Community champions: surviving and thriving beyond covid?

The COVID-19 pandemic saw an increase in funding, attention, and interest for community champions. What was the impact? How were champions used, and what legacy, if any, has been left behind?

Community champions, who are usually volunteers in a particular area, act as a link between the community and services. They may direct people to local services, communicate health messages, or run outreach sessions. The existence of community champions, under whatever name they were called, existed long before COVID-19, but COVID-19 increased their visibility. The Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities allocated dedicated funding to support the Covid response and urgent, large-scale investments in additional champions in 2021-22. Around 100 local authorities were funded to develop community champion programs or to bolster them, while others have used existing schemes or sources of funding to strengthen regional champion approaches.

Covid-19 is now in a waning phase if it hasn’t already disappeared, and funding dedicated to champions has been discontinued. In our current research (which will be reported in autumn 2023), we are trying to understand the impact of champions during the pandemic and their legacy, as seen by those who created and commissioned them. Our current research is based on the data that local government teams and their partners submitted through an England-wide questionnaire and in-depth interviews.

Although we are only at the beginning of the analysis process, it’s already obvious that the Community Champions approach is not a tool for all.

The community champions’ approach isn’t a tool that fits all.

No two programs were alike, as reported by 27 London Boroughs. Local authority staff outlined some programs’ delivery plans, while others were flexible and informed with the expertise of delivery partners. The champions ranged from the general public to those working in the voluntary sector and community-based enterprises (VCSEs), to local authority employees and beyond. Some champions covered the entire local authority footprint, while others focused on specific areas.

Even at this early stage, champions are seen as having a high value. They can reach populations that were not previously served by local authorities, build trust in communities, and create long-lasting relationships, or at least communication channels, directly or through VCSE organizations close to these communities. One interviewee said:

It was thought that champions would talk to people who they already trusted and knew their names so that I couldn’t speak to them. If I approach a stranger on the street, they won’t likely talk to me ….So, champions in our community were doing what no one else could.

Community Development Coordinator

What about their legacy? Can these programs be run as normal without dedicated funding? It’s a perennial question. It’s not surprising that our respondents focused on the issue of financing. Can it last? What is beginning to emerge from the analysis of our surveys and interviews is that strategy is important and can be integrated into a larger plan rather than being a one-off project to achieve a specific purpose.

The enthusiasm and passion of the fans in England was impressive.

We were impressed by the passion and enthusiasm of champions in England when we conducted the interviews and read the responses to the survey for this project. We hope that as we dig deeper into the data, we uncover and share the learnings for those champions who expressed a desire to continue the programs in any form and what it means for the future.

We’re aware of the obstacles to community-based approaches that involve volunteers, like the Champions program. In recent years, volunteering services have seen a decline in both participation and satisfaction with the volunteering experience. Indeed, some of our respondents mentioned the declining interest of some champions. We hope that this work will be a part of the puzzle and help to build on the other initiatives, such as the recommendations from the NHS taskforce, the Helpforce program, and work done by the Fund. Our findings are hoped to be used by the central government, including the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, Department of Health and Social Care, and Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, as they develop policies related to community champions and other areas that support healthy and strong communities.

You can look forward to our report being released in the fall. In the meantime, you can learn more about community health initiatives, such as social prescribing, champion programs, and volunteering, by attending our virtual conference, Community-led Approaches to Health and Well-being, on July 18-19.

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