In brief

In this Joining the Dots blog, Laura Alcock-Ferguson, the founding Director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, reflects candidly on the highs and lows of her nine years at the helm.

Laura Alcock-Ferguson

Laura Alcock-Ferguson

CEO at Ancient Tree Forum

Laura is an activist and has worked for and led social change on loneliness, environmental and other social justice issues for the past 20 years.

I left my role as the founding Director of the Campaign to End Loneliness at the end of July 2019 after nine years, and I’ve been reflecting back on my journey, highlights and lessons learnt.

Before we launched in 2010, loneliness was not seen as serious or urgent by policy makers, the media or in most of the places that it could have been supported. Back then, our long-term aims were:

Make loneliness and isolation more visible
Create an aspirational vision alongside practical new actions with a wide range of partners working together to end loneliness
Share designing and evaluation of services to show the positive impact that working to end loneliness has
Enthuse members of the public to take small steps to help others and themselves to end loneliness

All with one member of staff and a project budget of about £20,000 (for the first year – our head count didn’t rise above 3 FTE for our first 6 years).

To begin, I drew upon a few models of strategic thinking, including:

  1. Linking strategy to situation – we were a start-up (as Michael Watkins has said in his book First 90 Days)
  2. Stakeholder analysis helped me come up to speed with this a whole new set of contacts
  3. We needed to reframe the issue – as described in numerous campaigning tomes
What did I learn?

My main learning, during the first few years, when building momentum for a little-known issue, was:

1. Reach ambitious outcomes through trust and flexibility

At the heart of creating social change is flexibly plotting your course and being bold enough to put the change you plan to make “out there”. And in order to do this while building momentum with a wide range of stakeholders requires great trust.

2. Look close to home for your strongest advocates – your va va voom!

We took the chance in 2012 to hold an international research conference with UK researchers: Christina Victor and Mima Cattan among others; and international researchers: the late John Cacioppo, Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Jenny de Jong Gierveld. And it was only possible with the unswerving dedication of one man: Paul Cann – who was then at Age UK Oxfordshire and on our management group. His understanding of the nuances of this issue and drive for visionary leadership from the collective whole has brought depth and care and the most long-standing va va voom to the Campaign to End Loneliness, research into the field and the wider issue of loneliness.

3. “It’s always good to be mildly terrified”

But take time to reflect amid the high-octane journey – There were times we were working at huge speed. Yet, I recall, we frequently made time for reflection as a team and with wider stakeholders.

Would I change anything? Yes!

Involving people with lived experience of loneliness

Through a number of our projects and some of our recent media work, we involved older people, but we have never involved people with lived experience thoroughly or completely across all of our work. We have explored this in the team, identified ways we could improve, and sought support and funding for this approach, but have not yet been successful in many of these new avenues. This is deep and vital work – and still ongoing.

Grow – but slow

From 2017 onwards, following a major investment by the Lottery, we were focused very much on growth – a wider range of target audiences including businesses; influencing policy and practice in all four UK nations and regions, and growing from 3 to 14 people in the space of a few months and all that this entails. Most of the growing pains came from the juggle of meeting the needs of our commitments to a new and generous funder with the ethos and core positional advantage of the Campaign as it was just before that investment.

Be more gracious in times of success for the issue

We always ultimately aimed to get more people working on loneliness – and by 2017/2018, with the huge energy and dedication of Jo Cox, Seema Kennedy, Rachel Reeves and Tracey Crouch (and now with a new Minister leading on this issue, Baroness Barran), and all those charities and businesses involved in the Jo Cox Commission, there has been a massive upswing in interest, media attention, action and funding for loneliness. I personally found this new order and a mass of new interest rather challenging, which surprised me after so many years of merrily leading collaborative efforts in what previously was an underdog issue.

Celebrate successes!

My style of celebration (reflection, positives and what to improve, and delegation of action points, with a bit of tea and cake) is not everyone’s idea of a wild party. So, particularly in the last few years, what did I fail to celebrate fully?

Influencing recommendations and government

We pushed for long-lasting recommendations to be the centre-piece of the Jo Cox Commission manifesto and stood firm on advising a solid and cross-government strategy with no quick-win gimmicks or white elephant investments that would somehow solve loneliness in one-grant-payment.

Public campaigning

The Campaign to End Loneliness hasn’t even scratched the surface of this – but we did do three things that are worthy of celebrating: (i) we based our campaigning in academic evidence (has anyone else done this on their loneliness public campaigning in the UK, or further afield?); (ii) we involved a wide range of people in creating the messages; and (iii) we have, for a very small organisation, achieved huge reach (admittedly, only the first stage in a behaviour change campaign).

Research

We continue to gather and share cutting edge research from over 120 researchers from across the world.

International awareness and network

We have strong links with other “campaigns to end loneliness” – We learn from them and vice versa.

Shifted the frame on loneliness

Back in 2012 we focused our efforts on the health impacts of loneliness – pushing this issue onto the agenda of a number of new politicians (Jo Cox, Seema Kennedy, Tracey Crouch) who later took up the cause and pushed it over the line in terms of policy change.

What about loneliness?

And finally, what about my personal learning? You can’t work on loneliness for almost a decade without its messages, learning and warning-signs seeping into your bones.

What I am personally taking away from all of this work is that of course this is about relationships. But it is also about our own resilience – our relationship with ourselves. It is, too, our relationship with a bigger purpose, calling, or a feeling of being valued and appreciated.

Longer versions of this blog are available on Laura’s LinkedIn page.