Social goes digital


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For many social initiatives, it is still a challenge to reach out to their target audience over the distancing required due to COVID 19. Some projects have taken a break, others manage to continue their work digitally. What makes a strategy successful in times of a pandemic? 

How do NGOs, foundations and social initiatives manage to reach their target audience when the possibility of personal meetings is limited? In recent months, many projects in our network have been forced to find new ways to continue their work. To empower people and enable active participation in social projects are goals that are very difficult to achieve during the pandemic. In recent months, organisations in the civic sphere have (as far as possible) switched to online platforms to continue their projects. They communicate on digital channels with their target group and try to offer help from a distance. However, the new approach is not always successful as digital possibilities quickly reach their limits – especially when practical "know how" is to be conveyed and when sensitive issues are addressed.

SozialMarie has invited Dr. habil. Ursula Holtgrewe, Head of the Department for Work and Equal Opportunities at ZSI (Center for Social Innovation, Vienna), along with Noémi Goulabert-Illényi (Print It Yourself!, Budapest) and Maria Rösslhumer (StoP-Stadteile ohne Partnergewalt, Vienna-Margareten), to discuss alumni-projects on how to master the challenges of distance-working in an online workshop.

Instead of offering personal counselling, StoP have developed an online platform and extended their telephone services so that they can continue providing advice to people who are exposed to domestic violence. Surprisingly, the opportunity to discuss problems online seems to appeal to men even more than personal counselling. However, in some cases it is difficult to have personal discussions about sensitive topics when someone is calling from home. If calling is not possible, clients can write about their problems on online platforms and social media channels – although some people don’t trust that their data is sufficiently protected and choose not to communicate online about deeply personal matters. 

Maintaining networks and acquaintances is particularly difficult without live contact. If a relationship of trust has not yet developed, consulting in the digital space is a challenge. This is especially so in the case of socially disadvantaged groups, people with disabilities, elderly people and small children in home-schooling, who are difficult to reach by digital means according to participants in the workshop. Moreover, people, who are seeking help often struggle to find out about new, online services – for which reason it is necessary to resort to well-proven offline means, such as flyers, posters in stairwells and common rooms and word of mouth. Some projects told us that from their own experience, one-time, personal training (of course in compliance with distancing rules and face masks) has proved to be a successful strategy in the long run. In many cases, tools such as smartphones or tablets are available, but there is a lack of knowledge about how to use an organisation’s apps. Volunteers can download the apps and help people (especially older clients and people with learning disabilities) to log in and use basic functions. 

Overall, the inhibition threshold to seek help online is slightly lower than in face-to-face meetings. Organisations offering help can take advantage of this fortunate fact. Counselling to help people with mental health issues is often facilitated by social media channels such as WhatsApp, thereby overcoming the stigma that can result from face-to-face counselling. 

However, taking note of the motto "less is more", projects should not necessarily feel forced to communicate online. A personal phone call may help more than a long-planned Zoom meeting. It also should not be underestimated that in the non-profit sector there are few financial resources available for online endeavours. The ideas and initiative of employees and volunteers are crucial for success here. The goal of this workshop was to enable projects to be mutually inspired by each other's work. 

Here you can find the homepages of Print It Yourself! and StoP – Neighbourhoods Without Partner Violence, as well as a documentary by the TV station arte-documentary about Print It Yourself!