At Community Circles we are excited to play a part in making the Social Care Future vision a reality. We aim to do this by supporting those communities and public service allies determined to build something different.  Not simply to “recover” from Covid to previous forms and models of support, but to really ‘build back better’ by recognising the gifts, talents and contributions we can all make to support communities to flourish. 

Often, when looking to take action in support of people who find themselves disconnected from the people and things that bring purpose and meaning to their lives, we start from considering “need”. Typically, then a range of services are developed and offered to target groups. We think a better way is to start from what matters to people and what they have to contribute. 

At Community Circles we have been using our experience both pre and during Covid to learn about what works in asset-based approaches by experimenting alongside people and groups. In doing this we have evolved a simple but powerful approach we call “Circles Connected”. This comes at the goal of building community connections from that different angle – starting with people’s interests and potential contributions. It is our developing experience that this helps in a number of ways:

  • It grounds action in what is important to people and what they have to offer and in connecting people with shared interests
  • This reduces the risk of commissioning or setting something up that people don’t want or won’t engage with
  • It looks at a wider range of assets than often happens, bringing more and new resources to bear
  • It releases creativity and contribution in ways that traditionally commissioned or established services may not

A simple model of this approach can be seen in the figure below. The basic approach can be adapted to context and purpose. It can be used strategically or operationally. You might be planning how to intervene to reduce loneliness in a geographical area, or exploring how to support people living in accommodation with support to get “a life not a service”. You might have decided that traditional building-based day supports or short breaks can be transformed into opportunities for people to pursue opportunities with meaning and purpose – support as a “vehicle rather than a destination” as Social Care Future would say. 

The approach offers an outline model for any of these things. It starts with people. These might be a defined group of people – say, for example, older people in an area who have found themselves isolated and disconnected, with risks to their well-being and health. Starting with these people, Community Circles have a range of simple methods to find out what they might want to do – an interest or hobby, something they have previously done and miss, in some cases something that has arisen in a care plan or “one-page profile”. It is crucial at this point to explore what people have to contribute not just “needs” as this is both an asset in itself and far more likely to motivate people to get involved. Using an approach from social pedagogy we often call these gifts of the head, heart and hands.  Sometimes people have been isolated or disconnected for some time or, for example have had a major health issue or bereavement and can find it hard to identify their interests and contribution. We have a simple approach called “good days in the community” that can help. 

In moving from people’s interests and potential contributions to acting on these, an asset-based approach calls for a creative exploration of how to make this move. Rather than start by designing a service in response, we can explore other possibilities. 

  • There might be an existing local group that a person might join. If this is the case the question is can the person join without support or not and if they need some support who might offer this – for example a family member, social prescribing link worker or members of a community circle – if necessary, a paid staff member.
  • If there isn’t an existing group we first ask does the interest match the skills and interests of  a member of your group or organisation. If it does you can: agree a date / time with the person; find a suitable venue; tell others on Facebook/social media about the event / meetup; get started; social media post to encourage others to join and build the group.
  • If there is no suitable person within your group or organisation we explore local partners who may have such people and interests or a local freelance person such as an artist or interested volunteer.

Through this process we can build up a programme of activity which can be available as widely as you want – potentially to everyone within a defined community or based on what matters to a focussed community. If necessary it can start with one person and build from there. 

We are starting to show something very different from a traditional service response:

  • Instead of befriending schemes – people connect through shared interests. Using any 1-2-1 support as a vehicle to get people to engage in a wider social offer.
  • Instead of day centres for older people – we help people plan their week around the social calendar we create
  • Instead of being a recipient of services or having services done to them – people are members and co-create the social calendar.
  • Instead of multiple services – e.g. care navigation, information and advice, we support people to share their community knowledge to help each other find solutions
  • Instead of stand-alone home care – people who use home care can be part of the Circle, helping people who need some support at home, as well as making the most of the Circle opportunities.
  • Building on offers such as University of the Third Age and their contributions, but proactively supporting people to be part of what is going on locally, and creating new opportunities. 
  • We work together with our co-production partners, people we support, members and our local community to shape the events and activities based on people’s wishes to support flourishing, connected communities

In practice? 

We have been modelling the application of this approach in practice with our partners Wellbeing Teams, including in Abingdon in Oxford and Ashton in Wigan and more recently working with the Connected Communities programme in Suffolk. 

Can’t recommend Community Circles highly enough, we’ve been working with them for a while and the knowledge, imagination, insight, experience, enthusiasm and sheer commitment they bring is fantastic. True person-centered work designed around people. Colin Baldwin – Suffolk County Council (Connected Communities)

In these cases reaching out to communities of isolated older people – in Abingdon and Ashton starting with people who made use of a local home-care service – we wanted to help offer so much more than a time and task, life and limb experience. We wanted to show a new way to trash loneliness, through connecting people based on shared interests and contributions – enabling people to connect with others in their community who enjoy the same things, creating the conditions for friendship and mutual support. We started from the belief that for many people this support will be informal and it can operate through an informal process or coming together through a Community Circle. We support people to connect to their purpose, to use their gifts and be active in the causes that matter to them. Community connecting meets social action and mutual support.In these places, a part-time local connector started bringing people together around shared interests using the process described above.  The connectors established monthly programmes of events shaped by the interests of members and including such events as coffee club, knit and natter, mindfulness, meals out, cinema trips, craft sessions, book club and walking groups.  Whatever ideas or interests people have we helped to support.  The groups are a way to keep involved with a favourite hobby or try something new, get together with friends or create opportunities for new connections and relationships.  
Because of the pandemic our face to face groups have had to be put on hold for the time being and that’s where the idea of Circles Connected Facebook Group came from; an opportunity to bring together Ashton Circle, Abingdon Circle with our friends from HMR Circle into one virtual space.  Circles Connected started as a way to virtually replicate our face to face groups and has now grown to a variety of posts, events and activities from cocktail making to conversation starters, quiz nights to guitar lessons, virtual tours to photography challenges and everything in between. Hundreds of people have joined.

As we emerge from the pandemic it will be great to “meet again” in the places that hold meaning for us. But we now know that we have so much to add to what we did before. 

An invitation

We know that many are thinking and acting in directions similar to us. There are two main ways you can join our community for change:

  1. In 2021 we want to bring some of groups and places together in a consortium with support from us. We are looking, in the first instance, at 5-7 groups or places taking significant action who are looking for practical support and mutual assistance as part of a community of practice. This community would be co-designed but include design, development and mentoring support, training as required and virtual sharing and problem solving. We aim to start in the Spring. If you think this might be for you get in touch via martin@community-circles.co.uk
  2. We want to offer an opportunity for a larger number of people and groups to come together for on line sharing and support. To join this, enrol on one of our short courses – either our introductory sessions Connections with Purpose and Meaning | Community Circles (community-circles.co.uk) or a focussed programme (forthcoming). You will then be enrolled (if you wish) in our on-line community for twelve months of sharing and mutual support.