Blogs

Melting pot lunches… mixing things up and making things happen

Over the past few months we’ve held four melting pot lunches (an idea inspired by Kaleidoscope), where we’ve brought together 6 – 10 people with an interest in a particular area which has the potential to link in with reducing loneliness and isolation.

By Hannah Thornton · July 6, 2018

Over the past few months we’ve held four melting pot lunches (an idea inspired by Kaleidoscope), where we’ve brought together 6 – 10 people with an interest in a particular area which has the potential to link in with reducing loneliness and isolation. The aim was to learn from each other, and to facilitate people meeting who might not otherwise come across each other, and potentially spark off new conversations and collaborations. Two themes were areas where we knew that we had a challenge in recruiting participants (men and people from BAME backgrounds), and two where we thought there might be potential for engaging with interests or areas of work to help reduce loneliness and isolation (food and Sheffield as The Outdoor City).  

We really enjoyed the sessions and we got really positive feedback from attendees, and a few months on, we’re reflecting on what we learned from this process and where we go next. 

 Variety is the spice of life 

All the sessions were really positive and gave us interesting insights (we’ll go into these in more detail in blogs about each subject), but the sessions which were most rewarding and interesting were those with attendees from the broadest range of backgrounds. Sometimes it was hard to get this breadth though. We know everyone is busy and it can be really difficult to take two hours out of a day ‘just’ to talk and share experiences and ideas, but we found the ‘challenge’ areas particularly hard to engage people with, perhaps because our networks aren’t as strong, and in the case of men because we engaged with organisations that already focused on men, but didn’t get much interest from those that aren’t engaging as effectively with them – there’s still work to do. 

That sounds familiar… some common themes and ideas 

Several broad themes and some very specific ideas that have worked came across in all the groups when we talked about how to deliver services which engage effectively with people to reduce loneliness and isolation. The themes that came up weren’t a huge surprise, but the extent to which they dominated conversation, and the universality, was perhaps more so. The themes were: 

Trust and inclusivity 

Trust and making people feel welcome was key, particularly for engaging with BME communities. Local organisations which are already embedded within communities have the potential to reach people more quickly because they may already have trust as well as networks within communities. Making people feel welcome is more about the approach of individuals and giving time and attention; taking the time to acknowledge someone who is new at the start and then to speak to them before they leave and find out how the session went for them, perhaps following up with a phone call if someone doesn’t return. 

People are our greatest strength  

It was great to hear that participants were recognised as being key to reaching more people. Encouraging participants to bring a friend, either to the first session so they are not coming alone, or to bring along someone who they thought might enjoy it or benefit (or hopefully both) once they were already coming regularly was often successful in increasing attendance. This was the same for our melting pot lunch sessions themselves – the willingness of attendees to share their experiences and enthusiasm to connect was what made them work so well. 

Sustainability needs to be planned in from the beginning 

The importance of planning sustainability into projects from the very start came through several times, with one project having found that they struggled to move participants on to allow more people to benefit because they hadn’t created that expectation with the design of their project. Other projects found that clear messaging or timeframes from the outset of a project, and empowering participants to take on responsibility for continuing relatively low demand and low risk activities (such as walking groups) could be successful. 

Two specific ideas that have worked well to help people to build stronger relationships and have deeper connections also came across in several lunches: 

From organised activity to informal socialising 

Several organisations encouraged and instigated people taking part in activities and groups to meet informally outside of the groups, organising meals or trips to the pub and even trips abroad. This really gave people the opportunity to develop friendships and richer relationships that could continue outside of the formal meetings, and once one social event had been organised by the service provider, these then sometimes happened spontaneously.  

Walking leads to talking 

We were surprised by how often walking was mentioned. We expected it to come up in our Outdoor City melting pot lunch, but it cropped up in the men’s and BME lunches as well as something which appealed to a wide range of people and which could be focused around different interests (for example Sheffield United have led history walks, as well as partnering with Step Out Sheffield and Drink Wise Age Well to set up a walking group). Attendees found that as well as being affordable and accessible for many, the act of walking allowed people to feel comfortable having deeper conversations than they might do in a more formal setting and even to be more open to ideas for making positive changes to their lives. 

So what next 

We’ve used learning from the lunches to input into our commissioning process, and we’re thinking about what the next step for Age Better is around facilitating learning and collaboration. 

There’s enthusiasm to collaborate more 

Attendees were really positive about further events to share learning and encourage collaboration. People frequently talked about the value of meeting and talking with others working to reduce loneliness and isolation and wanting to increase collaboration, but recognised that the funding environment and pressures of work often made it challenging to do this. 

But there needs to be a purpose and facilitation. Where an individual from a lunch has tried to instigate ongoing meet ups with a general purpose, these haven’t really come to fruition so far. Given how stretched everyone is, it makes sense that when time is of the essence, ongoing meetings need to give real value or have a clear outcome. That outcome might still be about learning something, or it might be about trying to solve a specific problem or collaborate on a particular piece of work, but specific times and purposes are likely to be important. 

There was interest from attendees in the central Age Better team taking on a facilitative role in creating a learning and collaborative community across Sheffield. We’re really open to this, but we’re conscious that for it to work, it needs to be useful to organisations and to be a collaborative effort. If you’re interested in working with us to shape what a learning and collaborative community to reduce loneliness and isolation might look like, please get in touch with us by emailing Victoria on v.penman@syha.co.uk and we’ll be in touch over the summer.  

Finally, we’d like to say a big thank you to Kaleidoscope who were generous enough to share their melting pot lunch concept with us.