The coronavirus pandemic has posed huge challenges for many organizations, including nonprofits, grassroots groups, community organizing initiatives, and government agencies. When the crisis hit earlier this year, organizations that relied on face-to-face relationships to engage their constituents, or even to work together within the office, suddenly had to adapt.
The Pennsylvania Health Access Network, or PHAN, was in the same boat. PHAN is a statewide, consumer-driven organization “working to expand and protect access to high-quality, equitable, affordable healthcare for all Pennsylvanians.” PHAN is part of a national project called Community Voices for Health (see box).
Faced with the pandemic, the PHAN staff already had some key strengths that allowed them to thrive: a large network of people who follow their work (including an email list of about 45,000 and roughly 8,000 social media followers); partnerships with hundreds of other organizations around the state, including groups that serve vulnerable populations most affected by COVID-19; and a staff that uses technology every day in their work (most of the PHAN staff work from their homes). “We were comfortable working remotely and digitally,” says Shana Jalbert, PHAN’s director of communications and development.
Very early in the crisis, PHAN started using online tools to get information out to their sprawling network. They have organized:
- Live Q&A sessions on Facebook Live, which uses the camera on a computer or mobile device to broadcast real-time video to a Facebook news feed. Using a platform called StreamYard, PHAN allowed viewers to post their comments and questions live on the screen during the Facebook Live broadcast.
- Town halls, “Days of Action,” and community conversations using Zoom and other video call platforms, that include breakout groups of 5-6 people. PHAN also used Zoom’s polling function to ask questions of the crowd.
- Conventional conference calls, using services like Uber Conference, GoToWebinar, and FreeConferenceCall.com.
Jalbert sees a clear trade-off between accessibility and interactivity. The conventional conference calls are the easiest for people to participate in, since they don’t require a computer or Internet access, but for the most part they allow only one-way broadcasts of information. Zoom requires more bandwidth and is therefore less accessible, but is more interactive because of the breakout groups and the polling function. Facebook Live is somewhere in the middle – more accessible than Zoom, somewhat more interactive than conference calls. “There’s no perfect platform where everyone can get there, we can get information from people to find out what they need, and it is highly interactive,” says Jalbert. “You have to pick what is most important to you.”
PHAN’s primary goal, especially in the early days of the pandemic, was to answer people’s questions about the virus and how they could access health benefits, medications, food, and unemployment benefits. More recently, they have focused on engaging people around building a policy agenda for COVID-19 and for the state’s long-term recovery. PHAN also provides information and a space for organizing around the Census, engaging residents on how to get mail-in ballots for the upcoming election, and providing information on specific health policy topics such as prescription drug prices, COVID-19 contact tracing, and surprise medical bills.
PHAN has reached over 1,000 community members through their virtual engagement efforts since the pandemic began. They’ve used a wide range of recruitment approaches, including holding live raffles for small prizes, texting people through the Hustle platform, and paying for ads on Facebook and Instagram. But the PHAN staffers feel that their partnerships with trusted messengers in communities – including leaders and groups that work with recent immigrants, serve people with developmental disabilities in rural areas, or directly serve local communities – have been critical for reaching not only a large audience overall but people who are most in need of information and services during the crisis.
There have been challenges along the way, including when members of the disability community had trouble accessing Zoom because it wasn’t necessarily geared toward people using screen readers. PHAN submitted the feedback to Zoom and started trying some workarounds. “We’ve had to be flexible, and we’re just trying to get better each time,” says Jalbert.
The next step for PHAN, and part of their participation in Community Voices for Health, will be to strengthen this network further by adding new ways to engage and encourage greater collaboration among network members. They are partnering with BeHeard Philly, one of the nation’s first community-driven survey panels. By creating a statewide panel, PHAN and BeHeard will be able to gather input on public issues from thousands of Pennsylvanians, and deliver it to public officials and other decision-makers working on those issues.
PHAN is also looking for better ways to foster cooperation among the members of their far-flung network, so that engagement efforts don’t always have to be initiated by someone working for PHAN or BeHeard. “We have a setup now where the network members rely a great deal on information and appeals coming from the central hub,” says PHAN executive director Antoinette Kraus. “We want to create resources and incentivize partners and community groups to hold these conversations on their own.”