The Covid-19 pandemic has been a time of great change and challenge for combatting loneliness. At NPC we’ve been working with grant holders of the Building Connections Fund to understand how they have been adapting, the effect on service users of the changes they’ve made, and what they’ve learnt from a time of unprecedented upheaval.
The Building Connections Fund was an £11.5 million joint initiative by the government, the National Lottery Community Fund and the Co-Op Foundation to reduce loneliness, which was set up in response to the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. All quotes in this blog are from BCF grant holders.
Lockdown has intensified loneliness, with many vulnerable people feeling forgotten. Grant holders have learnt a lot about adapting to support service users and sustain engagement. The six big lessons we’ve learnt are:
1. Support service users to increase their engagement with online activities
For those that are savvy, the technology has been great. If you have family or friends to show you that is great, but not everyone can. This is a big challenge for us.
Grant holders are concerned that some of the most vulnerable people they work with are digitally excluded. Asylum seekers, refugees, older people, carers, people with underlying physical or mental health conditions, and low-income households have all been disproportionately hit by social distancing and risk ‘becoming more excluded than ever before’.
The first job was to help service users build skills, motivation and confidence with online platforms. Grant holders have found it useful to:
- Keep online activities as simple as possible.
- Develop a ‘buddy’ system to encourage peer-to-peer learning.
- Provide phone support and patiently talk people through how online group calls work.
- Reassure people that it is normal to have technical difficulties.
2. Put appropriate safeguarding and privacy measures in place for online activities
There was a lot of feedback about its risks, it’s sort of poor security and things like that so we made the decision not to use free Zoom…we worked through a whole risk assessment process for delivering virtually.
Grant holders flagged a ‘steep learning curve’ for safeguarding and privacy, especially for online activities with young people or vulnerable groups. It’s important to:
- Take time to understand the appropriateness of different platforms for different activities.
- Use passwords and waiting rooms for group calls.
- Use ‘closed’ Facebook groups and monitor all posts through an administrator account before they are shared.
- Email service users ‘confidentiality statements’ for online meetings in advance and reinforce them by reading them out at the start of the session.
- Teach service users about the privacy settings and features of the online platform—such as displaying names, screen sharing and switching on or off video and audio—and ensure service users are aware of the risks of online activities.
- Train staff running group sessions to read body language in a digital setting to understand non-verbal cues, this is critical where limited privacy at home will mean service users are not able to speak freely (such as people at risk of domestic violence).
- Create ‘safe spaces’ for users to engage. Facilitators should establish ground rules for confidentiality, openness, and bringing people into the conversation.
3. Offer choice to meet different service users’ needs
It’s about meeting people where they are familiar, where they are at.
Everyone is different, and not everyone feels the same way about connecting online or returning to face-to-face. It’s important to tailor support to suit different people’s needs. Grant holders found that:
- Service users appreciated a choice of different online platforms. For example, one grant holder said they used ‘Facebook Live, Facebook Chats, Teams and Webex’ so people could engage in the manner that they preferred.
- Some service users still preferred offline activities. Grant holders met this need with phone calls, activity packs and postal communication. One grant holder started a ‘phone café’, bringing together service users who were unable to use online groups, but gave users the opportunity to ‘mix and match as it suits them’.
- Taster sessions were a good way for users to get to know the staff and the format prior to joining to help them adapt.
- Choice doesn’t come cheap. One grant holder told us that while this presented ‘considerably more work for project staff’, ‘our new normal will need to keep a multi-media approach to try to be as inclusive as possible’.
4. Provide regular, consistent, reliable support to service users
I just make sure that [the service is] consistent, so, whatever happens, Friday at 3 o’clock, Sunday at 2 o’clock, something is happening.
Consistency and reliability are central to preventing feelings of abandonment. Grant holders stressed the importance of:
- Regular support, whether scheduled Zoom sessions, postal communication or the delivery of physical boxes to show users that ‘somebody care[d] for [them]’.
- Being clear about what they could and could not do, setting clear boundaries to avoid disappointment, confusion and excessive strain staff.
5. Collaborate with local actors to avoid duplication
Getting involved with your local council’s project for supporting vulnerable people is a great way of reaching out to those who are in need in the area in which your organisation operates.
Grant holders found it tricky to understand what services they could or should provide, and how to avoid duplication with other providers, especially at the beginning of the first lockdown. Grant holders found it helpful to:
- Reach out to local authorities and their existing networks to share information, resources and staff to support rapid decision making and establish effective referral pathways.
- Work with local authorities and statutory services to connect with service users.
- Refer service users to more specialised support where necessary.
6. Respond to changing user needs and different social distancing restrictions
My biggest concern is that now that things are starting to change, when they’re seeing each other more they’re not going to engage in the online activity as much… if you can go and spend the afternoon with your friend as opposed to being on a Zoom call, you’re going to spend the afternoon with your friend.
An ever-changing situation demands continuous adaptation. Grant holders learnt to:
- Continuously adapt their services to maintain engagement as user needs changed.
- Invest time and money into improving engagement, advertising services, individually contacting service users and consulting users to tailor support to their needs.
- Explore how to safely reintroduce face-to-face sessions as restrictions eased, carrying out risk assessments to do so and navigating logistical concerns such as smaller group numbers, accessibility of venues, availability of toilets and weather conditions.
Our full evaluation of how the Covid-19 pandemic affected the work of the Building Connections Fund in the fight against loneliness and how grant holders were tackling loneliness before the pandemic is available here.
For more on how charities and funders are adapting to coronavirus, explore our State of the Sector research. See our free coronavirus resources for practical guidance. To join the debate on what this all means for the future of the social sector, get involved with our Rethink, Rebuild initiative.