Matthew Green: What Covid-19 has taught us about technology 

09 Jun 2020 Voices

Matthew Green from the National Lottery Community Foundation shares lessons from distributing £200m of Covid-19 funding on behalf of the government and moving an operation of 800 people to home-working.

If somebody had said at the start of the year that we’d find ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic, with our offices closed, but continuing to ensure that vital National Lottery funding reaches communities in crisis across the UK, many would not have believed it was possible.

But here we are today, with over 800 staff all working from home, successfully receiving, awarding and paying grants, having launched our response to the Covid-19 pandemic to support communities, and now distributing a further £200m of Covid-19 funding on behalf of the government.

As an organisation, we’ve led a number of major partnerships and investments to maximise the power of digital technology to help charities and community groups transform their operating model and the way they can offer support to their beneficiaries.

This crisis has presented lots of organisations across the country with a challenge, one which, without digital technology, we would have struggled to meet. But we’ve been privileged to see how the charities we fund – right down to grassroots groups and projects – have rapidly turned to technology in order to keep their communities supported, connected, healthy and entertained during lockdown.

It’s been inspirational. Here’s an overview of the journey we’ve been on and what we’ve learnt along the way.

A seamless transition

We have spent the last two years delivering a large part of our technology strategy, fulfilling a vision to enable and equip all of our colleagues with the technology they need to be effective in their roles. We were already using a wide range of tools such as Microsoft Teams, Microsoft Surface Pros and One Drive. We had also recently launched a new Grant Management System, which has enabled us to streamline our funding management processes and we’ve received positive feedback from those who use it, saying that it delivers a great experience.

We had made the decision to ask everyone to work from home on Tuesday 17 March, having spent a few days making final preparations to some of our technologies behind the scenes. An email and text message had been sent to every member of staff asking them to work from home the next day and not come into the office. We had previously advised colleagues to ensure they had their laptops in case a potential lockdown, like those we saw in other countries, was enforced.

Almost all our colleagues were able to work from home with exactly the same access to systems they had in the office. A project to equip the last few colleagues with mobile devices was in the planning stages, and should have taken months to complete, but due to our amazing team of technology superstars, was turned around in just three days.

When the prime minister announced that we must work from home if we can, everyone was already at home, working productively, with access to each other and everything they needed. We didn’t miss a beat.

Changes in the way we communicate

You would think that working from more than 800 dining tables, kitchens, or other home set-ups would mean we’re communicating less, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The messages we send to each other over Microsoft Teams has more than doubled from 10,000 messages a day before Covid-19 to 22,000 per day in lockdown. Calls via Microsoft Teams have also sky-rocketed from 50 a day on average, to 550 per day. Although real-world meetings are currently a thing of the past, we’re still having 320 virtual get togethers a day, compared with just 30 a few weeks ago. 

In addition, our four advice lines across the UK – which provide that first touch point with would-be grantholders - have now been set up virtually, so applicants and grantholders can continue to get in touch with us. We’ve also virtualised our internal IT and HR helplines for colleagues. Since setting up these virtual call centres, we’ve received more than 120 calls a day.

Distributing vital funding during a global crisis

Despite the current difficulties in our lives, The National Lottery Community Fund has thankfully remained constant, providing a lifeline to communities combatting the existing, and now new, challenges they face.

Within the first seven weeks of lockdown, almost £120m of National Lottery funding had been distributed successfully to over 4,500 community projects across the UK. Our transition to remote working was smooth and didn’t affect us getting funding as quickly as possible to charities and community organisations, big and small.

National Lottery funding has never been so vital. The Covid-19 pandemic has sparked an influx of groups seeking funding to support their communities through these incredibly difficult times. Compared to the same time last year, requests for our funding have increased by 55%, while visits to our website are up by 47%.

Using technology like we never have before

Unsurprisingly, we’ve had many requests for funding where technology is being used to bring people together in a safe, remote way, and many organisations we fund have been well-placed to quickly adapt to remote-working and move vital services online. Digital technology has proved itself to be an enabler and, in some instances, I’d even say a life-saver.

We’ve talked to projects offering online cookery classes, digital physiotherapy classes and supportive group chats. The National Lottery-funded The Big Lunch, which brings around six million people together each year, will be The Big Virtual Lunch this year during the first weekend in June. There are examples all around us of how technology has made lives better and communities stronger during these difficult times.

Some organisations we fund have been well-placed to quickly adapt to remote-working and move their services online. Against all odds, others have begun using their digital scope to develop new approaches to support people and communities who need it most — leading the way for grassroots groups across the UK to utilise technology like they never have before. You can read more about this in Phoebe Tickell’s blog post.

All in all, as technology director, of course I am proud of how our organisation has adapted in an unprecedented time of challenge, but more than that I am overwhelmed by the strides made by communities to shift approach and change. Some of them have had tech-related funding to support that shift, but there are so many others that have used creativity, resilience and determination to vary offers and activities in a strange new world that relies on technology more than ever. Going forward, I hope we can continue to harness the best of people and technology, and the benefits these could yield in the future.

Matthew Green is technology and data director at The National Lottery Community Fund

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