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Community champions: surviving and thriving beyond Covid-19?

Community champions saw a surge in interest, focus and funding during the Covid-19 pandemic. So, what was the impact, how were champions utilised, and what, if any, is the legacy?

Community champions are typically volunteers from a local area who act as a bridge between people and health and care services, signposting community members to services, communicating health messages or running outreach sessions. Community champions existed, whatever the name, long before the Covid-19 pandemic, but Covid-19 raised their profile. It resulted in both a repurposing towards the Covid response and an urgent, large-scale investment in additional champions with dedicated funding from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in 2021-22.  Around 100 local authorities have been funded to develop or bolster community champion programmes, while other areas have utilised existing schemes or funding sources to strengthen local champion approaches.

Covid-19 has now waned, if not left us, and the dedicated funding for champions during Covid-19 has ceased entirely. Our current research, reporting in autumn 2023, seeks to understand how champions were used during the pandemic and what their impact and legacy might be, from the perspectives of those who shaped and commissioned them. We are currently exploring experiences of local government public health teams and their delivery partners based on data they submitted via an England-wide survey and in-depth interviews.

While we are still in the foothills of analysis, it is already clear that the community champions approach was not, and is not, a one-size-fits-all tool.

'It is already clear that the community champions approach was not, and is not, a one-size-fits-all tool.'

Reinforcing what has been reported from across 27 London boroughs, no two programmes were the same. Some programmes had structured delivery plans outlined by the local authority staff, whereas others were more flexible and informed by delivery partners’ expertise. Champions varied from members of the public to people working in the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector to local authority staff and beyond. Some champions delivered across the local authority footprint and others targeted areas.

What does appear to be consistent, even at these early stages, is the perceived value of champions:  their ability to reach new populations beyond those previously supported by the local authority, to build trust within communities and hopefully, generate long lasting relationships or at least communication routes, either directly or via VCSE organisations close to those communities. One interviewee told us:

'The idea was that champions will talk to people they know the name of, who already trust them and therefore, I can’t talk to them. So, if I walk up to a stranger in the street, the chances are they’re not going to talk to me.…And so, therefore, for us, community champions were doing something nobody else could do.'

Community Development Coordinator

But what of their legacy? Can such programmes become business as usual without dedicated funding? It’s a perennial question. Our respondents naturally landed on the unsurprising issue of funding – can it last longer? But what is starting to peek out from behind the analysis of our survey and interviews is the value of strategy and how champion programmes and their like really can be embedded into a larger plan, rather than function as a one-off task to serve a particular purpose.

'We were struck by the enthusiasm and passion for the champions across England.'

When conducting the interviews and reading the survey responses for this work, we were struck by the enthusiasm and passion for the champions across England. As we delve into the data we hope to uncover and share learning for those who expressed the desire to continue their programmes, in whatever form, and what this means for the future of champions.

We are aware of the barriers for community approaches involving volunteers, such as the champions programmes. For example, volunteering services have recently seen a reduction in participation and satisfaction in the volunteering experience and indeed some of our respondents spoke of the waning interest of some of their champions. However, we hope this work will add a piece to the puzzle and build on other supportive endeavours including the NHS volunteering taskforce recommendations, the Helpforce programme and other work by the Fund. We hope our findings will be used by central government including the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities as they develop further policy on community champions and related areas that support strong and healthier communities