Like any project with a focus on social prescribing, mPower has relied on voluntary and community organisations to provide the activities and services which can help the project’s beneficiaries. Walking groups, lunch clubs, befriending services, arts groups, support groups for people with certain health conditions are just a few examples of the wide range of activities run by community and voluntary groups.
The first stage in working with people referred to mPower was a conversation between the Community Navigator and the beneficiary to establish what was important to the individual. This guided conversation would then identify the tools and community services which could help them to self-manage their health and connect with community groups. A wellbeing plan was agreed with the beneficiary as a record of their agreement as this was felt to aid the sense of commitment.
Where to begin with finding community and voluntary services
The voluntary and community sector is huge. There are over 24,000 registered charities in Scotland, over 6,000 in Northern Ireland and over 10,000 in Ireland. However, that doesn’t account for an even larger number of generally small local community organisations who are constituted but aren’t classified as registered charities. For, example in Scotland the entire voluntary sector is estimated to have 45,000 voluntary organisations – that includes both registered charities and community groups which are not registered with the charity regulator.
Each country has a voluntary sector national umbrella body and that is a good starting point for looking for information – SCVO in Scotland, NICVA in Norther Ireland and The Wheel in Ireland. The umbrella body will have an information service which has databases and directories of local organisations with at least some basic information on what they provide. They can also direct people to more local umbrella organisations – for example Third Sector Interfaces in each local authority area in Scotland or the Public Participation Networks in Ireland – which will have more detailed local knowledge. Scotland also benefits from the NHS Inform Service Directory which incorporates The Alliance managed Aliss directory of health and wellbeing services.
Some Community Navigators found that social media platforms such as Facebook were a rich source of information on local activities. This reflects the fact that activities can be run on an informal basis and that small organisations often do not have websites.
Engaging with the voluntary sector
At its simplest level social prescribing involves signposting people towards community activities and services. That may suffice for some but for most people, and vulnerable people in particular, signposting is simply not enough. It is quite a leap for some vulnerable people to take their first steps towards joining a group of strangers in a new activity. mPower’s approach was to do the legwork by finding out whether there were groups based locally that could help the project’s beneficiaries, find out how they worked, and Community Navigators would often handhold people towards an appropriate activity by physically taking them there for their first visit.
Even if there is a good local service which can benefit an older person it is important to establish if they have the capacity to support more users. Some services, such as befriending, have very high demand but limited capacity. So, they can be difficult to access and there can be a lengthy waiting list of people needing support. This is another illustration of the limits of signposting – directing a vulnerable person to a service they can’t access is counterproductive and frustrating. mPower’s approach recognised that there can be underlying barriers to wellbeing and that more needs to be done to support people than simple signposting and in some instances provided access to Community Funds for furthering the support they were able to offer.
In addition to capacity, transport needs to be considered. For people without a car and who live in areas where public transport is poor or non-existent, it is crucial to consider how the beneficiary can get to activities and services.
Community Navigators or link workers are likely to be most effective when they have good knowledge of local community and voluntary organisations and already have a relationship with them.
Another matter which needs to be recognised when working with small community groups is that they usually run on a shoestring budget. Even organisations with no paid staff and which are run entirely by volunteers will have some costs. mPower was able to build good relationships with community groups partly because in some cases it was able to help with the new costs which groups would incur by providing a service to mPower beneficiaries. Each deployment site had access to a small fund which could be used to pay some of these expenses. This made engagement with voluntary groups much easier.
As the National Lottery Community Fund concluded from its report on what it had learnt from spending £60 million on social prescribing projects over five years:
“If social prescribing is to continue and flourish, both the link worker role and the delivery of services must be adequately supported. Link workers need activities to prescribe to, referrers and individuals need to be confident that activities will actually be available, and VCS organisations must be able to meet demand.”
Benefits for the voluntary sector from the mPower project
mPower’s engagement with the community and voluntary sector worked well because it was proactive in building relationships with community groups. For example, in HSE in Co Louth it worked very closely over a prolonged period with ALONE, a national charity tackling loneliness and isolation, and in the Western Health and Social Care Trust area it had a similarly good relationship with South West Age Partnership, which acts as an entry point into community groups who provide activities for older people.
In some cases, the project provided financial support to small community groups, such as a Men’s Shed in the Southern Health and Social Care Trust area, and these groups proved to be extremely useful for mPower beneficiaries. mPower also provided equipment to some groups and this was often crucial to opening up digital opportunities for the older people that the project supported. The project was a prime mover in several areas such as the Western Isles and Donegal, in setting up new Digital Hubs. The hubs are places that people can access digital equipment and connectivity for taking part in activities, meeting with clinicians online where distance to health centres is an issue and for connecting with others. The hubs sit within the premises of community organisations and were supported by mPower through the provision of the equipment.
Without the community and voluntary sector social prescribing doesn’t exist. Familiarity with how prospective organisations’ work and their capacity is essential before referring someone to an activity or service. If the social prescribing service is able to support the community group then there is a greater likelihood of a good outcome for its beneficiaries.