Cascading kindness

16 November 2022

A Pro Bono Case Study – Mental Health Collective

Black man reading a card


With loneliness on the rise in the UK, Amy Pollard has been looking for new ways for people to come together.

In 2016, she was taken to hospital, suffering her own mental health crisis with a bipolar diagnosis. “There was a horrible drama in the street” Amy says, “but then the day after it happened, a card came through the door wishing me well. To this day I don't know who the card was from, but it really meant a lot. The reassurance of friends and family was falling on deaf ears at the time, but this card with its message of acceptance got through to me at a time when other people couldn’t. I started thinking about the special role that strangers can play, in our darkest hour, to send a message of hope that cuts through."

With her personal experience alongside her professional skills, including around accountability and public participation, Amy formed a fellowship of people who have experienced mental health difficulties themselves, alongside experts from a variety of mental health professions. This is the Mental Health Collective.

Using this community, she says "I took the germ of an idea about sending cards and workshopped it with them. Together we reflected on how, when there is so much digital overload in our lives, sending and receiving physical mail feels special. We also considered how whilst traditional pen-pal schemes build one-to-one relationships, a 'secret santa' model for exchanging letters would enable people to be part of something bigger.”

She had started to figure out the practicalities of building what has become #KindnessByPost.

The core of the idea is of people signing up to send and to receive a message by post. The first mass trial was around Valentine’s Day in 2020, meaning that the model was in place when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and it suddenly felt more relevant than ever. As Amy explains, “Covid separated us from each other like never before. Loneliness took an unprecedented toll on our mental health. #KindnessByPost is one of the few loneliness interventions that can operate without compromise in the age of covid. It’s a project about coming together, which asks us to imagine each other in a new way. There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’ in #KindnessByPost: Only fellow human beings who take a leap of faith together.

Over 12,000 people have taken part in #KindnessByPost with participants from across the UK. The initiative has been featured on Channel 5 News, the Metro; The Evening Standard; I newspaperZoe Ball’s BBC 2 breakfast showBBC Radio 2’s Good Morning Sunday and a variety of regional and specialist radio stations.

Actor Indira Varma, broadcasters Rev Kate Bottley, Anna Richardson and comedian Dave Chawner have all got involved.

“Participants have been incredibly imaginative” explains Amy. “Cards and letters have criss-crossed the UK with blessings, affirmations, suggestions for songs and favourite books, and simple messages of good wishes and positivity. Seeds that the recipient can plant on their windowsill. Beautiful, poignant, heart-felt letters, with words crafted for someone to hold onto when life is at its bleakest. Funny, silly, cheesy cards, with puns and dancing pineapples. A handful of confetti, each piece inscribed with words of encouragement.”

Research on the initiative for University College London suggests that it makes a difference: “participants taking part in the programme generally had small but statistically significant increases in their wellbeing and mental health. They had more positive moods, felt more hopeful and less lonely after exchanging #KindnessByPost cards.”

Comments from participants bear this out:

  • "The beauty of this is the pure simplicity of it.”
  • “It absolutely blew me away. I was moved, thrilled and excited that somebody would take the time and effort to do that.”
  • “I left the card in front of me on my coffee table for two weeks: it just made me feel really good about the world.”

The initiative did benefit from small funding grants, but also from a range of individuals and organisations Amy calls ‘pro bono heroes’.

Key to this was the firm OpenCredo, who built the software on which #KindnessByPost depends. “There are no words for the levels of love we have for OpenCredo” says Amy. “Achieving your mission as a not-for-profit is like climbing a mountain, and they have effectively built us a cable car.”

Nicki Watt is Chief Technology Officer at OpenCredo, first met Amy when working at Sony Playstation. “At OpenCredo, we were looking for ways to give back to the community. We thought of people volunteering at food banks, but we have skills in IT and thought that this was a perfect way to contribute: using skills we are good at for a really special cause.”

OpenCredo is a hands-on software development consultancy, 30 to 40 people strong. The firm builds large-scale distributed systems for a variety of clients.

“We had a few people who were on the bench, as we call it, and we deployed them to work on #KindnessByPost. We ran a Discovery Phase with Amy. She had plenty of ideas and big ambitions for what a website could do. Our role was to work with her through this to identify the most important features that were needed – a minimum viable product.”

Running this as a pro bono project made this different for the team. They couldn’t dedicate a focused period of time to the project, which meant that people were not always available when Amy needed them. For the prototype product, under the theme of the Great British Valentine, that did mean that some functions did not operate in as intuitive a way as others. Nicki resolved this later by ensuring that there was always one person who could be in contact with Amy throughout the development phase. A channel was set up on Slack, with access for Amy, where other team members could pitch in when questions arose. “We then worked to evolve the system to bring it closer to what was needed.”

Pro bono working did also call for some added listening skills. “We did find that it was different working pro bono for a cause – we would communicate in a different way, for example, needing to listen to understand the context whereas for a client we might be more directive.”

“The Mental Health Collective is not a registered charity, but this was not an issue for us. We loved the concept of it. If I can see what it is doing, I don’t really care what it is called. I was inspired too by Amy and the passion she brought to the issue of mental health.”

And what about the costs of development? “We did have an initial budget” explains Nicki, “which was based on time. We did use more time than we had anticipated, but using staff who were free at the time, this was not a cost for the company.”

The pro bono project brought a lot of cheer to people at OpenCredo. As well as building the system, staff signed up as users. As Nicki explains “Our team went above and beyond to contribute because it was building something that is a worthwhile cause. It was fun too to do something quite so different. As tech types, we are used to keyboards and this had us making cards, with glue and glitter. To see the difference and happiness that it made for people who were part of the exchanges was wonderful.”

“We have people in our company who struggle with mental health issues. The work helped to create a conversation on this.”

The world of charities and social enterprises has been catapulted into the digital sphere, as everyone has, with the successive lockdowns under the pandemic. Some key building blocks were astutely put in place before though, through leaders on digital charity action such as Zoe Amar, Catalyst and CAST and their funders such as the National Lottery.

Even so, #KindnessByPost stands out in two ways.

First, it was designed to run with a minimum of labour time to run it over time. “This was highly automated, something that we are quite big on as a company, when we build systems for clients” explains Nicki. “Amy needed something that was simple to operate, so this was factored into the early thinking, as she had no technology backup or time to spend in operating the system. We made sure that it is repeatable and reliable, so that when someone else gets involved, there is not then an instruction manual or a lot of complexity. The system is automated in the sense that as far as possible it is ‘push button’ and if things go wrong, it is easy to recreate from scratch.”

Second, it was a form of digital initiative that offers a new bridge between the digital and the physical world. Uber and Airbnb show how technology firms are now enabling things to happen in the real world. As Nicki concludes “through our pro bono work with Amy, we could say that, while not on the same scale, we are doing something no less innovative. This is to enable happiness and exchanges of kindness in the real world.”

Pro bono support – the gift of skills - is an accelerator for voluntary action, a cable car as Amy puts it, different to but complementary with the gift of money. Done well, it works both for the team driving the cause, the Mental Health Collective, but also for the business team that is giving skills.

And this is not the end of the story. Amy’s goal for #KindnessByPost is to become “the Park Run of social connection”. If this ambition is realised, she will have opened up a compelling new way to address loneliness and to spread a sense of hope and belonging in communities up and down the country.

Written by
Profile picture for user Ed Mayo
Ed Mayo
Chief Executive - Pilotlight

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