Leading a mobile revolution in volunteering

Never has the health of our nation been in the spotlight quite like it has in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a huge shift of focus onto the wellbeing of older people.



The care sector is in desperate need for innovation, and now is the time to act. Many companies focus on professional care but a gap remains on more basic forms of support – that comes in the basic commodities of day-to-day living —shopping, gardening, changing a light bulb, or even having a chat over a cup of tea.

These tasks don’t require a professional carer, but relatives often cannot sustain them alongside their regular routines and may live remotely, and care agencies often overprice these more sociable support packages.

Our vision

At NICA, in our mission to add intelligence to ageing and longevity, we have focused our attention on scouting innovative virtuous models built on logic, process, and technology, to not so much reinvent the wheel if not needed but adapt these more for the needs of the care sector.

Delivery of service of course is key, but even more crucial is the sustainability of the service for the economy, society, citizens, and operators alike.

In our journey in search of innovation we explore and stimulate hybrid business models, public-private partnerships, and interactions between business and volunteering to maximise opportunities for our future older adults.

Flexibility, adaptability, and agility are key characteristics we will need in a stressful world and it is here that we need to unite technology and data with humanity to shape a new breed of service.

By stimulating and promoting the partnership with onHand and Newcastle Building Society, we have created a novel approach to the betterment of care provision that merges volunteering with business.

The project

The onHand app links volunteers with those seeking help, for example, with shopping, picking up prescriptions, and even companionship calls – with help available to either those making the request or someone they know. Volunteers pick up tasks through the app via their mobile.

Back in January we invited the onHand team to visit Newcastle discussing the idea of bringing their service to the North East involving the members of VOICE as testers and validators. What attracted us about the onHand solution was its outstanding mobile-first application, a well deployed and designed app following industrial standards and features, not easy qualities to find in charity-like solutions (including an embedded DBS check to validate volunteers’ profile and a fintech-like dashboard to monitor every single mission, just to mention two).

What we challenged onHand about – besides validating the market response in a different region, very different from London – was their original business model.

Together with the 2020 Entrepreneur for Good Award winner and onHand founder Sanjay Lobo and team we discussed about alternatives to a fee-per-user based model exploring corporate sustainability models.

As a Hub of Innovation, while in discussion about other opportunities with the Newcastle Building Society – we decided to connect the two organisations to see if they were interested in exploring together a CSR-based model to bring the service to Newcastle, involving NBS employees to also serve as volunteers.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the decisions, and under our orchestration the Newcastle Building Society endorsed OnHand as a featured service for the community and their employees.

By mid-year we launched the operations for the pilot phase in Newcastle, involving public organisations such as Newcastle City Council to observe the outcomes in order to take advantage of a support network that potentially (and partially) could ensure the City is at the forefront of volunteering support to citizens, allowing them to focus other services on those with different needs.

In their quest to develop its volunteering service, Stuart Miller, customer director at Newcastle Building Society, says the social and economic uncertainty that 2020 has brought allowed them to try something new. He said: “Our region has become even more passionate about supporting local communities and this has led to some new and innovative ways to help one another. In partnership with NICA and onHand, we have brought an innovation in volunteering to Newcastle, making it the first city outside London to experience the onHand volunteering app.”

Answering the community’s call

NICA is trialling the app with its VOICE research network, with the volunteers coming from Newcastle Building Society’s team of volunteers.

West Denton NBS’ branch manager Samantha Martlew completed one of the first assignments of the North East trial, by helping with some gardening chores, and she hopes to see the project rolled out nationally.

She said: “With many people feeling increasingly isolated, I’m sure that a sense of companionship and a new connection with someone is just as important as the help received.”

Also jumping into action was Iain MacLeod from Newcastle Building Society’s head office, who made an emotional connection with one member of the community. He said: “A simple conversation can have a huge impact. One of the people I spoke to said he had tears in his eyes when we were chatting because it meant so much to him, and to be honest it meant just as much to me.”

Getting the first people’s feedback

Interestingly, it was difficult at first to get people to ask for help – with people citing not wanting to disturb someone if not really necessary, or being used to getting something without giving anything in return. But then, some enthusiastic feedback from participants let us think we were and are on the right track.

One of the first people to receive help through the pilot is Julie, who lives in Newcastle and asked for help with her garden, which had got out of hand during the national lockdown.

Julie said: “The volunteers have been fantastic and lots got done. I sat outside whilst they were here, it was lovely to have some company and chat. I’ve been completely isolated for most of the last few months, so it really cheered my spirits.”

Backed up, between others, by Jane a VOICE Member Pilot Tester “I do hope this much needed service continues after the trial. Thanks for making this opportunity available”.

Next step

Together with the Newcastle Building Society and onHand we are now extending the network of partnership to guarantee the full sustainability of the service in the region as well as involving city councils besides Newcastle in order to expand the service in rural areas, which remains a challenging but crucial geography where we intend to test and develop the service. In parallel we are securing the service to be permanently available in Newcastle.

This project represents a paradigm of our way of proposing innovation through intelligence: combining the factors on the territory that can offer what people want and really need through innovative data-driven tools, involving the whole community and suggesting measurable sustainability models, not only from the public sector.

Read the press release