Former Renaisi Project Manager, Olivia Petie, reflects on her final project at Renaisi; an embedded researcher-led evaluation of the Cares Family network of volunteers and older neighbours in North and South London.

Renaisi was commissioned to evaluate the impact of North London Cares and South London Cares’ community networks of young professionals and older neighbours hanging out and helping one another in a rapidly changing city.

We had worked with The Cares Family previously to help them articulate their model and develop a set of outcomes and quality indicators for their work. This time they wanted to measure and understand the impact of their work on those outcome areas.

The Cares Family network of older and younger neighbours

Designing a flexible research approach

We knew our approach would need to be tailored to both the individuals and the organisation. Evaluation is not a one-size fits all, and our approach needed to reflect the ethos and approach of The Cares Family; this meant rather than doing research “to” participants, we must embed ourselves into The Cares Family community.

With no clearly defined start or end point for engaging with The Cares Family programme, and a history of poor survey uptake (due to the informal nature of their work) it was felt that a pre- and post-engagementapproach to data collection would not be relevant. With these factors in mind, we elected to use a one-off survey and an embedded researcher.
Our embedded researcher participated in anything from dancing classes to bird watching – having a chat and observing the activities while doing so. We knew that embedded research presented a particular set of challenges so we backed up these natural and authentic interactions with formal research, workshops and interviews.

The challenges of an embedded research approach

There was a risk that the embedded researcher would not be welcomed or that there would be resistance from the existing community to working in this way. By taking the time to build meaningful connections we really got to know the community of people. Our researcher fit the demographic of a typical volunteer for The Cares Family, which made it easier for them to embed within the community.

The embedded researcher could have become so involved they lost their objectivity. To mitigate for this, a research colleague analysed and challenged their research approach and any findings. We also recorded lots of data from surveys, and additional qualitative methods which meant we were able to triangulate the different data points to ensure our analysis was robust.

Embedded research can be time consuming. In this case, the researcher took the time to get to know individuals in The Cares Family community, spent time talking through the survey with them, met people where they were and did not rush the process.

What we learnt about community research

Conducting surveys face to face allowed for rich and nuanced qualitative data to sit alongside the quantitative data. It gave us an insight into people’s reasons for giving a certain answer to the survey. This in turn told us more about the complexities and nuances of informal interventions and the role that they can play in people’s lives.

Our findings highlighted the challenges of measuring change through a community-based model such as The Cares Family’s – particularly in the subjective and contested areas of loneliness and wellbeing. In part this related to language. Terms and definitions are important, and the language used to consider these areas of a person’s life are nuanced; one person’s “happy” is very different to another’s.

We found that quantitative methods alone are not currently able to describe The Cares Family’s outcomes. Responses to quantitative survey questions frequently didn’t reflect the richer qualitative data we gathered alongside it. This was due to a number of reasons, particularly that these outcomes are subjective, and the way people interpret the questions and their own lives and emotions varies hugely.

What’s next?

While this evaluation work moved our thinking on significantly and helped us to develop our expertise and experience in measuring these sorts of outcomes with community-based interventions, there is still a lot more to be learnt.

We continue to build on our experience by working with the sector to help organisations find the best way to measure change for their programmes and communities.

We also continue to work with The Cares Family as they expand into Liverpool, Manchester and East London. Find out more about The Cares Family.