The Blog

Keep up to date with the latest news and stories from our network of partners.

‘We’re like a family really’ – finding a sense of belonging

‘We’re like a family really’ – finding a sense of belonging

Hamza is from Rochdale. He’s 18. He’s studying catering at college, and dreams of one day running his own business. He also has a severe hearing impairment.

We got to know Hamza when he joined Heard Not Hidden, a group for young deaf people set up by the Royal Exchange Theatre, with funding from the Co-op Foundation.

Through its work with the community in Rochdale, the theatre had identified that lots of young deaf people, and particularly those from South Asian backgrounds, were at risk of isolation. Using creative activities, they aimed to give young deaf people a platform to express themselves, learn skills, grow in confidence and start to change attitudes about disability.

When Hamza started attending Heard Not Hidden, he was quite shy. His self-confidence was low – he’d been applying for jobs and feeling frustrated that his hearing impairment was holding him back. But as the weeks went by, taking part in activities he enjoyed helped him start to bond with the other young people, volunteers and leaders.

When we visited the project, Hamza told us about the sense of belonging he’d found with the group. “We’re like a family really” is how he put it.

Belong – young people beating loneliness

Heard Not Hidden was one of the first projects the Co-op Foundation funded as we set out to tackle youth loneliness – an issue that affects one in three young people.

We’ve now built up a network of 24 projects, working in every nation and region of the UK. We call this network Belong, and it has three aims:

  • to connect and empower 5,000 young people, giving them the tools to tackle loneliness
  • to strengthen local youth services that provide vital support and opportunities
  • to start a national conversation that breaks down stigma about youth loneliness.

As a Co-op Member, you can support this work by choosing Belong as your cause – so that every time you buy Co-op products, 1% of what you spend will go to our youth loneliness projects.

You can also donate directly or raise funds online.

A long-term impact

Taking part in Heard Not Hidden is having a long-term impact on Hamza.

As his confidence grew, he started to take on more responsibilities within the project, co-ordinating activities and welcoming new young people into the group. One of his proudest moments came when he led a series of workshops raising deaf awareness in the community.

When we visited again recently, his hopes and aspirations for the future had clearly been boosted. He’d managed to get some work experience, and was throwing himself into his catering studies. He told us about the different aspects of the industry he’d been learning about, and how his grandfather had inspired him to think about going into business.

He’s become a role model to other young deaf people, and still regularly helps out at Heard Not Hidden. The project is now running independently, led by local volunteers – so it will have a long-term impact for other young deaf people and the community in Rochdale.

Meanwhile, our partnership with the Royal Exchange Theatre has expanded into other areas of Greater Manchester, building on what was learned from Heard Not Hidden. Working in schools, the theatre is now focusing on how creativity can build connections between disabled young people and their non-disabled peers.

Inga Hirst, the theatre’s Director of Creative Learning & Engagement, explains:

“Heard Not Hidden fulfilled a need identified by the community in Rochdale. Our team provided a platform for young people to express themselves and their experiences of being D/deaf or hearing impaired within the South Asian community. As a result, they grew in confidence and felt empowered to help dispel the attitude that disability should be hidden.

The project has created a network for the young people to make new social connections, share positive outcomes with their families and have access to professional services. It has been fantastically rewarding all round.

We’ve been delighted with our long-term partnership with the Co-op Foundation. It’s given us the freedom to respond to the needs of the young people we work with. Building on our learning, we’re working with young disabled people who experience loneliness, helping their integration with their peers and sense of connection and community.  

As a member of the Belong network, we’re also contributing to a nationally significant evidence base that will improve the lives of more young people.”

Find out more – and get involved

Youth loneliness is still not well understood. We’re just over one year into our work on this issue, and we still have a long way to go. But through stories like Hamza’s, and insights from the Royal Exchange and our other partners, we’re starting to see the difference our work is making.

This week we published our first annual impact report , to share this progress with our supporters. Here are some highlights:

  • 294 young people benefited from our first pilot projects (including Heard Not Hidden)
  • Another 2,000 will benefit from new projects we funded in 2017
  • Thousands of Co-op Members, colleagues, customers and suppliers raised funds to support our work tackling youth loneliness.

The report also shows how co-operation is the key to our impact in communities. If you’d like to get involved, here’s what you can do:

How can technology strengthen communities?

How can technology strengthen communities?

We’re delighted to announce an exciting new partnership that will use technology to solve social problems and empower communities.

Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, has awarded the Co-op Foundation £700,000 – among its first-ever investments in the UK.

The funding will support our two-year partnership with The Federation, a new co-working community of digital innovators in Manchester, established by the Co-op and united by a shared commitment to its ethical values.

Early-stage social enterprises using technology to improve lives, reduce inequality and increase civic participation will be able to apply for support to help their ideas take off. We’ll be offering free co-working space at The Federation to up to 60 social innovators whose plans show potential for sustainable impact.  

Through a series of public events, the partnership will also engage with broader questions about the role of technology in society – both its vast potential to transform lives for the better, and the many new ethical, social and economic challenges it presents.

Technology and loneliness – a ‘double-edged sword’?

Over the last year, the Co-op Foundation has set out to investigate and address youth loneliness. As we’ve done so, technology has been a recurring theme.  

Debate often centres on concerns about social media and its effects on young people’s emotional health. The Children’s Commissioner for England recently warned of the ‘cliff-edge’ as young people first join social networks, unprepared for the social pressure these can bring.

The youth-led research we’re supporting at Manchester Metropolitan University has found that while young people do feel anxieties about social media, they are also positive about the possibilities of online connection – as an extension of, rather than a substitute for face-to-face interaction.  Indeed technology can even be central to teens’ sense of identity and belonging – in a recent NCS study, 39% of boys defined themselves as ‘gamers’ and 21% as ‘techies’.

The Children’s Commissioner also highlights important questions of governance and accountability. The internet ‘is not designed with children in mind’, although one third of its users are under the age of 18.  Pressure is growing for big tech companies to do more on issues from tackling online abuse to respecting privacy rights. (Although many children lay the blame closer to home, complaining that their parents’ social media sharing habits make them uncomfortable.)     

Diversity, digital skills and ‘design hops’

Our last blog post examined some of the demographic disparities in youth loneliness. And as we consider diversity in the digital era, age isn’t the only characteristic we should be concerned with. Just how representative are the people writing the algorithms that have an ever-growing influence on our lives? Or those who extract profit from the data our online actions generate?

Meanwhile, thousands of charities and social enterprises, rooted in diverse communities up and down the UK, exist to tackle inequality and injustice. These organisations should be at the vanguard of using digital tools to give a voice to the disenfranchised, protect the vulnerable, and create equal opportunity for all. Yet many are still struggling with the basics. The digital skills gap is hindering the social sector’s ability to raise funds, reach more of those who need help, or make its services as effective as possible.

In response to this, we recently supported a series of ‘design hops’ led by CAST – the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology. These workshops introduced 80 not-for-profits to digital processes for rethinking aspects of their services. Seeing the level of demand for this support, we’re keen to increase our efforts to stimulate and strengthen the use of tech for social good.

CAST Event – Cardiff

What next?

The support of Omidyar Network will allow us to do just that. And by working with The Federation, we’ll be joining an existing community of innovators who are already putting inclusion and ethics at the heart of Manchester’s growing digital economy.

The offer of free co-working space is open to social enterprise start-ups of up to 4 full-time workers. They must be set up to benefit communities in the UK, and be able to show how they will make themselves accountable. And because our support is time-limited for 12 to 18 months, they must have credible business plans to grow their income and sustain their impact beyond this period.

As part of the Federation community, they’ll also benefit from extensive peer support networks and expert input from Co-op colleagues.  

More information on how to apply can be found on the Federation website.

We’re also putting together plans for the collaborative events series that this funding will support. This will be wide-ranging in scope, but key themes will include diversity in tech, citizen empowerment and civic participation.  

We hope to share lots more learning from our youth projects as well – looking beyond the headline fears about social media, to find out what today’s ‘digital natives’ really think about the technology that shapes all our worlds.


Youth loneliness – who are the ‘one in three’?

Youth loneliness – who are the ‘one in three’?

Youth loneliness – who are the ‘one in three’?

A ‘silent plague’. An ‘epidemic’ that affects young people more than any other group. These headlines from the past few years show that the evidence has been there for some time – youth  loneliness exists, and on a large scale. The Co-op’s ‘Trapped in a Bubble’ research with the British Red Cross confirms that around one in three young people feel lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’. That’s why we launched Belong – our UK-wide network of partners helping young people beat loneliness.

But why is youth loneliness so widespread? And does it affect some young people more than others?

We know that across all stages of life, loneliness is often linked to times of transition. And young people, of course, have to navigate lots of changes in fairly quick succession – moving from primary to secondary school; dealing with puberty; thinking about careers, and then perhaps moving away from home for work or study. At the same time, young people are often trying to establish or make sense of their own personal identity, as well as experiencing the emotional highs and lows of first romantic relationships.

Unsurprisingly, all this change can be overwhelming at times, and can contribute to feelings of loneliness – or, as we’ve found young people are more likely to frame it, that they ‘don’t fit in’ or ‘don’t feel connected’.

So on one hand, loneliness is to some extent a pretty normal part of growing up. Yet it’s also a word young people don’t seem comfortable using or being associated with. (Media narratives of a ‘plague’ or ‘epidemic’ of youth loneliness don’t help with this stigma – an issue which will probably warrant a whole blog post at some point!)

We also know that beyond the usual challenges of adolescence, there are certain factors that can make young people feel lonely more often, or for longer, than their peers. Sometimes it’s about personal or family circumstances – several of the projects in our Belong network are focusing on well-established risk factors for prolonged loneliness, like having a disability or leaving care.

New research by the National Citizen Service also shows some worrying broader demographic patterns in youth loneliness. While one in three are lonely overall, this rises to more than half among both black and LGBT teens. Loneliness also appears to be much more common in girls (48%) than boys (23%) – although we must be careful interpreting gender differences in how young people report their feelings (that issue about language and stigma again).

On the face of it, our network of Belong partners also reflect these patterns. Some, like the Proud Trust, specifically support LGBT youth. Others work in areas with significant ethnic minority communities. Clean Break use theatre to empower vulnerable young women. Roughly half of our projects have some particular targeted focus like this, while the other half aim to work with disadvantaged young people more broadly.

As we plan our next round of project funding, to be launched in Spring 2018,  we’ll need to look more closely at the profile of who our funds are currently reaching. We’ll shortly be conducting our first annual diversity survey of all our projects, to do just this.

The work our partners are delivering is certainly helping disadvantaged young people and those at risk of loneliness, all across the UK.  But detailed demographic data, combined with the growing body of youth loneliness research, will tell us whether we can do even more to target our resources equitably, helping those who really need it most.

Don’t forget, if you’re a Co-op member you can help us reach even more young people affected by loneliness, by choosing Belong as the cause to benefit from your 1% member reward!


Big days and small actions

Big days and small actions

Delicious festive food in the shops, heartwarming Christmas ads on TV. And we’ve even seen some snow! No doubt about it, the countdown to the ‘big day’ is well underway.

Maybe you’re even counting down the days with the help of a Fairtrade chocolate advent calendar – just one of the many ways Co-op customers and members are supporting our work to tackle youth loneliness.

For many of us, Christmas will be about coming together to share good times with families and friends, colleagues and communities. But for some, traditional times of celebration can also be periods of loneliness, sadness and difficulty.

That’s why we’re supporting a new project called ‘Big Days’. Led by the charity Youth Focus: North East, it will develop a network of young volunteers who will offer practical help and companionship to people, young and old, who feel particularly lonely at certain times, and on certain days, of the year – Christmas and New Year included.

As the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission highlights this week, small actions can make a big difference. Helping a neighbour with their Christmas shopping, or offering a listening ear to somebody who’s lost a loved one during the year are among the initial ideas for the ‘Big Days’ project. As more young people get involved, they’ll come up with lots more ways they can help each other and their wider communities, throughout the year.

‘Big Days’ is one of nine regional projects recently awarded grants from the Co-op Foundation #iwill fund, expanding our UK-wide network of partners tackling youth loneliness. The #iwill fund  (made possible through investment from the Big Lottery Fund and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with match funding from the Co-op Foundation) aims to create more opportunities for young people to take part in social action – positive activities that benefit themselves and their communities.

This ‘double benefit’ is a vital aspect of our work to tackle youth loneliness. Young people may not be comfortable admitting that they feel lonely themselves – even though almost a third of them regularly do. But volunteering to help others can be an effective way of developing a sense of identity and purpose, which are important factors in overcoming loneliness.

Youth social action is also a great example of co-operative values in practice. It combines self-help, social responsibility and caring for others. As more young people have the chance to experience these mutual benefits, we hope that what starts with small, simple actions will grow into a lifelong habit of community involvement.

So what small actions can you take to help others this Christmas?

For a start, you could get in the festive mood by streaming or downloading the Co-op’s fantastic, community-themed Christmas song – all profits will go towards our youth loneliness projects.

Better still, if you want to continue supporting this work throughout the year, as a Co-op member you can now choose to allocate 1% of what you spend on own-brand products to our cause.

You could even make it your new year’s resolution to say #iwill support youth social action – have a look at the #iwill campaign website for the many ways people can get involved.

We’ll use this blog to share stories of how all our projects up and down the country are working with young people to beat loneliness. You can follow us to see how your support is adding up to make a big difference in our communities in 2018.

Merry Christmas from the Co-op Foundation to all our partners and supporters!


Get in touch

To contact the team, email

Please note that the Foundation is not inviting applications for funding at the moment. If you're looking for funding for a youth social action project, check if one of the other #iwill match funders might be right for you.

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