Can music-making improve wellbeing? Can youth social action? A reading group? Climbing, archery or walking netball?
For advocates of these activities, the answer is a definitive ‘yes’ – and many organisations have taken considerable time and effort to analyse and prove the benefits of their specific discipline or craft.
It is perhaps inevitable that most research deals with making the case for each of these activities in isolation. Those making the arguments are often speaking from a deep sense of connection to an activity that has brought them profound personal happiness – so much so that they have gone on to work or study that topic.
Arts, sports and volunteering are usually treated as different sectors which may on occasion be able to learn from each other, but often do not cross paths other than to compete for air time, volunteers and/or funding.
At Spirit of 2012 we fund across all these areas, and are absolutely committed to using our investment to increase happiness for individuals and communities. We ask our grant-holders to measure the impact they’re having on subjective wellbeing, and we share what we learn.
Our answer to the question about whether the reading group, archery class or song-writing session can improve wellbeing usually begins “Yes, if…”
And what has become increasingly obvious over our first six years of grant-making is that what follows the “if” is often the same thing, regardless of the activity in question. We often refer to the activity as the ‘mechanism’, but it’s the approach to delivering that activity that helps to make the change.
This is a vital distinction. Many people delivering these sorts of activities feel that the case has been made – that it is obvious that choirs and sports clubs and volunteering will lead to happier people and happier places.
But we know that simply putting on activities (even when they are “high quality”) is not enough – and indeed suggesting that wellbeing gains are almost automatic minimises the work involved.
That’s not to completely disregard the nuances between different activities.
Breaking Boundaries, a Youth Sport Trust project, takes the cultural diversity of cricket’s traditional fan base as a jumping off point to increase social mixing in five cities across England.
Large-scale visual arts projects in Hull during its City of Culture 2017 (re)connected local residents with their local history in a way that would have been difficult to achieve en masse with other mediums.
Our recent funding for music-making projects working with female carers will explore what participatory music making specifically can do to reduce loneliness and isolation within this group.
Indeed, although skilled project staff can help people to discover new interests and passions, people’s personal preferences are really important and so no single activity will work for every individual. Nonetheless these projects have more in common than you might think at first glance.
Our theory of change began by setting some of the principles that define this approach: factors such as taking away obstacles that would stop people from coming, ensuring activities are responsive to local needs and that there are clear pathways to continuing in an activity once a funded project has ended.
Beyond this, there are practical examples – the golden nuggets, if you will – that our grant-holders feed back to us again and again. Our grant-holders think incredibly carefully about the mix of people they have in the sessions, how to create and strengthen a sense of community among those who come along.
For Wicketz, a cricket project for young people run by Lord Taverners in Glasgow (and across the UK) that means inviting parents to take part in parallel activity alongside their children so that they become friends, too.
In the Care 2 B Active project, run by Active Communities Scotland for care-experienced young people, both support workers are care-experienced themselves. Before the sessions, they go directly to the local lanes to persuade young people to come along.
In a walking project run by KA Leisure, the thing that made the difference to one participant was the phone call from a member of staff when she’d not turned up, to say she’d been missed and was welcome back next week.
We’ve also frequently seen projects move beyond traditional volunteer positions, providing more flexible roles for former “participants” who current attendees recognise as just like them.
From Verbal Art Centre’s Reading Rooms, providing a creative outlet to young people with experience of the criminal justice system, to Activity Alliance’s Get Out Get Active, we have seen time and time again the powerful role that mentors can play in supporting participation.
And building in time for tea and cake comes up no matter what the activity. Dr Hannah Zeilig, the evaluator of Creative Arts East’s Our Day Out, commented:
“The social ritual of concluding with tea and cake was an important part of the structure of the sessions and was recalled with appreciation in all of the interviews… The refreshments at the end not only provide an opportunity for socialising and a transitional moment from the activity itself back into the ‘outside’ world, but also signify that participants are being cared for.”
These golden nuggets apply across all of the sectors, and we’re missing out by exploring different types of activity in isolation – or even pitting them against each other – rather than ensuring there is cross-pollination.
At Spirit, we are lucky to be able to bring together grant-holders working in different fields to share their learning. We’re also excited to be part of cross-sector initiatives like the Campaign to End Loneliness and the Cohesion and Integration Network, where our common goals help build connections across silos.
As a funder, we also need to think about what this means for how we award grants. It means encouraging projects to set money aside to address barriers to participation, and being aware that it takes longer to get some people through the door – and supporting them to stay.
It means that when we scrutinise budgets, we know that extra hour of staff time before and after a session, and a decent amount on refreshments, aren’t frivolous nice-to-haves, but instrumental to the project’s success.
Looking across sectors at common approaches in this way allows us to trust grant-holders are making decisions that might at first glance be difficult to justify on a reporting spreadsheet.