Areas investing in social cohesion twice as likely to have people volunteering during pandemic

Olivia Miller
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New research co-led by Professor Dominic Abrams from the Centre for the Study of Group Processes in the School of Psychology, has found that neighbourhoods investing in social cohesion programmes are twice as likely to have residents volunteering to help others during the Covid-19 pandemic. Furthermore, volunteers themselves say they feel more optimistic about their lives, with better well-being and better connection with family and friends.

Alongside Belong – The Cohesion and Integration Network, Professor Abrams carried out the study of over 15,000 people across the UK, looking at factors affecting social cohesion – where people connect, trust and value those from different backgrounds.

A report based on the study’s findings, ‘Community, Connection and Cohesion during COVID-19: Beyond Us and Them’ looks at both the experiences of people living in six local authority areas investing in social cohesion*, and the experiences of people across the UK who have been volunteering during the Covid-19 pandemic. Overall, the research funded by the Nuffield Foundation, makes a strong case for investment in social cohesion as a way to help people feel happier in themselves, more connected to people and place, reduce community tension and build resilience.

Compared to people living in other parts of the UK, residents of local authorities investing in social cohesion schemes – such as running social mixing and community engagement events, youth programmes and ESOL classes – were:

  • Twice as likely to volunteer compared to people living elsewhere
  • Had a higher sense of neighbourliness (9.9 per cent higher)
  • Had a higher level of trust in local government’s response to Covid-19 (8.2% higher)

They also maintained positive attitudes toward people from immigrant backgrounds, were more likely to donate money to charity and support online campaigns among other indicators of social cohesion.

Across the UK, when compared with others, volunteers living in any area rated themselves as:

  • More optimistic for the future (5.6% higher)
  • With greater subjective wellbeing (5.3% higher)
  • With greater trust in other people to respect Covid-19 restrictions (12.2% higher)

Volunteering carried out included setting up food distribution schemes, running befriending schemes and taking calls on support phone lines to help during the pandemic.

Professor Abrams said: ‘Our research shows volunteering is part of a ‘cohesion net’ that seems to embrace multiple positive components: volunteers not only participate positively in the social life in their local area, they also directly benefit from this investment and seem better equipped to cope with the challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic.’

Jo Broadwood, CEO of Belong – The Cohesion and Integration Network, said: ‘While we’re only halfway through this major research project, the results so far are striking – investing in social cohesion brings really considerable returns, both for individuals and their communities. Being able to stay resilient, maintain community connection and prevent tensions means these communities will emerge from the pandemic more able to rebuild and recover.’

Alex Beer, Welfare Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation said: ‘The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities and led to an increase in loneliness for many people. Encouragingly, this research shows that local authorities that have invested in social cohesion programmes have been able to bring people and their communities together through volunteering, and that volunteering is beneficial to people’s well-being wherever they live. While volunteering will not be an option available to everyone, there are benefits to the whole community from more people becoming actively involved in the pandemic response at a local level.’

Started in March 2020 and running until Summer 2021, Beyond Us and Them will provide one of the richest sources of academic data on people’s experiences in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic. Researchers are using online surveys, one-to-one interviews and focus groups to track peoples’ experiences and views on how the pandemic is affecting their relationships, neighbourhoods and everyday lives with a final report due later this year.

*Notes: Volunteers and non-volunteers from across the UK were assessed for measures of wellbeing and social cohesion. The experiences of people living in cohesion investment areas were compared with those elsewhere in the UK after demographic differences were accounted for. The data presented in this report were from the Beyond Us and Them monthly surveys from June to December 2020. Between 1300 and 3800 respondents completed the survey monthly, resulting in a total of 15,500 respondents over five monthly surveys (run in June, July-August, September, October, and December). The sense of social cohesion reported by six local authority area respondents (Blackburn with Darwen, Bradford, Peterborough, Walsall and Waltham Forest and Calderdale) was compared to other respondents coming from Wales, Scotland, and the county of Kent. A separate sample of community activists (living in Great Britain overall) was also compared to the other respondents from the local authority areas and regions.