How the Scouts went through ‘digital transformation by pandemic’
The scouts is an outdoor charity which provides services face to face. So when lockdown started, the charity had to change its activities rapidly, and ramp up its digital activities overnight. We look at how it got on.
The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled the Scouts into asking some big questions about its future and responding with answers that draw on creative and super-practical thinking.
With face-to-face meetings suspended, the 113-year-old charity has had to accelerate its use of digital to provide different ways of providing experiences, delivering meetings and rapidly transforming operations.
Responding to the COVID-19 lockdown, in March Scouts unveiled #TheGreatIndoors, a new online package of ideas and activities “to inspire young minds at home". As chief Scout Bear Grylls concluded, the resource would help whole families “stay busy, focused and cheerful”. Meanwhile Scouts internal systems, already being readied for digital change, have accelerated towards new ways of working through technology.
Challenge and response
Chief digital officer Lara Burns pulls no punches when explaining the scale of the Scouts’ challenge. “We can't do what we are here to do,” she says. “Deliver scouting to hundreds of thousands for young people across the country and help them develop skills for life. Our finances are stretched, which will potentially affect our ability to deliver scouting in the long term.
“Staff are working remotely. Board meetings have gone all-digital, and will not go back to earlier ways of working any time soon.”
She says the movement’s rapid move to digital service delivery came from the grassroots rather than the centre. With most Scouts sites closed, the movement led the shift to ‘Scouting by Zoom’, with volunteers delivering weekly online meetings locally.
“At a national level, we used Zoom - and we've been able to repurpose content and launch amazing social action and fundraising campaigns” says Burns.
Digital impact during COVID-19
Burns insists she has “been genuinely blown away and truly inspired by the rapid digital transformation that is happening around us – and how it’s genuinely making things better”. All the work that previously took the digital transformation team weeks of planning, workshopping and sprinting has had to accelerate.
“Suddenly transformation is happening everywhere – without us digital people having to do very much at all,” she says. “It’s great to have the job of selling in digital made easier and thrilling to see more and more people enthused by digital transformation.”
The Great Indoors content has generated impressive public engagement. Through this initiative, Scouts has been able to link to curated web content it had already developed. By the start of May, with a campaign led by Grylls attracting national media interest, site content offering no less than 280 activities had drawn over 750,000 views with half a million different families using the content. “Set up in about two days, it shows how existing assets can be quickly repurposed to provide real benefit to audiences at a time when they need it most,” reflects Burns.
Internal Scouts operations have also seen accelerated change. The charity was early to commit to trialling remote working in the very early days of the pandemic – meaning that key operations like payroll ran remotely for the first time. “Little did we know at the time that this would be a long-term thing, but the trial day got extended and we haven’t been back to the office in 10 weeks,” says Burns.
Elsewhere, a Scouts Zoom Leadership Team briefing offered a live Q&A for no less than 14,000 Scout volunteers, again set up in just two days. The organisation set out the digital platform options available to local volunteers wanting to offer services remotely, as well as all-important guidance on staying safe online.
In another rapid shift, Microsoft Teams was rolled out securely to the entire organisation in just two weeks, as opposed to the four months originally planned - allowing chatting, meetings and collaboration organisation-wide. The shift to Teams was aided by plans already in train to use the Office 365 suite. “Our teams say they're great,” says Burns. “Put simply, we collaborate more.”
Within the digital team, Scouts has been able to on-board five new starters virtually, who had all joined after lockdown began.
One of the projects created on Teams was Hike to the Moon, a major fundraising effort from the movement to virtually ‘hike’ the 240,000 miles to the moon, which raised over £688,000 for those affected by the crisis.
The determination of the charity’s volunteers to provide services to young people has helped over 200,000 young people to meet digitally through virtual Scout sessions, meaning they could continue to learn skills, speak up and play their part. “This shows that our values of care, co-operation and ‘giving it a go’ are as relevant today as they were to our founder, Robert Baden-Powell, back in 1907,” says Burns.
Burns insists that nothing the Scouts is doing with digital is unusual or remarkable. “Everyone is doing it - it’s just that we have done loads, very fast, and our transformation is amazing compared with where we were a few months ago. There have been no major problems introducing the technology.
“We've been fast and slick at many things. But there are many other things we would love to be doing but have not got the funds to do. We would love to see some of the big tech corporates who are making a lot of money in these times give some of that back to the sector to fund some #techforgood.”
Advice to others
“Just do it. Try it, learn from it, and keep improving,” says Burns.
- Prioritise what you need to do to continue providing services, looking at what is possible - and not - remotely.
- Use and repurpose what you have already, whether it is content or systems. A crisis is not the time to start tech projects from scratch.
- Draw on the enthusiasm and commitment of volunteers. Allow the grassroots to lead if it can, offering a framework of support.
- Don't take too long and wait for everything to be perfect before you roll it out. But don't rush and forget to think about online security and data.
- Remember to ask users what they want/how they are finding it. Test your assumptions.
- Share what you do to help the whole sector learn and respond with what works.
The Scouts - details
Charity type: Young people, personal development
Staff (2019): 337
Annual income (2019): £37m
The Scout Association, Gilwell Park, London E4 7QW
0345 300 1818
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