Let me introduce Carolyn and Angela. They run weekly drop-in sessions in their community centre in Billborough, Nottingham. It’s a place where local people, many of whom are older people or people with disabilities, can drop in for a cup of tea and a chat. Their motivation to run the project was to meet a need in their community: a place where many people were lonely and living in isolation. This is just one of thousands of community groups up and down the country which are running activities that are completely tailored to the needs of people in their community.
These community groups move in to fill the gaps which others would struggle to reach – this activity is not really something that a formal public service could, or even should, provide. Community groups use first-hand experiences, local knowledge and connections available at their fingertips to run these activities.
Here at the Community Development Foundation (CDF), our latest research ‘Tailor-made: how community groups improve people’s lives’ shows how these small groups are making a vital contribution to both our society and the economy. Yet sometimes this contribution can be overlooked, with these groups often viewed as ‘nice-to-have’ and public debate focusing on the delivery of core public services.
‘Tailor-made’ focuses on small community groups, many of which are running on an income of less than £2,000 a year. The activities of these groups complement statutory services because community groups have the flexibility to meet the specific needs of local people. We all know that people don’t segment their issues or needs into categories like ‘housing’, ‘employment’ or ‘health’ – these are all related. This is where community groups are well positioned to support the whole person and co-ordinate care across different providers.
Let’s go back to Carolyn and Angela, their project called SupportNet is tackling social isolation, an issue that has been linked to poorer physical and mental health in older people. A study of a group of people over 52 found that being isolated from family and friends was linked with a 26% higher death risk over seven years.
The preventative services that community groups like theirs provide tackle deep-rooted social issues. That’s why I believe all service providers should consult and engage with the community groups in their area – they know the issues that need to be addressed. And they should always be a key partner in designing and delivering better services.
It’s crucial in all this, however, that there is an acknowledgement that community activity doesn’t happen on its own. Our research shows that small grants are a catalyst for this social action, encouraging people to take the first steps to become active in their communities.
Again, going back to SupportNet: they received their biggest ever grant worth £2,500 in 2013 to run a gardening project through the Community First fund that we administer here at CDF. But far from being a one-way transaction, the grant was ‘match-funded’ – a requirement of the programme – with people in the community giving plants, seeds, garden furniture, tools and importantly, their time. This is incredible value for money for the impact that this small community group is having – it is making people happier and reducing loneliness, which in turn reduces burdens on local statutory services. It is empowering people to make a difference to their communities and, most importantly, it is improving people’s lives, which is of course the core motivation of all public services.
 Campaign to End Loneliness (2014) Loneliness Research. [online] Available at: <http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/loneliness-research/>