Evaluating The Cares Family model: connection to self, community and something bigger
Posted by The Cares Family on 18th July 2019
Over the past eight years, The Cares Family has been on an extraordinary journey. In 2011 we opened as a tiny local project in north London, seeking to bring people together in a fragmenting world. In those first days and weeks, we had no money, no plan, and no clear sense of exactly how we wanted to reduce isolation in our neighbourhoods. While we had a core purpose, encapsulated in our founding story, we in fact launched spontaneously in reaction to the worst night of rioting that August.
Eight years on, things have changed. Alongside North London Cares, we've added South London Cares, Manchester Cares, Liverpool Cares and soon will add East London Cares to the family. Our teams have grown from zero to 35; our work has featured in The Economist, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times and on BBC and Channel 4 News; and we've influenced the government's first ever loneliness strategy which was launched at a Cares Family event in 2018.
But throughout that whole time, some things have always stayed the same. We believe that reducing isolation and loneliness is a two way street – that people with proud lives well lived rarely want to be 'done to' and that mutual relationships are the best way to help people feel valued and visible. That's why we're careful with our language – rejecting words like 'service', 'client', 'resident' and 'befriending' which can strip people of their agency in favour of 'activities', 'neighbours' and 'friendship' that express the togetherness in our model. And we've always been conscious to meet people where they are: that's why our Outreach proactively identifies people in supermarkets, chemists, doctors' surgeries, faith groups and on doorsteps, and invites people to be part of the community through storytelling.
In particular, knowing that this model is making a difference has always been at the heart of The Cares Family's purpose. So we are constantly listening to feedback and ideas from older and younger people who are at the core of our work; adapting our programmes so that they stay relevant; reacting to a changing local, national and international environment; and holding ourselves accountable – not just to the funders and donors who make our work possible, but in particular to the neighbours and communities we work with.
That's why we're very proud to have published the latest evaluation of The Cares Family's model. The study, carried out by our social research partners at Renaisi over 18 months, doesn't only underscore the clear impact of our approach which has emerged from the grassroots over the past eight years – reducing loneliness amongst older and younger people alike; reducing generational divides; and improving connection and community so that people feel part of something bigger than themselves. Through its innovative approach, it also underlines some of the key principles of why we achieve that impact.
For example, the evaluation attributes the togetherness in our community in part to the centrality, ethos and values of our staff teams. Those values, recently re-codified recently by our teams are: kindness, community, trust, bravery and learning.
"Staff were observed encouraging new people to join groups, actively encouraging people of different backgrounds and generations to mix, and getting to know individuals and who they are as people. Because of this, the environment at social clubs was largely perceived as being one which was open, welcoming, and equal – encouraging groups to mix with one another."
These values build on the heritage of our founding principles which we shared to celebrate Renaisi's own 20th anniversary in 2018 – that communities have agency intrinsically; that people want and need to connect with empathy, no matter their backgrounds; that in a world that prioritises what's efficient over what's important, with technology dominating our lives and our culture, we all need to be seen fully and authentically; that the most meaningful action comes from the bottom up; and that to get the most out of community we need to unlock people's openness to one another and be agile to the complexities and realities of their lives.
Because of those principles, while we are proud of the results of this evaluation, we know we have more to do to help people feel recognised fully, and to continue to improve as an organisation.
We know that a sample of 483 older and younger people does not offer scientifically conclusive evidence that our model specifically, directly and uniquely leads to improved outcomes. How can we be sure of that, when we know people's lives are rich and complex, and have a thousand layered variables which we are not in control of or even aware of, and which may have occurred decades ago? We also know we still have much more to learn about the people we work with – their motivations for being part of the community, how they feel about their lives, what they think about their role and place in their world and so much more. And as we learn more about where our work is most useful, we may need to continue to adapt our objectives and our model, as we always have – particularly as the world changes at breakneck speed.
But while we know that evaluation of community-led work can be notoriously challenging, we also know that we want future evaluation of our model – and in the wider community sector – to zoom in on people's storied lives, rather than zoom out through the types of top-down impact assessment measures that have largely dominated in the past. Those traditional measures have too often sought objectivity through aggregation, and can end up reducing people's lived experiences to cold hard stats that can leave people feeling passengers to their own experience, rather than owning it, empowered by it. We need to make sure that our sector's search for objectivity doesn't end up objectifying the very people we're trying to empower.
This study – focusing as it did on a qualitative approach with open questions, in-depth interviews, observations made over months by an embedded researcher, newly commissioned comparison data sets based on our own objectives rather than extrapolated from national data sets, and impact only claimed where quantitative indicators were supported by richer qualitative understanding – is the next step to better understanding the people in our communities, their journeys and the ways they want to feel connection and community.
As we look to the future, we're excited to work with Renaisi and our other partners to build on what we've learned this time and in previous studies and to help make evaluation of community activity even more relevant - getting closer to people's experiences rather than zooming out. We hope to do that through new storytelling methods, immersive research, oral histories, even looking for ways to measure community value outside of professional organisations – the people picking up a pint of milk for older neighbours or taking a friend's kids to school. That's how, as a sector, we'll understand better both our impact and the fullness of our neighbours' experiences. And it's how we'll ultimately help people feel better connected – to themselves, to community and to something bigger.