More effective volunteering with digital technology

This is about how new technology has made a big difference to how effective our Neighbourcare group is.

We are a volunteer group driving local people to medical appointments. We have 150 clients and 30 drivers. We do about 350 trips a year. The way things work is that clients call one of our three coordinators, who then arrange for a driver and car.

Until a few years ago we worked using telephones and paper. A steady increase in requests meant coordinators spending more time on the phone. The paper system made it hard for our coordinators to share information about jobs amongst themselves. It could take a dozen calls to drivers before one was found. There was also no readily available information for overall management.

We have put in two new pieces of technology: an online database (called Zoho) where our coordinators record jobs and allocate them to drivers; and group messaging software (Slack) where jobs are published automatically and where drivers volunteer.

Zoho has reduced the time coordinators spend on administrative work. This is important because our coordinators are volunteers: if the job gets too taxing or time-consuming they won't want to do it. Previously, coordinators tended to deal with a fixed group of clients: now they can deal with any because they have the information to hand.

Slack is great because it eliminates the need for coordinators to phone around to find a driver. Although not all drivers are on it yet, the ones who do the most driving trips are. It saves time and makes things easier. Slack's open message channels and configurable notifications means that everyone can have a sense of what is going one without being over-burdened with intrusive communications. Drivers, co-ordinators and committee members also use it for chat and this creates a greater sense of community in the group. It's more fun. We use email less.

Zoho costs about £250 per year and Slack (amazingly) nothing.

This digital technology has helped a lot. We do more for less. And I guess this means we do more to reduce the burden on the NHS. I've had many conversations with people from other groups who have been interested in what we have done. There are thousands of groups like ours around the country, I imagine, working as we used to. There has to be a huge opportunity to help small volunteer organisations be more effective.

We have been able to do this because we have someone who understands both the technology and how to help us, less digitally-confident folk, change our ways. He worked for free: there's no way we could have afforded it otherwise.

I can't help thinking someone, perhaps in central or local government, should be making it easier for groups like ours to understand the possibilities of this new digital technology and get access to it.

Lesley Foden
Chair