Connecting with Government

By match-funding with Government, the Co-op Foundation aimed to build an evidence base and influence policy on tackling loneliness.

Louise Snelders
Head of Funding and Partnerships, Co-op Foundation

Tackling loneliness: a policy paradigm shift

Launched in 2018, the £11.5 million Building Connections Fund (BCF) was part of the Government’s response to the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness’ recommendations for preventing and reducing loneliness. It was a three-way collaboration between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the National Lottery Community Fund and the Co-op Foundation. I currently work and write from the Co-op Foundation’s perspective, although I also worked on the National Lottery Community Fund side until summer 2019.

Although other government departments contributed funding and ideas, DCMS managed the Fund. It led on establishing a collaborative approach to setting funding priorities and processes, held the evaluation contract and convened stakeholders. The National Lottery Community Fund distributed the £9 million main fund, and the Co-op Foundation the £2 million Youth strand, with both retaining funding decision-making power within their strands.

The timing was apt for the Co-op Foundation, following the 2017 launch of our Belong programme, informed by Co-op and British Red Cross research that found young people were lonely more often than any other age group. Belong aimed to:

  • Connect and empower young people to beat loneliness by funding UK-wide youth projects. We’ve since committed over £6.5m in grants, including some BCF funds.
  • Build resources and networks to help strengthen the youth sector.
  • Tackle stigma, by researching the issue and then launching the Lonely Not Alone campaign, co-designed with young people. 

The increased chance of policy change is an exciting benefit of working alongside the Government.

A portrait photo of the author
Louise Snelders
Head of Funding and Partnerships, Co-op Foundation

The power of collaborating with government

The BCF’s primary aims were to fund projects to expand or enhance their work tackling loneliness, gather insights to build an evidence base (using Office for National Statistics measures) and ultimately use this evidence to influence policy. The increased chance of policy change is an exciting benefit of working alongside the Government. In our case, with the UK’s first Loneliness Minister also appointed in 2018 following the Commission, the political conditions for influencing policy change felt ripe.

Collaborating equipped us with stronger skills and assets to pursue these aims. Beyond money and policy control, the Government brought convening power, deep subject knowledge and data capabilities. Alongside its grant-making resources, The National Lottery Community Fund’s legal and evaluation experience was invaluable - particularly given the Co-op Foundation would typically need to contract such expertise. And the Co-op Foundation, as a smaller funder, contributed especially deep relationships with the organisations we funded, and specific experience of funding youth loneliness.

Working together also amplified our voices. Externally, we boosted each other’s messaging around loneliness and other issues, helped by the Government’s reach and the political momentum behind loneliness. Internally, speaking together as funders helped strengthen our joint case in strategic discussions.

Funded partners also benefited. Collaborating showcased their work to multiple funders simultaneously, signalling that different types of funders valued their work. The collaborative spirit also meant encouraging funded organisations to work together. The Co-op Foundation contracted UK Youth to establish the Belong Collective, a cooperative network for funded organisations and youth workers, and supported the National Youth Partnership to create resources for upskilling youth workers. New Philanthropy Capital, our evaluation partner, delivered collaborative learning sessions for funded organisations to cross-pollinate ideas. 

Challenges of collaborating across sectors

In some ways, then, collaborating uniquely equipped the BCF to succeed. However, in practice a few challenges limited our success, some of them rooted in the collaborative aspect. Navigating these challenges was constructive, producing useful insights for future collaborations.

Like many government funds, BCF formed quickly, with a desire to have the fund running by the September 2018 release of the Loneliness Strategy, and in time to award grants before the end of the financial year in order to maximise available funds. This posed scheduling, budgetary and evaluation challenges, exacerbated by unusually high application numbers and competing voices around the table. This led to some concerns about these pressures translating into unrealistic burdens on funded organisations. However, we were able to act as advocates and buffers, reducing this risk and arguing for considerate funding practices as the default. 

Partnerships always bring the challenge of aligning working cultures – but this is particularly true when working alongside the Government, which has tighter regulations given it’s working with public funds. The Co-op Foundation, on the other hand, can work with funded organisations (we call them ‘partners') with agility and flexibility, which has been particularly helpful during the pandemic.

These challenges required compromise from all, ensuring we took account of our respective approaches and regulations. Benefiting from government collaboration will always feel different to a charitable foundation, but a clearer shared understanding of any ‘rules of engagement’ beyond the formal Memorandum of Understanding – perhaps in future guided by principles like IVAR’s recent ‘flexible funder’ commitments - would help smoothly steer similar partnerships.

In a sense the BCF was an experiment in gathering loneliness evidence and collaborating between funders. The long hours we spent learning how to work together - pooling different organisational perspectives with a shared commitment to collaboration and the importance of the work - proved really enriching and enjoyable.

Ultimately, the powerful benefits of funder collaborations involving the Government, and the dynamic opportunities for personal learning and growth, were particularly beneficial. In my view, funder collaborations and cooperative working always enhance impact. I’m really excited for more in the future!

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