UK charity tech: Whizz-Kidz and Somo talk digital change

Much has been said about how the healthcare industry has embraced tech tools like never before. But the Third Sector has also been flexing its  to meet audiences’ ever-changing needs during the pandemic, too.

To find out more, HTN got in touch with Whizz-Kidz to talk about how the UK charity – which transforms the lives of young wheelchair users by providing mobility equipment, a social support network and skills sessions – has extended its online offering with the help of its digital partner, Somo.

From the smart wheelchairs of the future to simply providing a space to share video content, the charity has been taking steps both big and small to improve its audience support through the lens of technology.

For this chat, we were joined by Nathan Lewis of Whizz-Kidz and Mark Jones of Somo.

Hello, tell us about your roles

Nathan: I’m the Digital Manager at Whizz-Kidz. I’ve been here for just over a year now, I was brought in as part of the digital transformation project.

A part of my focus is making sure the charity is aware of any digital opportunities. I joke in meetings that anything that has an electric current that runs through it seems to hit my desk, but that can include quite a few different bits and pieces. I look at the website, social and all these new digital tools.

Mark: My role at Somo is a Client Partner. I’ve been here just shy of seven years and I’ve been in digital now for 15 plus years. I have a portfolio of clients and am responsible for client success and the growth of our engagements. I am involved throughout projects, from a leadership and strategy perspective.

How did the partnership with Somo come about?

Mark: It came about through a mutual client, Jardine Motor Group, who have formed a charity partnership with Whizz-Kidz, and it was with a project called ‘Wheels of Change’, around building the ‘wheelchair of the future’. They were looking for a partner to help with the digital aspect. They recommended Somo, we got introduced to Whizz-Kidz and started having a conversation about how we could help!

It progressed from there [since 2018] – we adopted Whizz-Kidz as our charity of choice. We support from a leadership level, from a digital transformation perspective through to delivering digital products. Hand on heart, it’s something that I and everyone at Somo is very proud to be involved with, it’s a wonderful charity.

Nathan: My director realised they were just above us – we actually shared the same building, too. So when that recommendation came through, obviously we came through like demanding neighbours to get some assistance [laughs]. But everyone at Somo has been absolutely amazing throughout the whole process.

Mark: I forgot we were in the same building, that seems like a long time ago!

Can you talk us through your new website and platform?

Nathan: The work that was happening to improve digital capabilities has already started before the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, it didn’t take long for us to accelerate this work to support our community.  Somo delivered this website in an amazingly short period of time, with amazing quality. It took around 12 weeks, despite starting just days before the first lockdown.

From my perspective, the job has been made so much easier because Somo has an understanding of who we are. You find sometimes you’ll go to a partner and you have to sell the brand to them again and make sure they can understand what we look to do, but Somo already had that knowledge.

In terms of making the website accessible, that was a huge part. The way that was rolled out, that was beautiful and Somo knew that was going to be one of our biggest things.

At the same time, we’ve got some brand-spanking-new content that we’ve been able to share now – so we’ve got huge swathes of videos for wheelchair maintenance and creative dance for young people to get involved in. With the previous site, we didn’t have the scope to post videos but now we have a ‘Discover’ section, where we can post videos, podcasts and different types of content.

In terms of future-proofing the website – that’s been an amazing part. Somo has set everything in place and given us the tools to grow from a digital capacity.

Mark: We looked at it from the heart of the user and how we could provide the support that the Whizz-Kidz audience needs. We wanted to build a website that was user-first, that would improve engagement and visibility and be managed and scaled internally.

We re-designed and re-built the website, from an architectural point of view, and also a content management system, to replace their legacy CMS. So it transformed the look and feel of the front-end and re-engineered the back-end infrastructure. It’s a holistic piece.

Nathan: It’s a huge world away from the old website, which was very old and wasn’t even compatible for mobile. It’s been a remarkable change. We actually have a ‘Kidz Board’, where we ask young wheelchair users for their thoughts and feedback, and I remember showing them the [new] site and they were just absolutely over the moon.

We need to make sure the kids and young people have a space where they can share content and feel comfortable. One of the new things that we have is a regional section. So everyone’s aware of what’s going on at a national level and a regional level, as well.

What else are you working on together?

Mark: We’re in constant communication around digital transformation in general, how you build a digital culture and how you sell digital for fundraising etc., so it’s across multiple levels that we try and support.

We are continuing to collaborate on the ‘Wheels of Change’ project, which is People’s Postcode Lottery funded. They gave Whizz-Kidz a grant to build a wheelchair of the future. We were one of many partners to be involved in that, [along with] an engineering partner who could physically build the chair, researchers, and a few other parties.

We were focusing on the digital element; it’s one thing building a wheelchair that is mechanically better but there’s another part of it to enable it to be a smart wheelchair. It’s getting that wheelchair in a smart eco-system and allowing the user to have certain controls over that chair; if they want to potentially recline the chair, turn the lights on, activate certain aspects of their chair or request logistics such as battery life of the chair. So that’s the product we’ve been working on and we built proof of concepts and prototypes, as part of the wider ‘Wheels of Change’ project.

The next element is: how do we take that forward? How do we leverage the great work everyone has done?

From a personal perspective, it’s not just about the hardware – the chair – it’s about how digital products act as a companion. You want to give these young adults independence – and that chair is part of their daily lives. To enable a simple command with their phone or device to interact with their chair is like you and I trying to open a door. It’s huge for their independence.

For a family member or carer, they might want to get notifications about certain chair logistics or be able to get access and support on behalf of the user – there’s a whole host of opportunities.

We did a ‘Hack Day’, thinking about all the ideas we could focus on for the project, where a wheelchair user held up their phone and said ‘this is my phone now…this my wheelchair…look at the difference in the advance of the technology’. I think that hit home for everyone – how much the hardware for wheelchairs has just not progressed, at all.

This ‘Wheels of Change Project’ can make a fundamental, life-changing impact. For those that are lucky enough to get a new, smart wheelchair, how else can digital have a part to play? How can we make some of the wheelchairs we have today a bit smarter? And how can using the right digital components give users greater independence?

Nathan: The website started just before lockdown. If we hadn’t started, we would be in a very different situation now – even in terms of the content we could present to young people. We wouldn’t be able to post the videos on our website, we wouldn’t be able to promote them in the same way. Even in terms of us understanding our audiences better and understanding young people better – we’ve got a lot more data now.

We can see what’s working best through tracking on the website – which we couldn’t do previously. And we can learn from that – that’s been huge.

Mark: The challenge to raise funds is harder than ever as well. So to have that ability to have multiple different touchpoints and a solid digital strategy – even if it’s the beginning of a journey – it makes a huge difference.

What have been your biggest digital challenges?

Nathan: What we’ve seen throughout this year is that our digital challenge has really picked up i.e. exploring new channels [and] exploring ways of reaching new audiences. Generally speaking, what we have seen the most is a lot of change within the industry – but a lot of it is around digital transformation. A lot of it is around reassessing what we have and making sure we’re reaching young wheelchair users in the best way possible.

We understand that a lot of our work would have been face-to-face services – meeting young people, going through clubs and going through services. We needed to make sure that we could still offer as much of that online as possible.

What we’ve actually found is that, typically, where you’d have a local club, transport and travel is always an issue. Our transport system is not set up for young wheelchair users to move around. And some people are shy. But [now] they can have the ability to just come online, turn off their video and listen in the background. It means, from a confidence point of view, it gives young people a chance to socialise but without the additional stress.

A lot of it has been about adapting and changing our services accordingly but we’ve had some great responses. For a lot of charities, it has been a difficult time. But because we started the digital transformation early, because we got the steps in place, it’s been a lot easier than I thought it would have been.

What digital expansion do you expect to see going forward?

Nathan: Increasing use of digital tools – we’re doing some pieces with digital chatbots at the moment and seeing what we can do in terms of setting up some automated messaging on some of our systems. Once again, we need to make sure every bit of funding being invested in that team is well spent. So digital tools have been a big thing for us. We’re looking at streaming events a lot more now, as well. It’s not something we would have done before.

We’re also working more with social influencers to broaden our [reach] in the social space. As a children’s charity, everyone loves seeing our content and everyone loves seeing young wheelchair users beating the world. But what we need to do more is make sure we’re getting our message out as wide as possible.

We’re also doing things like Facebook Fundraisers – that’s not something that we would have put a huge amount of time into previously. But, once again, we’ve got the channel now. I heard that one of NSPCC’s biggest donation channels was Facebook Fundraisers. So it’s looking at these digital tools and seeing where we can really invest.

A big thing is data – any decisions we need to be making need to be based on a body of data. And, increasingly, we have that now. We do things like the fundraisers and can see we have a good turnout and engagement but the fundraising amount was low – what can we do to address that balance? A big thing for us is using a lot of historic data with some of that new data from the website to optimise that service delivery. We’ve got a whole innovation pipeline coming through at the moment – digital transformation is at the heart.

Mark: Nathan touched on the data point and I think that’s a really interesting point. There’s a lot of technology out there and you can implement products in different ways – but if you focus on the wrong area you could be wasting time and effort. Using the data to help make the right decisions is important.

Always testing with users, iterating, looking at the data – you’ll carve out the right path. Where you start and think you might end may not be the path you take. That’s ok. It’s better to manoeuvre and change direction if the data and testing is showing you that.

Anything else coming up for Whizz-Kidz?

Nathan: A big thing for us this year is gaming [charity video gaming streams]. We’ve got the foundations in place. Last year, we turned 30 years old and, as a charity, we’re trying to make sure that we’re preparing for the future and a young base of donators, fundraisers and people who care about the charity. Gaming has been a huge base for us and we’re doing all we can to make a mark within that space. It’s very different from your traditional postal fundraising deliveries.

We’re working with Harriet Green – she’s a very successful businesswoman with a huge following on LinkedIn who supports our work. She used to work for IBM. We’re doing a piece with her and other generous supporters such as Boy George and Kylie [Minogue]. Boy George has donated one of his hats. Kylie has donated one of her dresses, and we’ll be doing an auction – a lot of this will be done digitally. Previously, we’d have been tied to a hard location auction and wouldn’t have the capacity on our website to make sure that was seen.

Mark: One of Boy George’s hats is pretty cool.

Nathan: You’ll have to bid like everyone else, Mark!

To find out more about Whizz-Kidz’s digital campaigns, you can visit their new website.