People helping people: lessons learnt

This report details findings from Nesta and the Cabinet Office’s support of 52 social action innovations, showing that social action transforms lives - and public services.

This report details findings from Nesta and the Cabinet Office’s support of 52 social action innovations, showing that social action transforms lives and, when embedded in public services, also has a transformative effect on institutions.

Key findings

  • Our work backing 52 innovations to grow demonstrates that social action transforms lives, helping students who have fallen behind at school to catch up, job seekers to find work, isolated older people to feel connected and less lonely, and more. You can explore the evidence here.
  • It can also have a transformative impact on the design and delivery of better public services, making them better able to meet increased and new demand from citizens.
  • The sector is growing. There are now many proven social action innovations operating at scale, which can be commissioned by any public service in England. For example, any primary school can now request a Code Club, any local authority a Shared Lives Plus caring scheme, any ambulance trust a GoodSAM first responder scheme, any GP surgery a Breathe Easy group or Diabetes UK peer support group, any job centre a CIPD Steps Ahead mentor, any prison governor a User Voice Council, any city a GoodGym and so on.
  • The evidence and case studies from the programme convince us that the future of public services is people powered. But too often social action is still perceived by many as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an integrated component of open and facilitative public services.

This report explores the lessons learnt from the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund. Nesta and the Cabinet Office have supported 52 innovations to grow and increase their evidence of impact. More than 70,000 generous people across England have given their time and expertise to help nearly 175,000 people to date.

Lessons learnt by theme

The report takes each of the eight priority themes under which we supported innovations, sharing the case studies and impact metrics and drawing out four to five lessons from each. These include:

1. Social action to transform the lives of young people – one of the most established sectors where social action can play a part, with significant evidence and corresponding demand from schools.

2. Using digital technology to change lives – where our experience suggests two exciting new forms of social action – remote volunteering and data donation – as well as simply using digital technology to connect with volunteers, has great potential.

3. Social action to support people to manage long-term conditions – a sector where social action is becoming the norm, including widespread recognition of peer support. We reflect on the evidence and motivators and on the wider infrastructure for social action initiatives like peer support to connect with mainstream public service delivery.

4. Social action to support citizens to age well – where savings to the state can be significant and our experience suggests evidence is well regarded by commissioners so provides a route to scale the best.

5. Social action to build resilient communities through impact volunteering – based on the premise that all communities have assets to share (be it skills, talents, time or energy) the lessons here are relevant to all. We also explore the motivations of volunteers such as self-interest and reciprocity as well as altruism.

6. Social action to support people back to work – perhaps the most challenging sector we worked in with high supply, low awareness and demand, but some promising results.

7. Social action to meet city-wide needs – the Cities of Service programme - we discuss the key facets of the model we can all learn from - a senior lead, a clear brand, stopping any intervention that is not impactful early, building new and collaborative relationships between citizens and the state to design interventions, and more.

8. Social action in hospitals – the Helping in Hospitals programme - we reflect on the effectiveness of impact volunteering, and a desire to collect data to illustrate this impact, as well as recruitment and retention lessons learnt.

Lessons learnt as a funder

We also explore the lessons learnt as a grant maker in this space, having designed a fund that was especially focused on scaling and improving evidence of impact. We reflect that:

  • The innovations that succeeded planned for scale from the start and had a clear mode of growth, such as licensing and affiliation or organisational growth;
  • Building the skills for, and prioritising the collection of, quality data is needed if innovations are to grow and demonstrate their impact in order to challenge the status quo and dislodge less effective models;
  • Innovations that are integrated within the public sector infrastructure had the best chance of success;
  • There’s real benefit to grant makers working with an investor mindset; and
  • There’s much to be learnt from failure as well as success.


Vicki Sellick

Vicki Sellick

Vicki Sellick

Chief Partnership Officer

Vicki was Chief Partnership Officer

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