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Ruth Hollis, CEO of Spirit of 2012 gives evidence as part of the APPG on loneliness online event

Ruth Hollis, CEO of Spirit of 2012, gave evidence at an online event for the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Loneliness.

Ruth spoke about the approach that Spirit grantees take in tackling loneliness, the need for significant government investment in social infrastructure, and the importance of high-quality monitoring and evaluation within projects.

Ruth reflected on the experience of Debbie, a participant in a walking project that Spirit of 2012 funded for the Scottish Government, as part of their Legacy 2014 programme.

Debbie had experienced poor mental health since childhood and has spent time in and out of hospital. Both her confidence and motivation to be active were low.  She was referred to the project by her community mental health support worker, and began attending regular walking sessions, subsequently becoming a volunteer on the project.

In 2017, Debbie won a National Volunteer Award for her contribution. And in the two years after she joined the project, she has not been re-admitted to hospital for mental health reasons.

My confidence and self-esteem have improved and I feel able to go out more, meet up with friends and do more in everyday life.   I felt very isolated before I joined the project.   My closest friend has seen me at my lowest point and is amazed and extremely proud of the progress I have made.

Debbie - Spirit of 2012 project participant

What can we learn from Debbie’s story?​

In terms of tackling loneliness, it’s the approach that an organisation takes to its delivery, not necessarily the activity itself that can have the biggest impact. 

  • For Debbie, the deciding factor between attending and giving up was that when she didn’t attend a session, the project workers rang her to say she’d been missed, and asked what support she needed to help her come back. She said it was the first time she’d felt valued as part of a group.
  • The key to developing a successful approach is to focus on building those deeper social connections. To really tackle loneliness, bringing people together in the same place is not enough.
  • Simple things such as making time for socialising, time for staff to contact participants after sessions, and a budget for tea and cake make a difference. Time and resources for these need to be both valued by funders and factored into budgets.
  • Setting up signifiers around approach that demonstrate how an activity is set up for success in tackling loneliness, that go beyond the quality of the activity. For example, embedding a ten minute tea-and-chat into a music session.

To tackle loneliness, we need significant government investment in social infrastructure.

  • Social infrastructure is deeply vulnerable to the impact of Covid-19. Debbie’s project was run by a leisure trust – a non-profit sector that has been significantly impacted by the crisis. Link workers cannot refer people to activity that does not exist.
  • Social prescribing is increasingly crucial in reaching some of the most isolated people in society. We have seen fantastic examples of close relationships between health and arts and leisure, but we’ve also seen how challenging it can be for delivery organisations to access funds and build relationships. 
  • Investment is urgently needed for locally-led, community initiatives with a focus on the universal principles that boost wellbeing and tackle loneliness, backed up by robust evidence. Investment in building relationships between link workers and community organisations is key, so they can find the people that need it the most.

We need a proportionate approach to monitoring and evaluation - underpinned by high quality, comparable metrics whilst understanding how challenging evaluation can be during Covid-19.

  • Projects need to be set up from the start to capture learning in a systematic way that enables it to be used during delivery, not just at the end to show the funder what happened. The most successful projects use data throughout the project to understand whether they are reaching the right people and make changes if they’re not.
  • Simple measures such as the ONS loneliness and wellbeing questions can be helpful to understand where people start from, and how this changes during a project.
  • But we also know that many arts, sports and community organisations find evaluation difficult, particularly when they are working with groups with additional needs. In Debbies’ project, we provided additional funding to: allow grant holders to learn from what they were doing; pay for an evaluator and build their evaluation capacity; and connect with similar projects to share learning. Organisations can’t be expected to meet complex evaluation requirements unless you provide the funding for it.
  • Poorly thought out monitoring requirements can cause more harm than good. Focusing on the head count can encourage organisations to focus on those who are easiest to engage, rather than those who might stand to benefit the most.
  • Capturing and sharing stories like that of Debbie can be a powerful way to show us how to design and fund projects that meet the needs of people that most need our support. 

After the online event, Ruth answered a series of questions about tackling loneliness, measuring impact and creating meaningful social connections. Access the Q&A below.