

Organisations may demand that all training becomes virtual overnight. At St John Ambulance Cymru, this has meant rapidly working out how to deliver virtual first aid training. Whilst everyone may have initially struggled with the overnight transition from face to face training to eLearning and other technologies, the lockdown has been a catalyst for innovation.


L&D teams – as well as staff and volunteers – are living the ethos of ‘fail fast, learn and move on’ as they get to grips with technological change. Members of the Consortium are using a range of tech, including Zoom, Favro, WhatsApp, Yammer, Slack, Webex, Google Hangouts and even Houseparty, to keep learning interactive. The team at Catch 22 are using Microsoft Teams – which they’d only had for a fortnight before lockdown. Hillcrest had been planning to transition to virtual ‘smart’ working over a period of 18 months, but like a lot of organisations, they managed that phenomenal change in just over a week. At Shaw Trust, a virtual recruitment panel – previously thought to be impossible – as well as face to face training have both successfully moved online. 

Top Tip: Technology is great, but people need people. Eleanor MacKenzie at the Church of Scotland is creating video content so that people see and hear a familiar face. 

Content curation & creation 

Charity L&D practitioners are great at rolling up their sleeves and creating what they need, often using what they already have. The overnight shift to virtual training has certainly created extra demands for curating and creating resources, which may mean using existing technology in new and different ways, as well as experimenting with new software.


Members of the Consortium are curating and creating a wide range of resources, to provide toolkits and hubs of information to support staff and volunteers. At Hillcrest, they’re planning on using a range of existing IT to run webinars, advertising these on the intranet, email and the organisation’s Facebook page. 

Top tip: Webinars can be ‘micro’. Paul Hodgkinson at Saha is planning on running short 15-minute webinars to cover specific, practical tips, alongside longer webinars to explain more complex concepts. 

Supporting wellbeing

There’s a huge, recognised mental health challenge for everyone – working or not – in the current situation. Staff and volunteers working on the front line are suffering from understandable stress, anxiety and fear. Whilst those who have been furloughed may be socially isolated and anxious too. How do you support staff in such extreme circumstances?


All charities are doing their best to support staff and volunteers. At the Church of Scotland, where many staff have been furloughed, Eleanor MacKenzie has created a hub of wellbeing resources. At Hillcrest, Wellbeing Wednesdays are being launched, based on the four pillars of wellbeing. Staff can drop into a range of webinars, which they can access from their phones. These will be recorded so they can be listened to again. 

Top tip: Both Eleanor MacKenzie from the Church of Scotland and Jacqui Campbell from Hillcrest recommend not tracking who is using wellbeing content. People won’t feel comfortable if they think they’re being monitored.

There are lots of other challenges facing charity learning professionals, and they don’t have the answer to everything. While some practitioners are struggling to keep up with the demand for eLearning and other resources, L&D has effectively been shelved by other organisations while they focus on different priorities. Ironically, formal plans for digital transformation may be shelved, but in reality, the transformation is happening anyway.

Amongst a sea of change, some staff and volunteers may find the overnight transition from face to face training to using eLearning and other technologies quite challenging. Low IT literacy can compound this. Other organisations have found that initial reticence for using technologies has quickly disappeared, and once past the ‘pain point’, people are enthusiastic about new ways of learning and working. 

Ultimately, volunteers and entire organisations are proving how resilient and adaptable they are, and everyone is getting used to learning in a virtual world. As charities are also seeing cost savings from moving face to face training online, at a time when they’ve never been so cash strapped, coronavirus could be a catalyst for digital transformation for years to come.

Martin Baker is the founder and CEO of The Charity Learning Consortium, a group of more than 190 charities collaborating to make eLearning more affordable and effective.

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