Loneliness can have profoundly detrimental effects on people’s lives—affecting both their physical and mental health. In 2018, the UK Government and The National Lottery Community Fund set up the Building Connections Fund (BCF) in response to recommendations from the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. The BCF was a £11.5m investment to tackle loneliness and promote social connection across England.
NPC was delighted to be appointed as the lead evaluation and learning partner for the BCF. Our role was to capture the impact of the fund on reducing and preventing loneliness and build the measurement and learning capabilities of the fund’s 126 grant-holders. Findings from the evaluation were published in two research reports, and in September 2021 we hosted an event to celebrate the achievements of the BCF and to share insights from the evaluation.
The group of 126 grant-holders was diverse, including voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations delivering a range of activities and working with people across a range of backgrounds and ages. Before Covid-19, our work focused on understanding who the grant-holders were reaching and the difference this work was making to people taking part in the activities, such as face to face befriending and arts and leisure activities. Of course, the pandemic significantly disrupted our evaluation and the delivery of services by the fund’s grant-holders. So, in April 2020, we adopted a developmental evaluation approach, working with the grant-holders to help them collect data to inform decisions in a rapidly shifting context.
Loneliness intersects with other social issues
At the recent event, we heard from the funders and representatives from three of the fund’s grant-holders: Women’s Activity Centre, Health for All and Bonny Downs Community Association. Funders and grant-holders alike highlighted the intrinsic links between loneliness and other issues, such as poverty, bereavement, poor physical and mental health, domestic abuse and substance use. Many of the fund’s grant-holders were already supporting people through these challenges prior to March 2020.
However, the pandemic exacerbated many of these challenges and heightened the importance of social connection. For example, Health for All, which supports young people with experience of care, found that many of the young people it worked with experienced homelessness, increased food poverty and domestic abuse, as well as increased loneliness and isolation, during the pandemic. The trusted relationships that grant-holders had with people and communities were crucial to ensuring they were able to identify and support those most at risk during this time.
Adapting to people’s changing needs
The introduction of lockdown measures in March 2020, and the need for many of the people supported by the fund to shield during the pandemic, affected the activity of the fund’s grant-holders. All 126 projects supported by the BCF had to adapt—delivering projects remotely, whilst continuing to meet the needs of their communities. Many of the groups that grant-holders worked with—such as refugees, older people and low-income households—were digitally excluded, which meant grant-holders had to find different ways of reaching those who could not access online activities.
Grant-holders were flexible and agile in developing new solutions, and the process of adapting was often time-consuming and challenging for staff and volunteers. But creativity was key to helping organisations adapt, with many grant-holders drawing on their local knowledge and the skills and time of their local community. For example, the Women’s Activity Centre provided people with emotional and practical support—delivering medication, distributing digital devices and upskilling people to use them, as well as supporting those who were shielding to keep fit at home.
Community relationships were key
Most of the fund’s grant-holders were smaller organisations, deeply embedded into their communities prior to Covid-19. When the pandemic hit, their ability to offer practical support to people they had been working with was invaluable, with many delivering groceries and prescriptions to those who were unable to access them.
Grant-holders’ experiences of supporting people affected by loneliness also meant they were well-placed to meet the needs and mitigate the challenges experienced by people as a result of the pandemic. Indeed, organisations such as Bonny Downs Community Association received referrals from the NHS, statutory and voluntary sector partners, and local community groups.
Looking to the future
The pandemic has shown that in many cases we have the community infrastructure to reach and support people experiencing loneliness and other intersecting social issues. Appropriate support for these organisations will be vital to helping meet the challenges exacerbated by Covid-19. With this in mind, it was great to hear at this event that The National Lottery Community Fund will be focusing on place-based funding to tackle loneliness going forward. In the words of the representative from Bonny Downs Community Association—we ‘hope that as a community we will look after each other, identify what community assets we have and try to provide support for each other’.
Emilie Smeaton of The National Lottery Community Fund has also written a great blog summarising their reflections from the event.