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Barnardos are helping to protect vulnerable children and young people across the UK. In November 2019, they started looking at delivering the technology side of a pilot project to allow workers and young people to communicate via WhatsApp. This would be done on a one to one basis across three services in one region.

The Children’s Services Manager and workers had been frustrated that the young people they were working with wanted to communicate using platforms they knew and felt comfortable using, but felt inhibited from doing so by Barnardo’s social media usage policies.

This pilot gave Barnardo’s a chance to adapt their services, not only to improve client experience but to also enhance their service delivery. They did this through a blended approach of digital support along with the existing face to face work, as well as updating Barnardo's social media usage policy and guidance for service workers.

Recipe status

This recipe has been in use since August 2019.

We are not sharing this recipe as the perfect solution to a problem, but we believe Barnardo's’s learnings could be very useful to other organisations.

Users and needs served

  • As a young person getting support from Barnardo’s, I want to talk to them in a way that I am comfortable with and in a medium I recognise and use.
  • As a young person looking for support from Barnardo’s, I want to know a bit about the service and also the adults who’ll be my service worker.
  • As a young person, I want to make my own decision whether or not I want to get involved with the service.
  • As a Barnardo’s staff member, I want to know how I can communicate with vulnerable young people in a way that meets them where they are and that my organisation agrees is safe.

Software and tools used


WhatsApp is an application used for simple, secure and reliable messaging and calling via the internet. Barnardo’s have piloted WhatsApp in their existing services, to be used for 1-1 support for young people. They have developed guidance documentation for using Whatsapp safely when working with vulnerable children and young people.


Barnardo’s use the standard version of WhatsApp, which is free to download and use.

Alternatively Whatsapp also has a business account which has extra features focused on business needs.


It is the most widely used messaging platform, so it has low barriers to entry.

It has a level of security as conversations have end-to-end encryption.

It allows organisations to communicate on a platform that young people are familiar with and mostly already use.

Recipe steps

1. Deciding if you should introduce a new tool

If you’re considering introducing a new tool into your service, you should think about what need it will be serving. Barnardo’s had an issue with clients dropping out of 1-1 appointments. They needed the ability to better manage last minute changes of circumstance, with a more efficient method of communication than email or phone call.

Barnardo’s wanted to test the assumption that Whatsapp offered greater ability to engage and respond to young people’s needs, than the current service delivery. They wanted to know if it could offer a better route to building relationships and trust with their clients.

They also considered how it could accommodate and support the digital delivery of a previously paper based service. Barnardo’s considered it would provide better data, higher response rates and be more flexible.

2. Deciding on which tool to integrate into a service

As an organisation you need to be tied to the functionality of the software rather than the brand. Meaning, try to investigate which software fulfills the needs of the users and enhances the service delivery. Ensure it’s appropriate for your beneficiaries and your members of staff.

Barnardo’s conducted research to inform which tool or what change in service delivery they would need. They spoke to lots of young people to see what their preferred method for communication was. They got requests for different social media platforms, but ultimately decided on Whatsapp for a few reasons:

  • It provides greater visibility of a client's situation by being able to see ‘send’ receipts, and share useful links & media
  • It’s an encrypted digital space, which would best facilitate the 1-1 engagement needed as part of the service. Which helps create a trusted safe space between the young person and the care worker.
  • It’s a low cost, no code solution
  • It’s a safe and trusted channel of communication over a closed network.
  • The barriers to use and training required are substantially lower than for proprietary systems.

This reduces the administrative burden on Barnardo's workers and frees up their time to work with more clients. Barnardo’s chose a tool which was easily accessible to their clients as well as staff, and which enhanced their existing service delivery capabilities.

3. Plan a pilot, start small and test

Running a pilot is a great way to test an idea on a small scale. It helps to flesh out issues and understand the best way to do something. If you decide to run a pilot, know why you want to test it and plan out the vision for the pilot. For example, Barnardo’s Whatsapp pilot focused on working with 10 Barnardo’s users in the region.

The services piloting WhatsApp included missing interviews, child exploitation and advocacy services. The clients in these services are very vulnerable young people, who in some cases have lost trust in the system and the adults appointed to help them. Therefore, Barnardo’s had to consider carefully what they wanted to learn from piloting WhatsApp as a new tool. The vision for the pilot was to:

  • Prove the concept for the business
  • Understand the value of a digital welcome pack
  • Evaluate the efficacy and quality of communication between young people and service workers
  • Understand barriers and difficulties for both young people and service workers

4. Integrating the tool into the existing service

Use of a platform like WhatsApp is not a self contained service silver bullet - it needs to fit into your existing services. For example, if you still need to get consent from clients in your service, you need to factor how you’re going to do this with Whatsapp too. Draw out your service flow and note where users need to do things, then work out how you’re going to achieve this with new and existing service tools. Barnardo’s found this helped them support staff by creating or providing the right training materials and processes.

Try working with existing processes. Barnardo’s has a full range of established processes for what action to take if disclosures are made by young people, or if safeguarding issues are suspected. They agreed that these processes would cover the pilot. Safeguarding issues would be managed through those processes, rather than putting new ones in place.

Only give guidance to staff where they need it. In these Barnardo’s services, following the welcome pack and digital service agreement, it’s down to the worker and young person to work out how they want to communicate. Try to work out where staff will need structure, for example, to meet data protection requirements, and where they need flexibility to do their job. However the worker is given a guidance document on how to use WhatsApp safely with young people.

A tool or channel shouldn’t replace a service. Barnardo's do not view WhatsApp as a replacement for face to face, phone calls and other communication methods. Instead they want it to be an option for young people, if that’s how they want to communicate with their worker. Barnardo’s are not mandating that users use WhatsApp, or limiting access to services if they do not use WhatsApp. It is additive to the existing service provision. In these services, Barnardo's are only using WhatsApp as a 1:1 communication tool, not as a one to many tool or for group chats.

5. Making the service / tool accessible

As part of this pilot, Barnardo's wanted to simplify and clarify the way a young person starts using their services. They knew that there were barriers for young people entering their services. Along with introducing Whatsapp to help remove these barriers, they addressed other issues they knew their clients faced. Barnardo's mainly wanted the young person to feel that they had ‘power’ in the relationship. People who will be involved in their care were introduced to them, they know they can withdraw consent at any point, can have a say in how they feel the service was working for them.

They removed barriers by:

  • Rewriting data policies in plain english
  • Explaining what consent actually is in five bullet points
  • Creating a digital welcome pack; a web page with a photo and biography introducing the worker, explaining the service and what consent is.

They also needed to ensure clients explicitly consented to contact via WhatsApp, so they created a Digital Service Agreement which:

  • Lays out what happens before, during and after services in clear english.
  • Explaining the agreement for behaviour from both parties while working together.
  • At the end of this Barnardo's asks for agreement which triggers the workers ability to start contacting the client over WhatsApp.

6. Prototype and test things based on your assumptions

Barnardo's didn’t create their processes for using a new tool overnight. They tested their thinking for the best way into the service, with a no code approach. Building prototypes like this is a good way to get early feedback and adapt your processes.

To test their thinking, Barnardo's set up a Google Form to test the digital service agreement, with entries stored in a restricted access Google Sheet on Barnardo’s GSuite. When an entry was added to the sheet, they set up a Zapier integration to trigger an email to the service admin officer who would then let workers know that the young person had agreed and that WhatsApp communication could begin.

Barnardo's prototyped their Welcome pack using a webpage. It was simply built as a web template, using Barnardo’s design system, as ten independent static web pages. The development team felt that this was manageable for such a limited scale pilot. They hosted the webpages on Netlify as a cheap, quick host.


Make sure your whole organisation is on board, from Chief Executives down. This encourages everyone to adopt the use of a new tool. Try to get Senior leadership team members to be the champions for this.

Put the users at the heart of what you’re doing. Staff and service users. Talk to them, test quickly with them, check assumptions with them. Don’t be afraid to take a step in the right direction because the benefits of trying something new may outweigh the risks.

If it’s going to be a temporary measure, make sure you’re clear on that with staff and clients.

Look at your problem and find the simplest solution - If you can deliver services on the phone do that, if email and social media are the way your users engage then do that, if you have an active facebook group then invest more time and resource in that. There are many ways to engage with service users and instant messaging is not the only route, just one that many people jump to.

Set clear boundaries for working days and hours and who clients can contact if their worker is not around. Manage expectations to ensure that clients know when they can expect a response. The tech is always on, but your workers won’t necessarily be. Consider how you will manage out of hours issues. Local services tend to link to information on mental health services.

Make sure you get consent from users on contacting via new channels, and ensure that you are not creating headaches for later. For example, avoid having conversations with young people on staff’s personal devices as they become too difficult to track.

Introducing new tools which people are familiar with has benefits, such as no learning curve for new tech, but it can be tricky if it’s usually used in a personal setting. Barnardo's acknowledged there are differences between using WhatsApp to chat to a family group and to communicate with a young person using Barnardo’s services.

Barnardo's suggest that their workers will check with young people that they have a passcode on their phone, and that they do not share it. For workers, they delete the chat on a weekly basis when they update the case notes for the young person in the secure Barnardo’s case management system. That way if a workers device is lost or compromised, a maximum of one weeks chat logs are at risk.

On the device level, Barnardo’s trained staff on how to configure settings to ensure privacy as much as possible - i.e. turning off lock screen notifications with text. More can be found in these onboarding guides.

WhatsApp works by accessing your contacts, and data is taken from your device to be matched to WhatsApps other users so you can see who is using it. You cannot use the service without giving permission for WhatsApp to access your contacts. Barnado’s discussed this at length with their Data Protection and Safeguarding leads and were satisfied that, for this pilot, they were comfortable to move ahead. They also carried out a Data protection assessment with expert guidance, to ensure that as much as possible, They had considered positive and negative unforeseen outcomes. To read more about it see this document on Barnardo’s guidance for Whatsapp communications.


Look for points in your processes where data could ‘leak’ - the most obvious of these is staff using personal devices, with unregulated copies of data ending up in circulation. This is a massive issue to consider, so please consider carefully! Other issues might not be as obvious as this. The best way to find out is to speak to the people delivering your services as what you think you know probably isn’t 100%.

WhatsApp’s end to end encryption means that the only readable versions of the conversation are on the worker and the young person's devices. There is a risk of a person gaining control of a device. Barnardo's introduced a safe word (covered in the welcome pack) which can be used by either party if suspicions are aroused. Failure to answer the safe word correctly would result in bland conversation and further checks on the safety of the young person. This could be applied to a text, voice or video conversation (although in theory much easier for voice or video call)

Barnardo's ruled out the use of WhatsApp in one potential service as they could not 100% guarantee that volunteers would have or religiously use a Barnardo’s device for their interactions with young people. A ‘red line’ we set was that workers on the pilot must have Barnardo’s issued phones, with mobile device management and security installed.

The terms of use for WhatsApp which were introduced following the GDPR introduction state that users should be a minimum of 16 years old in order to use the platform. However this is not enforced by WhatsApp in any meaningful way. As an organisation you have to decide what your mandate is going to be around under 16’s using it. A lot of Barnardo's groups are under 16 so they decided to conduct a risk assessment to measure the risk against the benefits. They decided to use the platform and agreed that anyone who is under 16 has to be individually assessed before they begin using it.

Covid-19 has changed the face of charity service delivery forever. There will always need to be a scalable, secure and safe route for service users to reach staff from this point on so a word of caution. Look beyond the immediate if you can and consider life time cost, future plans and budgets.

Whatsapp is not a solution for everything. For example, Barnardo's work with vulnerable young people who’ve been exploited. In these services they are discouraged from using smart phones, therefore WhatsApp wouldn’t be a useful or suitable tool. Barnardo's were very aware that visible contact info makes WhatsApp a non starter for (many) vulnerable groups.

Using WhatsApp is not risk free and may not be appropriate for your organisation. Barnardo's faced some resistance to the new tools. For example, mobile security on phones won’t let you copy and paste a link from email to WhatsApp. Remember that’s the purpose of a pilot, to flush out these issues through operation in a real world context, before scaling up.

For Barnardo's, some external factors have slowed adoption of Whatsapp; Digital exclusion remains an issue - having a phone which supports WhatsApp, having a data connection at home and being literate using smartphones all remain issues.

There are grey areas on data and GDPR which require a level of acceptance of risk. On GDPR the picture continues to change, and your organisation won’t have any control over that.

Points of contact

For further information about this recipe, you can contact:

Tom Norman
Head of Service Design

Peter Jacobs
Product Manager


Many thanks to Barnardo's for contributing this recipe.


This recipe is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.

That means you are free to copy, redistribute, and build on the text of this recipe, but only for non-commercial purposes (if you want to use it for commercial purposes, get in touch with us at [email protected]). You must give credit to both Catalyst and Barnardo's and link back to this page. If you build on this recipe then you must share your version under this same licence.

Recipe published on June 25th, 2020. Last updated August 4th, 2021