Centre for Health Promotion Research

Space to Connect Learning and Evaluation Programme

Lessons from the Space to Connect programme about how voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations responded to the pandemic to keep connecting people.

Space to Connect Learning and Evaluation Programme

who we are

The Space to Connect programme was a partnership between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Co-op Foundation. It aimed to unlock the potential of community spaces where people can connect and co-operate. Between 2019 and 2021, 57 community organisations in England received grants totalling £1.6 million to help build social connections, address local challenges like loneliness or access to services, and expand activities.

Leeds Beckett University led the Space to Connect Learning and Evaluation programme. We partnered with Locality and a number of external consultants to deliver this.

The experience of Space to Connect projects, the ambitions of the funders and the learning from the programme is captured in a variety of tools, reports and briefings, which can be accessed from this page.

What we did

We worked with Space to Connect projects to capture, understand, and share their experiences and learning during the programme – their role in the Covid-19 pandemic response became a particular focus.

Activities included:

  • Face-to-face workshops with Space to Connect projects (pre-pandemic)
  • Interviews with individual Space to Connect projects and programme funders
  • Collecting stories of a ‘Most Significant Change’ from Space to Connect projects
  • Online peer-learning workshops with Space to Connect projects
  • Reviews of research literature, policy documents and briefings

Insights were shared with Space to Connect projects to support their activities. They were also shared with other VCSE organisations and with local and national decision makers to inform future programmes.

The Space to Connect programme has advanced our understanding of the vital role that community spaces, physical and virtual, can play in bringing communities together and helping to build resilience. The programme also highlighted the exceptional speed and versatility with which the organisations adapted their services to meet users’ needs.

Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Our impact

The Covid-19 pandemic severely affected Space to Connect projects actions to improve local physical spaces – at least in the short term. It also resulted in Space to Connect projects developing alternative ways of making connections. This experience has raised questions about what a community space is, how local need is best served, and the sustainability of community organisations within local health and care systems.

The main things we learnt during the programme are about:

All the Space to Connect projects showed tremendous resilience and connection during the pandemic, focusing on the most vulnerable and isolated people in their communities and initiating a range of activities to support them.

Direct experience of what Space to Connect project did and the issues and challenges they faced is captured in our blog article 'The value of coming together online' and the Keeping in Touch Sessions report.

The pandemic meant VCSE organisations had to use more digital tools and offer services online to maintain connections with communities and to keep supporting people.

We partnered with New Philanthropy Capital to produce a short toolkit for VCSE about how to use digital more effectively. Our short blog article 'Space to Connect digital toolkit' sets out the rationale for the toolkit and what we learnt. The full toolkit is available online.

During the pandemic, the VCSE sector – including Space to Connect projects – responded quickly and with impact. They used their relationship with communities to coordinate activity and to provide services; mobilised volunteers; reached out to the most isolated; and developed new services and relationships.

We reviewed a range of reports to see how different stakeholders (e.g. local and national government, the voluntary sector, the NHS) viewed this response. Our analysis shows the important role that VCSE organisations play in civil society and makes a range of recommendations based on this evidence. An overview is provided in our blog article 'The role of VCSE organisations during Covid-19'.

Space to Connect projects were optimistic that their actions during the pandemic had led to a greater appreciation of the VCSE’s value to local health and care systems. However, further cultural change among local decision makers is required to ensure consistent support.

We produced a discussion tool for local decision makers to help them consider the role of community ‘anchor’ organisations and incorporate them into their plans.

You can find out more about the discussion tool in our blog article 'Getting the role of community anchors understood'.

The learning and evaluation programme included an embedded evaluator who focused on the impact of the programme overall rather than on the impact made by individual Space to Connect projects.

Learning was around the relationship between the funder and grant holders, the role of learning support during the programme, and of how the experience of the grant holders was captured and shared with wider stakeholders.

The findings will be of interest to funders of national grant programmes - an overview is provided in our blog article 'Supporting communities through turbulent time', and short summary report.

Our Space to Connect partners have continued to support the communities they serve throughout the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are sharing insights and support tools through this evaluation. By doing this, we hope to allow a range of organisations, not just those who have received funding through Space to Connect, to share our learning through co-operation. This knowledge can then be used for further impact. This fund has strengthened connections, tackled isolation, and addressed inequality in communities. Through it we have developed a blueprint to help others to support people to connect, something which is now more important than ever.

Nick Crofts CEO of Co-op Foundation


This project has produced evidence about the role of the VCSE in local health and care systems – both responding to immediate issues like the pandemic but also as a strategic partner.

Through 2021/2022 we’ll be engaging in outreach with stakeholders in the VCSE, NHS, academia, and local and national government to discuss more about what’s been learnt.

If you’d like to know more, please get in touch with the team. Please feel free to make use of our slide deck, which provides a high-level summary of key learning. 

contact Professor Mark Gamsu

Mark is a Professor with an interest in local democracy and health inequalities he works in the field of local health systems, the voluntary sector and active citizenship.

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