In the first of our series of interviews with charity leaders doing amazing things with digital during COVID-19, we were delighted to interview Catherine McLeod, CEO of Dingley’s Promise. 

1. Tell us about you and what Dingley’s Promise does
Dingley’s Promise supports children in the early years with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) to get the best start, and wherever possible to get them in to mainstream education. We support their families to cope with challenges they face, and we also train mainstream nurseries to accept more children with SEND. I became Chief Executive just over 5 years ago and have been active in shifting the focus of the organisation to building wider inclusion for children with SEND.

2. How has COVID-19 changed what your organisation is doing with digital?
Since the beginning of the current crisis, we have shifted all of our face to face work to organised remote support for families to help them get through this period of forced isolation. Our amazing staff team have been 40% furloughed, but the remaining 60% of the team have been incredibly flexible in embracing online support. As an organisation that is very agile and open to change, I believe we have had a slightly easier path than some in shifting our way of working, as our teams are used to change and know they will be listened to if it is not working.

Secondly we focused on increasing our communications online using social media more than ever before to spread resources and good practice. We use Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and Instagram, and have also engaged with print media and radio to spread ways for families in isolation to support their children and look after themselves during the crisis.

Finally we adapted our online training to create a free, non accredited course that we spread across the UK. Without the crisis we would not have offered training for free, but in light of the fact that many early years staff are now furloughed or self isolating, we wanted to use our online training to improve the situation when children return to settings. We used our digital channels to promote and get sign up for the course.

3. What impact has this had?
The impact for many families has been fantastic. We have heard stories of families seeing their children start to walk and start to talk over the past 6 weeks. They have been involved and witnessed first hand the developments their children would have made with us and this has been magical. One parent said ‘Dingley is the only provider than has contacted me – noone else. Hats off to Dingley’. For families who are struggling during the lockdown we are trying to understand from them what we can do to help them, and keeping in touch as much as possible – often a voice on the end of the phone is really important to them. We have also adapted our coffee mornings to become Zoom get togethers, and are now also trialling evening Zoom get togethers to help families relax if their children are in bed.

Secondly, the numbers we are supporting with our remote offer has risen as we are now accepting families from outside of our usual areas and are open to giving them remote support. The accessibility of our family support services through using technology has meant that the local authorities are now referring to us with the knowledge that after the crisis, we will likely not provide further support for them. The use of remote digital support has removed the geographical boundaries that used to limit our work, and in some ways we are now doing more, with more families than ever before.

The third impact has been on our own staff – many of whom have discovered new skills and really stretched themselves. One said ‘I’ve had to really struggle through my own anxieties around technology but there’s nothing like a pandemic to give me the push I needed! Its funny that the positive outcomes for my professional and person development from lockdown are my new love for Zoom & having to think outside the box every week for ideas – who knew?!!’

Finally we have had almost 500 early years practitioners from across the UK sign up for our free course, which will have a huge impact on inclusive practice across the UK when settings go back to work. While this does not directly support families during the crisis, it supports the wellbeing of practitioners who can engage in meaningful training while they are furloughed.

4. What would you advise charities to do digitally during the crisis?
Recognise that this is a time of extreme stress for many people – your beneficiaries, your supporters, your staff and your volunteers. If they do not hear from you, they will imagine what you might be doing – and possibly imagine the worst case scenario. Every charity must embrace digital to make sure their messages are getting out to everyone who needs them.

In your work, support your teams to adapt to digital ways of working so that those you normally help are not left alone. Be aware that for many of your team they may not be comfortable with digital usually and so they may need to be supported and talked through this new way of working.

Think about the opportunities in the crisis. In this case, people who usually don’t have time to study have free time to spare. We used this opportunity to adapt our training to become free of charge. This could leave to us having a bigger impact than we have ever had on inclusion in the early years across the country.

5. How do you think the sector will change after the crisis?
I suspect that we are in a similar situation to many other charities, whereby we have been forced to quickly shift to digital, remote support and information sharing and are finding that we can reach more people, and have an even bigger impact than before. As such, we are likely to continue with a number of the online activities even after the end of lockdown. Whereas before we were concerned about barriers to people using technology, now everyone has been plunged into this at the same time and so some of these barriers have gone. We will always have our face to face work, and will always offer other options for those who do not use technology, but the emphasis of our work will certainly shift. The demystification of digital working that the crisis has brought about will very likely mean that digital working, remote working and online activities become a part of our core offer permanently, as staff, beneficiaries and decision makers are now more comfortable with what benefits this can offer.

For the sector as a whole, I hope we will continue to work collaboratively online. Using online platforms makes us more efficient, and while at times face to face meetings are needed and we have to ensure that human contact still plays a part in management and leadership, I hope that systems leadership will become more digital and allow leaders from different organisations and backgrounds to come together and share best practice on a more regular basis. My hope is that this will start to break down the London focus of our sector, which can make those outside of that bubble feel excluded. I also hope it will encourage more discussion and collaboration between small and large charities, as meetings become more accessible for all, rather than being dependent on having the time and resources to travel long distances.

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