Thought leadership: Sarah Vaccari on overcoming challenges to communicate during the pandemic

In the final instalment of Fortitude’s insights on how organisations have adapted communications during COVID-19 we spoke to Sarah Vaccari, Head of Communications for Oxford Hospitals Charity.

The charity has been at the front-line of the pandemic, as it supports the work of Oxfordshire’s hospitals. Sarah discusses how the charity has overcome the challenges of COVID-19 to continue to communicate effectively, the importance of engagement, digital communications and caring for people. 

Creativity to overcome challenges 

Traditionally Sarah would be found on the wards of the John Radcliffe, Churchill, Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, Horton General and Oxford Children’s Hospital chatting to colleagues and patients about the work of the charity and sourcing positive news and stories to share.

But since the pandemic struck Sarah has had to adapt and find new ways to gather information and communicate, both internally and externally. Creativity and problem solving have been key to success.

Photography and story telling’ is really important to us, and we love capturing the right image to help us illustrate the impact of donations or highlight our latest event or appeal,” said Sarah. 

COVID-19 makes everything more complex. With visiting restricted, it is right and proper that we can no longer go into clinical areas, so we have had to be much more creative – taking pictures outside or getting hospital staff to take a snap on our behalf. But I think people are much more used to this now.” 

The Oxford Hospitals Charity has also had to adapt its external communications to fundraisers and supporters, to ensure any help is delivered safely. Digital solutions have played a major role in successfully pivoting. 

Sarah said: The other challenge has been encouraging support and donations, whilst trying to discourage people to just turn up at the hospitals with their offerings. It is a complex message to get across, but vital. 

This Christmas we tried to get in touch with as many of our regular supporters as possible to explain that they would not be able to turn up with bags of Christmas gifts for the children’s hospital and wards, as they normally do. Instead, we launched an online Give a Gift appeal – so that there was still a way people could share a bit of Christmas goodwill with patients in hospital. It went really well and allowed ward staff to buy exactly the right gifts for the young patients in over Christmas. 

The idea has proven so popular we have extended it to support older patients too by gifting them a boredom busting pack with activities to keep them occupied in hospital. As the stresses on our hospitals has increased again, we have decided to keep this going and are continuing to provide these packs to patients who may feel lonely or cut off because so little visiting is possible.”

Regular communications

Communications has become more important to the charity than in previous years and with many colleagues working remotely maintaining new ways to communicate has been vital. 

As a natural chatter, face to face communication is something myself and my colleague Joe Baker love,” said Sarah. So, having to do so much by Zoom, and losing those impromptu corridor catch ups’ that can solve so much, has been frustrating at times. 

Focusing on getting the internal — as well as external – communication right has been key. The charity team is now spread across the four corners of Oxfordshire, so it is important not to assume everyone knows what is going on. 

I’ve also worked more closely than ever with our hospital Trust communications team. During the first lockdown in the Spring, I met them via Microsoft Teams every day – and now we are still meeting three times a week. This has helped me hugely as I have a good sense of what is happening at each of the hospitals – and where the hospital charity can best focus its efforts. 

The Trust Comms team has worked incredibly hard, day in day out doing an enormously difficult job, so I’ve learned a lot working alongside them – and hopefully they also have a better understanding of the work the charity does in our hospitals.”

Digital storytelling

With such a rapid pace of change during the pandemic and people adapting to new working practices organisations will undoubtedly take new methods forward. For Sarah, an increase in the use of digital communications tools in an area she believes will remain at the charity.

So much of our work is now digital and I don’t think that will change,” she said.

As a charity it is brilliant to have dramatically increased the number of donations we get through our website, as they are so much quicker to process than cheques. Social media is also more important than ever, but the times people are engaging have shifted over the months. We also know that people like a story more than ever, so we regularly break the rules about keeping things short and our longer posts normally perform best.

Some of our charity team really love working from home, so I doubt we will go back to the old ways completely. But personally, I miss the daily interactions of the office and hospitals.”


The communications team at the charity is passionate about its cause and work to ensure it is communicated in their news and people stories, to help drive donations and support. The need for support, emotionally and financially, has never been greater and it has meant communications has become a crucial part of the charity’s work. 

Sarah explained: The little things matter. Our charity provides millions of pounds of support, thanks to the generosity of patients, their families, and the local community – and this allows us to fund high tech medical equipment and infrastructure improvements costing hundreds of thousands. 

But it’s the smaller items of support that resonate. A tray of cakes for a team of exhausted NHS staff; an online concert for an older patient who is feeling lonely; a Christmas gift for a child in hospital. These are easier to understand for most than an £800,000 CT scanner, and are what our local community wants to hear about. 

Our communications team is small, it is me and Joe and we have never worked harder or felt the impact of the charity’s support more keenly. 

We have done countless interviews from our homes (many of mine from a mobile home, as we were in the middle of building a house) and despite the odd technical issue I think the passion we have for our cause always comes across. We both absolutely love our hospitals and the staff and patients there and it has been a privilege to play our part during this extraordinary time.”

Sarah Vaccari is Head of Communications for Oxford Hospitals Charity. The charity raises funds to make a difference across the John Radcliffe, Churchill, Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, Horton General and Oxford Children’s Hospital. www​.hos​pi​talchar​i​ty​.co​.uk

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