What we learned from the Building Connections Fund programme
The Building Connections Fund (BCF) was a three year partnership between Government, The Co-op Foundation and The National Lottery Community Fund (The Fund), set up in response to the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The BCF supported voluntary or community projects to prevent or reduce loneliness and promote social connections across England. The BCF awarded grants to 126 voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations working with different groups across England.
The BCF national evaluation contributed to the evidence base on loneliness, with the aim of supporting longer-term policy and funding decisions.
To celebrate the achievements of the BCF programme, a final event was hosted by New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) on Tuesday 21st September 2021. This event was supported by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), The Co-op Foundation and The Fund. Emilie Smeaton from the Fund’s Evaluation and Customer Insight Team reflects upon both experiences shared by BCF grant holders at the event and key evaluation findings.
Loneliness has roots in personal identity, an individual’s sense of belonging, and whether a person feels that their social network is ‘normal’ for their stage of life.
Chronic loneliness is defined as feeling often or always lonely. This affects around six per cent of people in England and can cause significant ill health. Research indicates chronic loneliness has increased during Covid-19, being particularly prevalent amongst young people, those who are unemployed and those living alone.
Impact of Covid-19 upon service delivery
Building Connections Fund grant holders described how the impact of the pandemic meant that they were unable to deliver their planned services. They adjusted delivery to provide responsive activities, deliver remotely and, where possible, adapt face-to-face delivery.
Another effect of the pandemic was loneliness increased for a ‘newly lonely’ group who had not previously required support from BCF services. Debt and unemployment further impacted upon peoples’ mental health. Needs intensified relating to poverty, substance misuse, domestic abuse and bereavement support.
Impact of Covid-19 upon beneficiaries
The pandemic brought both positive and negative changes in loneliness. Benefits included being able to spend more time with families or take up new activities. Some older people who previously felt isolated felt better supported due to community outreach. Other beneficiaries felt lonelier and more isolated due to social distancing. Some who previously overcame loneliness felt progress was lost, having a detrimental effect upon new-found confidence.
Loneliness, inequalities and barriers to participation
At the BCF event, a representative from ‘Active and Connected Project’, delivered by the Bonny Downs Community Association, highlighted how inequalities are linked to isolation. This includes the low rate of life expectancy in their local area.
They also described financial barriers that prevent individuals from participating in service activities. Social activities often come with a hidden cost, even when the activities themselves are free of charge.
Loneliness, young people and care leavers
It is often assumed that loneliness disproportionately impacts older people. However, it has come to light that young people (aged 16 to 24 years old) are more likely to report feeling lonely than other age group. Recent research has revealed that 12 to 15 year olds are most commonly at highest risk of loneliness.
A representative from Health for All shone a light on the experiences of care leavers. Having grown up in care, care leavers can find it difficult to manage and connect with others, sometimes, experiencing loneliness as an adult. To address this, Health for All provide: a weekly social group providing befriending, art and craft and music; workshops for young people leaving care focusing upon practical advice including job search and interview skills; and a care cafe providing a safe space to socialise and have fun.
Supporting women experiencing social isolation
A representative from the ‘Talking Works’ project, delivered by the Women’s Activity Centre, described how their service provides support to mainly South Asian women aged 50 and above who experience chronic loneliness. Covid-19 restrictions meant that face-to-face support had to cease but women were provided with frequent digital and telephone support and encouraged to remain physically active. The service also facilitated translation of government guidance in the languages spoken by beneficiaries.
Despite the challenges in addressing the complexities of isolation, and adapting service delivery to Covid-19 restrictions, BCF beneficiaries reported improvements related to loneliness, confidence, resilience and well-being. The evaluation found engaging with a BCF service has been largely successful in reducing or preventing loneliness.
A common theme highlighted throughout the event was how loneliness cuts across the life course. For example, children of isolated parents also experience loneliness that may impair academic progress. Loneliness is intrinsically linked to many issues and experiences including domestic violence, substance misuse, poverty and bereavement. It is therefore important that funders, policy makers and service delivery organisations consider how strategies to address loneliness are incorporated into a range of support service provision.