The ‘test and learn’ approach, a central principle of the wider Ageing Better programme, has been crucial in enabling Brightlife and its partners to learn from experience and adapt delivery accordingly. This approach requires a commitment to flexibility from both the commissioner and the delivery partner, as any modifications that are made during delivery can potentially affect everything from the budget and timescale of a project to the scope and format of its agreed outcomes.
For example, the original model for the Social Prescribing scheme required a formal referral from a GP – a ‘social prescription’. However, it soon became evident that this was not a practical pathway for GPs, so it was opened up to accept referrals from all types of health or social care practitioners, including from the voluntary sector, as well as self-referrals from individuals and their families.
The ‘test and learn’ approach was used effectively by Community Compass to address a gender imbalance in their regular social groups that had been identified in a mid-project review. Having found that the majority of participants in their weekly ‘Compass Club’ in Malpas were female, Community Compass used what they had learned from delivering the same project in Winsford – that men were more likely to take part in activities which involved both exercise and socialising – and introduced two additional activity taster blocks (gardening and outdoor crafts) specifically aimed at men.
Several of the men recruited for these taster activities went on to join the weekly Compass Club in Malpas, which improved the gender balance of the group, and in turn, encouraged more men to join.
‘Test and learn’ can also be a useful way of facilitating ongoing input from older people in project development. For older people to have meaningful input into how the projects and services they use are developed and delivered (the importance of which is outlined in ‘Meeting needs’), their involvement in project design should continue beyond the point of commission. Ongoing consultation by providers with a target cohort can be a valuable project development tool, enabling activities to be tailored to specific needs.
In the case of the Growing Connections project (Groundwork Cheshire Lancashire and Merseyside), the entire delivery format was adapted based on feedback from participants. While the project offer initially consisted of a single weekly gardening session at ‘Grozone’, the local gardening hub, several participants expressed a desire to take part in other Grozone activities, the timing of which did not coincide with this weekly session. As a result, it was decided to widen the offer so that participants could access any of their preferred activities (including cooking, music, bushcraft and carpentry). This resulted in a greater range of social interaction, with many participants socialising outside the project – including with younger volunteers.
This kind of user-led ‘test and learn’ can be relatively informal if it is built into project design. For example, participants of the social activity clubs run by Community Compass were regularly consulted for feedback during informal ‘tea break’ evaluation sessions, with less popular activities or venues being adapted or replaced accordingly.
Embracing a ‘test and learn’ approach requires a degree of acceptance that sometimes, projects will fail. However, it is not the failure itself that matters: it is what we choose to do as a result. Learning how to ‘fail constructively’ has been extremely important for Brightlife, just as it is for any organisation that commissions multiple projects over an extended period of time.
It is firstly important to acknowledge that the failure of a project or service is not usually the fault of any single partner involved: as a commissioner, Brightlife shared responsibility for the success of all its projects and services with its delivery partners.
For example, while the vast majority of Brightlife’s Key Commissions were successfully delivered, some of its earliest projects were not. Despite basing the contract specifications for all of its early Key Commissions on evidence and best practice from elsewhere in the sector, as a new commissioner Brightlife perhaps lacked the experience to tailor the specifications precisely. As a result of what had been learned, Brightlife was able to re-issue tenders using more appropriate contract specifications, which led to the subsequent successful delivery by other partners.
Secondly, it is also important to remember that all organisations – whether they are commissioners, delivery partners or simply part of the wider community network – are made up of, and run by, individual people. As with any collaborative project, the success of commissioned interventions is dependent on having the right blend of personalities, skills and knowledge within the team.
Brightlife worked hard to establish and promote its vision, mission and values throughout its lifespan within the Ageing Better programme, so that the organisations that chose to become Brightlife partners were more likely to share a similar ethos, and would thus be a good ‘fit’.
While delivery partners obviously have a great deal of influence over the effectiveness of the projects and services for which they are responsible, it is the quality of their working relationships – with both commissioners and other providers – that often makes the crucial difference between success and failure.
A commissioner has a key role in supporting delivery – this role begins even before potential providers make an application for funding. This became clear very early on, when Brightlife was unable to award some of its Key Commission contracts due to a lack of suitable (or adequately comprehensive) tenders. Likewise, feedback from those involved in the first iteration of the Bright Ideas programme suggested that the application process could be adapted to better support less experienced community groups in preparing their bids.
Learning from this early experience and feedback, Brightlife adapted its approach so that all potential providers received more appropriate levels of support from both the Brightlife Commissioning Team and from its contracted business support provider, Cheshire West Voluntary Action (CWVA).
Providers interested in submitting tenders for Key Commissions were given opportunities to take part in more extensive consultation at the design stage, invited to workshops following the release of the specification, and offered support by CWVA to write their tender. As a result of these changes, Brightlife was able to award contracts for all subsequent specifications that were released.
Applicants to the Bright Ideas programme were offered more extensive support to develop their initial idea, complete their application and manage the panel interview. This led to awards being made to a greater range of providers in subsequent funding rounds, resulting in some extremely inventive projects and services.
As a commissioner, Brightlife contributed to the success of all of the interventions it funded, by providing ongoing support through regular contract meetings with delivery partners. Those partners that engaged most enthusiastically with this process of collaboration saw the greatest rewards, in terms of both impact and sustainability (see ‘Future-proofing’).
Regular meetings between commissioner and provider can build confidence for both parties, especially in cases where there have been delivery issues in the past.
“Thank you for the support in this our first endeavour in working with the over 50s. We felt well supported and backed by Brightlife and sometimes when things were tricky this really helped us to keep focussed on our path to delivering the project.”
Feedback from Little Actors Theatre Company (project delivery partner)
The success of projects and services can also be promoted through the sharing of knowledge, skills and resources between delivery partners. At Brightlife, this has been facilitated by regular meetings of a ‘provider network’, commissioned as part of its main business support contract from Cheshire West Voluntary Action.
One advantage of formalising partner networks in this way is that a dedicated network coordinator can help to maintain activity and ensure that meetings between providers are regular, useful and productive.
“The partners we have met through the networking opportunities have enabled us to develop good local working partnerships which are assisting with our work in the community. We also find the networking meetings to be a useful sounding board and an opportunity to share ideas, good working practices and experiences good and bad.”
Brightlife Provider Network member
Successful collaboration with other delivery partners (and with commissioners) can help providers to learn from each other and adapt design of services accordingly. For example, the three delivery partners in the Read and Connect project (The Neuromuscular Centre, Cheshire Centre for Independent Living, and Cheshire and Warrington Carers Trust) reported that joint delivery of the project had been a positive experience, and had led to further opportunities for collaboration. They also suggested that the knowledge they had each gained through their involvement with Brightlife was likely to inform the design of any future projects for older people.
It is not only other third sector delivery partners that can be useful and important allies. During its delivery of the Winsford Super Shed project, Age UK Cheshire found wider community engagement and partnership-building to be extremely effective, not only for promoting projects to new participants, but also for securing resources and sharing skills and knowledge to adapt and improve project delivery.
While it can be extremely valuable for a lead delivery organisation to share expertise by outsourcing tasks and responsibilities to external partners, there are some cases where it is more effective to manage activities in-house.
For example, during delivery of the Buddying and Befriending project, CCDT initially outsourced the training of volunteers to a partner organisation (Age UK Cheshire). However, they later found that while it was efficient to outsource training in specialist skills such as first aid and dementia support, it was more effective to bring the core volunteer training in-house.
This not only increased the flexibility of training delivery, but by enabling volunteer coordinators to spend more time with (and thus get to know) individual volunteers, it also improved the success of subsequent client/buddy matches.
Successfully reducing loneliness and social isolation often depends less on the type of intervention being offered than on the context in which it is delivered: the projects and services that are most successful are those that support participants in developing the confidence, resilience and social connections to thrive outside of the confines of the intervention itself.
Volunteering has a useful role in enabling participants to become self-sufficient. Enabling participants to ‘graduate’ into becoming volunteer buddies for newcomers can be an extremely effective way to build their confidence. Not only does this allow participants to ‘give something back’, it also facilitates the transfer of social confidence between members of the group, reducing the need for external intervention.
Volunteers may need a lot of training and experience before support is withdrawn, especially those in ‘facilitating’ roles – as Community Compass found in handing over control of the weekly Compass Clubs to volunteers.
“Within the social groups we underestimated the role that we as facilitators play. It is relatively easy to get volunteers to make tea and coffee, run an activity. What is difficult to get is people who are able to see the group as a whole and manage that i.e. make sure people feel included, manage the more vocal members of the group and strong personalities. Volunteers are able to take this role on, it just takes longer for them to understand the importance.”
Volunteering can also build confidence by giving older people an opportunity to use valuable, often specialist skills – not only as part of projects involving the direct application of manual skills, like woodwork or sewing/knitting, but also for activities that require strategic, leadership or critical thinking skills, such as project development and management.
Groundwork Cheshire Lancashire and Merseyside found that the older volunteers recruited through the Growing Connections project brought with them valuable knowledge, experience and skills in areas such as carpentry, plumbing and horticulture; while members of Brightlife’s OPA reported highly valuing the opportunity to apply their significant knowledge, skills and experience to a new project.
Many of the Brightlife delivery partners found that investment in the well-being and satisfaction of volunteers could facilitate their management and improve overall productivity.
Activities where people learned a new hobby or were able to develop a new skill were particularly successful at building participants’ confidence. For skill-based projects or activities, it is important to consider how learning can be supported, in order to increase the confidence of participants and enable their independent use of new skills.
For example, in delivering the Digital Buddies project, which for many participants involved a significant degree of learning (many had never used a computer, much less sent an email or used Skype), Here and Now Chester found that an appropriate pace of delivery was crucial in engaging participants in both the group-based and one-to-one sessions. They also found that participants were better able to consolidate and remember what they had learned after taking part in group projects that allowed them to practise their new skills.
The Digital Buddies project team also found that using younger ‘buddies’ to provide IT support was well-received, with many participants commenting on how much they enjoyed interacting with (and learning from) a different generation.
Indeed, several providers reported that introducing an intergenerational element to a project was a useful tool for participant engagement and retention, as well as helping to promote the existence, diversity and intrinsic value of older people within a wider community.
Intergenerational elements worked both ways: whether it was younger people teaching older people, as was the case with Digital Buddies, or older people passing skills on to younger people, for example in the Fab Weld 50+ project (The Welding Academy).
For some providers, this intergenerational element was unexpected. For example, during the Gather Together project (Haylo Theatre), participants were invited to take part in a letter-writing activity to help them explore their identities when they were younger. The group decided to send their letters to the children at a local primary school: while this had not originally been planned, it demonstrated the transformative power the arts can have in bringing school children and the older generation together to share experiences.
“The process of writing the letter to the primary school […] encouraged dialogue such as: ‘Who remembers that, did anyone else do this?’ and served as a catalyst to discuss the past and future. This intergenerational activity brought the added dimension of connecting the young and old together through a shared experience of going to school, albeit at different times.”
Haylo Theatre (Gather Together)
For many older people, a lack of transport can present a significant barrier to engagement with a project or service – for those who are less mobile, the importance of accessible transport provision cannot be understated.
Indeed, throughout its time as a Ageing Better partner, Brightlife conducted a great deal of work to address the issue of access to transport in the region, including consultation with local communities with a view to delivering a response to the Community Transport consultation in Cheshire West and Chester to inform the regional engagement strategy.
However, it is crucial to remember that providing the actual vehicle is just part of the requirement: of equal importance is coordinating the operation of that transport – including the management of schedules, drivers and costs. As one project partner put it: “It’s not just about the wheels.”
Similarly, vulnerable participants may need help at either end of a journey – not only to physically help them to and from their home, but also to provide reassurance and build their confidence.
“Vulnerable people need more than just transport. It’s the phone call before the group to introduce ourselves; it’s the knocking on the door and helping them out the house, making sure their door is locked and that they have their key; it’s walking into the group with them and then helping them back home that makes the difference.”
Community Compass – Delivery partner for Social Activity Tasters
Some providers reported that those who are the most socially isolated may be so desperate to get out of the house that they are not always honest about their mobility limitations, so accommodations should be made accordingly when planning transport for events.