In 2018, we were asked to lead the learning and evaluation partnership for the Building Connections Fund, an £11.5 million joint initiative by the government, the National Lottery Community Fund and the Co-Op Foundation to reduce loneliness.
We gathered evidence to improve the evidence base on loneliness, which will be used to inform longer term policy and funding decisions. Our partnership supported grant holders with evaluation through a programme of online guidance, workshops, and tailored assistance.
We conducted a Developmental Evaluation of the grant-holders’ post-Covid 19 response to learn from the current situation and capture emerging findings. This included:
- Supporting grant-holders and the wider sector to learn from the data collected and improve their service provision.
- Working closely with a small group of grant holders in a focused and supportive way to understand what they are doing, how they have adapted and what they have been working on to reduce or prevent loneliness.
While everyone occasionally feels lonely, chronic loneliness—feeling often or always lonely—affects around 6% of England’s population. Loneliness can significantly impact health, and is linked to a greater risk of illnesses such as stroke and depression, as well as poor performance at work or school.
The Building Connections Fund was established in response to the recommendations of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. It aimed to:
- Support people to form strong and meaningful relationships.
- Support organisations tackling loneliness to build on their existing work, and to join up with other local organisations.
- Improve the evidence base on loneliness to inform long-term policy and funding decisions.
126 voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations were given grants in December 2018, with most scheduled to last for two years (although many were extended due to the pandemic). Grant holder organisations ran a variety of activities designed to tackle loneliness, ranging from befriending programmes, to arts and leisure activities, to advice and signposting services.
Our Part 1 report details our findings from data collected before March 2020. We worked with a subset of 23 grant holders who collected data from their service users.
We found that:
- Grant holders seemed to successfully target people who were more likely to be chronically lonely than the national average.
- In terms of loneliness, positive relationships, and confidence, resilience and wellbeing, levels of need were highest for children and young adults aged 10-29. They were generally lowest for adults aged 30-59.
- Female service users had more concerning levels of mental health and wellbeing than male service users, and reported slightly higher levels of chronic loneliness.
- Most service users who completed follow-up surveys reported improvements around loneliness, confidence, resilience and wellbeing as a result of attending activities.
The Covid-19 pandemic had a major impact on the work of the grant holders, with some no longer able to deliver activities as planned. We therefore switched to a developmental evaluation approach to capture and share learning about how the pandemic affected grant holders, to understand how the Building Connections Fund tackled loneliness in this period, and to build the learning capacity of organisations working to tackle loneliness.
Our Part 2 report details our findings from the developmental evaluation, which spanned two national lockdowns. We found that:
- Social distancing made loneliness worse for service users, particularly those from vulnerable groups. Across Britain as a whole, an ONS study from April 2021 suggests that chronic loneliness increased to 7.2% of the population (a 1.2% increase from 6%), and was particularly prevalent among young people, unemployed people and those living alone.
- Following lockdown, many grant holders adapted face-to-face activities to provide remote support. This included practical support (e.g. delivering food), online support (e.g. peer support groups), and offline remote support (e.g. phone support). Some organisations blended online and offline models of delivery. We put together a document of tips for adapting to remote delivery to support grant holders who needed to change their approach to delivery.
- Service users had mixed views about using online versus face-to-face services. Some felt anxious about meeting in person, and liked the accessibility of online methods, whereas others found online activities to be more alienating.
- Grant holders who already delivered services remotely or who had invested in digital skills and infrastructure prior to March 2020 found it easier to adapt.
What have we learned?
Through the pandemic, grant holders learned a lot about how to adapt their delivery models to support people dealing with loneliness. Organisations had to find ways to increase people’s engagement with online activities, and offer a choice of activities to meet different and changing needs. This was challenging for grant holders, who needed to invest in re-planning and delivering more intensive services at a time when capacity was already stretched. Many saw negative impacts on staff wellbeing and finances.
Going forwards, it will be important for organisations and funders focused on tackling loneliness to:
- Target those most severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, including those who have been shielding, facing poverty, or experiencing domestic abuse.
- Tackle digital exclusion, to address the needs of those without the skills, equipment or confidence to access digital services.
- Consider delivery models that blend online and offline services, in order to meet different service users’ needs and preferences.
It will be essential to keep building the capacity and resource of organisations tackling loneliness as they continue to face increased and changing demands on their services. These charities and community groups provide an important space for service users feel connected to others as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to impact our lives.
Learn more about loneliness and developmental evaluation
To help grantees and other charities and funders respond to and learn from the pandemic, we decided to publish some of what we were learning as we went along. This included tips to help you run a remote project, reflections on running a developmental evaluation, and guidance on measuring loneliness. You can read these resources below: