How much can data tell us? - Co-op Foundation

In our latest issue of Trust & Foundation News, we spoke to members about the kinds of data they use and what it can help them to achieve, as well as some of its risks and limitations.

The sixth article in this series comes from Jim Cooke, Head, Co-op Foundation.

It was an intriguing piece of data that originally sparked our interest in youth loneliness, which has been the main focus of our grant-making for the past two years.

As the Co-op’s charity, we work closely with our ‘parent’ business – which also has a driving social purpose – to make the most of our collective resources. About three years ago, Co-op and the British Red Cross launched a partnership to tackle loneliness. They jointly commissioned research into loneliness at various life stages. One of the most surprising findings was that one in three people in the youngest age group studied – 16 to 24-year-olds – reported feeling lonely, more than in any other age group.

At this stage the Co-op Foundation was devising its new strategy, and in youth loneliness we saw a potentially significant issue that no-one else seemed to be working on. We started funding a handful of youth partners to dig deeper into what lay behind the statistic. From there, we gradually built up a network we call ‘Belong’, which will soon include more than 50 organisations we fund to address aspects of youth loneliness.

Our very first grant under the new strategy was £60,000 for a research project at Manchester Metropolitan University. This brought together academics and young people with lived experience of mental health issues, to co-design a qualitative study of youth loneliness. Over the 18 months it took to carry out, the researchers regularly engaged with our Belong partners, and the cross-fertilisation was powerful, providing rich insights and interplay with practice on the ground.

But the challenge of qualitative research is how to boil it down and convey the findings in a simple way to build wider public awareness. We realised we needed more quantitative data to build on the original research, so we commissioned ICM to conduct a UK-wide representative survey of 2,000 young people to test some of our qualitative findings. We published the results in a report, All our emotions are important.

In the beginning we didn’t fully appreciate the complexity of youth loneliness or have a precise end goal we wanted to achieve. It was only through our further qualitative and quantitative research that we were able to define the problems we want to address.

One is the stigma around youth loneliness – less than one in five young people think it is taken seriously by society. So one of our objectives now is to break down that stigma, and we have baseline data to refer back to. We are considering re-commissioning the survey to track annual progress against key longitudinal measures. 

We are also a partner in the £11.5 million Building Connections Fund, set up following the Jo Cox Commission’s report on loneliness. As part of this, the foundation is working with government on a specific youth strand. There is still no really robust data on what works in reducing loneliness for any groups aged under 55, so the fund will be independently evaluated to start to fill key gaps in the evidence base.

It’s not just about the statistics but drawing out insights from practice and lived experience – that’s an aspect of research that can sometimes be overlooked. The testimonies of grassroots organisations and the young people they work with are also valuable data.

Another research challenge we face relates to how we try to prioritise more disadvantaged communities. In some instances we have filtered eligibility for certain grants using the Indices of Multiple Deprivation, but that method has always seemed quite blunt and impractical.

Overcoming this has been another collaborative effort with the Co-op, which has worked with The Young Foundation and Geolytix to develop a new tool – the Community Wellbeing Index. This brings together data on a balanced range of factors that together lead to healthy communities, including quality of education, housing affordability, public transport and the amount of green space. It represents the strengths and challenges of geographical areas most people would recognise as the community where they live – places and neighbourhoods – and has proved valuable in helping us target our funding.

It’s not about ranking or judging communities – most places that score lower on one factor will do better on others. So the index is becoming part of how we deliver on the foundation’s co-operative ethos of celebrating communities’ strengths as well as helping them overcome their challenges.

Jim Cooke
Co-op Foundation


Other articles in this series

How much can data tell us? - Walcot Foundation 
How much can data tell us? - Friends Provident Foundation 
How much can data tell us? - Paul Hamlyn Foundation 
How much can data tell us? - Corra Foundation 
How much can data tell us? - United St Saviour’s Charity 
How much can data tell us? - Ada Lovelace Institute 

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