Building charity service user engagement with a secure forum

pace-logoWhile working at Pace, a small national charity working with families affected by child sexual exploitation, the first challenge I was tasked with was this: How could we leverage social media and online tools to build a community when our subject matter is complex and difficult?

We wanted to be able to use digital media to help our service users overcome the isolation and severe stress that many parents reported, providing a platform for a peer support network that enables parents to form greater resilience as they rebuild their family from this abuse. Through a survey of the affected parents we work with, I evidenced a need for a way for our beneficiaries to connect regularly online for mutual support and to share information and resources that have worked for them.

The resulting project was a simple secure online forum, but as I got started I found few practical tips on how to go about implementing this, so I thought I would share some of what I learned. In this post, I’ll look at the success of the project and will then follow up with a post of tips for charities looking to implement something similar.

Finding the right solution

Our forum project sought to use new media tools as a way to address a key problem facing parents whose children are being sexually exploited; namely the lack of support available in areas where there is no dedicated multi-agency team for addressing child sexual exploitation. 

I began with a survey of the affected parents we work with, through which we learned that our service users generally had regular access to the internet and would welcome the opportunity to connect with other parents of sexually exploited children in a secure, private online forum. They also told us that the technical solution had to work well on mobile devices, allow parents to participate anonymously and, above all, be secure.

I compared three possible media to meet these requirements: a simple Facebook group, a bulletin-board style web forum and a dedicated enterprise-level social network. We opted for a web-based forum using the bbPress plugin for WordPress in order to best meet our specific requirements.

The final result was a simple to use private digital forum for users to create discussions, reply to others, and subscribe for alerts to new activity. 

The benefits

We chose to implement the forum using a plug-in within the charity’s existing website because it was:

  • Cost-effective, removing the need to pay ongoing platform charges
  • Flexible to meet our specific objectives and requirements, especially for mitigating risks
  • Simple to use and understand, putting conversations at the heart
  • Consistent with our brand, inspiring confidence in our members using the forum

Pace facilitates regular in-person network days that provide opportunities for service users to connect. However, we are only able to offer these three times per year due to staff and facility costs. Further, space at events is limited and some parents are not able to take time off of work or get the child care needed to attend. The benefit of expanding our service delivery using digital media compared with non-digital was that we could reach a much wider audience across the UK who can access this support anytime, anywhere in a way that works for them.

Digital media allows us to develop a stronger community through regular contact as well as to get a rapid response to current issues that was previously not possible.

The results

“I have seen no potentially better resource for dealing with the practical aspects of CSE in the front line, or as a means of taking protective/defensive/disruptive action.” – Parent feedback

During the two month pilot phase, 150 conversations and replies were logged in the forum by 35 users. In our pilot evaluation, all parents surveyed said they would recommend the forum to other affected parents. Nearly all (90%) said that having the forum made them feel less isolated and 80% said that using the forum made them better equipped to support their child. 

Parents are using the forum to share information, advice and resources; to keep up to date, comment and organise for collective actions. It has provided a way for our community to connect more regularly and we are seeing an impact outside the forum at in-person events that are booked to capacity for the first time. In addition to achieving these objectives, the forum has had a major impact on our charity’s business goals by facilitating new ways to incorporate user voices. Content from conversations has already informed our training courses, blogs and resource publications, contributing to the fulfilment of the charity’s user-led ethos.

The bigger picture

An online forum, while a simple solution, is an innovative expansion of the charity’s service delivery using digital media that reaches more parents across the UK in a cost effective manner. Parent feedback showed that the forum met our objective of increasing resilience and helps parents feel better equipped to support their child. It has also proven to be a valuable tool for the organisation that enhances the charity’s user-led ethos. After evaluating the pilot of the project and receiving positive feedback from our users, we progressed with a full launch that allows the forum to continue to grow as a powerful digital platform that empowers our service users through peer support.