With the cost of living crisis worsening, it is vital that those facing hardship can access financial help quickly.
A new one-stop online platform that allows people in need to receive grants and other support from charities and local authorities claims it is massively speeding up the process – in some cases cutting the time it can take from several weeks or even months to only a few days.
Founded in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, Lightning Reach has been running in beta mode since December and says that so far it has helped people get grants totalling more than £1m.
With MPs this week warning that soaring energy bills will push millions of people into “unmanageable” debt, and the cost of housing, food and a number of other essentials shooting up, there will be many people falling into hardship who have never had to seek support before.
However, some of the charitable organisations that give out grants have fairly antiquated systems – for example, many still use paper application forms that have to be returned by post – which can make the process long and laborious.
Instead of requiring people to fill out paper forms and send them off along with ID, Lightning Reach’s grants portal, developed with partners including the Royal British Legion and London’s Lambeth council, allows those in financial distress to do it all online, including ID verification.
It aims to match people to personalised support they may be eligible for based on their circumstances, and also allows them to use the information provided across multiple applications to different organisations.
The platform says that individuals are in some cases able to receive hardship grant money within five days of applying.
“It’s free, easy to use, accessible on a mobile phone and takes 10-15 minutes to complete a profile and see what support is available,” a spokesperson said.
The way the platform works cuts out the need to fill out lots of different forms and saves charities time and money, he added.
Becky Ireland, the deputy head of welfare at Racing Welfare, a charity that gives support to people working in the racing industry, and which is one of the partners, says it is crucial to get support to people in financial distress as quickly as possible. “But the application process can be slow as people have to download forms, fill them out and then we need to verify their ID. That means in some cases people can find it takes two or even three months for them to receive grants.”
She says the charity has been using Lightning Reach for several weeks, “and it’s been revolutionary”.
Other partners include the Smallwood Trust, which has been helping women on low incomes since 1886, and Teaching Staff Trust.
Lightning Reach said “a lot” of other charities are on the verge of joining, and that it is in talks with the big energy companies about them promoting the platform to customers in financial distress before the energy price cap goes up again in October.
The chief executive, Ren Yi Hooi, who formerly worked in fintech in south-east Asia, said that when the pandemic struck, she saw the need to help people suffering sudden and unexpected financial hardship. “My neighbours who worked in the hospitality sector, for example, were suddenly unable to work, leaving them stressed and uncertain how they would pay their bills.”
The platform has received funding from organisations including Innovate UK, the national innovation agency, and Nesta, the UK innovation foundation for social good.