Interactive groups make a happier nation, says Nick Addington
Most of us would say that spending time with friends and family makes us feel happier. But did you know that it can extend your life? Studies have shown that people with stronger social relationships were 50 per cent less likely to die in any per iod studied than those with weaker relationships.
Knowing and co-operating with others doesn’t just give us warm feelings, but brings real, tangible benefits. Like a good friend bringing you soup when you’re not well, or having a friend babysit for you – on the understanding you will return the favour, of course. In this way, relationships help us get by, but they can also help us get on. So we might hear about a job opportunity from someone at the gym or we might get advice about a college application from a friend’s dad.
This is what is called “social capital”. Social capital is the concept that there is a value in our relationships and the trust that is built between people who know and support each other. We can acquire social capital by interacting with people and getting involved in clubs or community activities.
This is one reason why Foundation Scotland makes hundreds of grants each year to small charities and community groups. These groups are bringing people together, fostering co-operation, and reaching out to those who are most isolated. They might exist for a range of purposes: to improve the local environment, to help people in need, to provide essential services or to be creative, learn and have fun together.
When one of our corporate donors created a fund with us to support elderly people in the Stirling area, we were able to provide Ochil Community Centre management committee with a grant to buy kitchen equipment. The group wanted to create a community café and run a lunch club for old folk in Raploch. But the impact of the grant is not just that elderly residents get a healthy meal once a week. Many of them get to make new friends, enjoy a blether, and for some it is their one social event each week to look forward to. Mums and toddlers attending a group on the same day also use the café, and the generations mix and chat and get to know each other – relationships that extend beyond the centre, with families helping elderly neighbours with shopping, for example. The volunteers that run the café also help elderly folk to access other services including housing and benefits advice.
Groups like this are part of the glue that binds society together, improving people’s lives and circumstances and making people feel better about themselves and their communities.
Analysis of charities’ annual accounts by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) shows that 80 per cent of the income of Scotland’s charitable sector goes to just 4 per cent of charities. The large charities that make up that 4 per cent are doing great work and spending that money well, but Foundation Scotland is keen to ensure that smaller groups, often run entirely by volunteers, can also access a few hundred or a few thousand pounds when they need it.
The impact of the recession and cuts to public funding are having a real impact on the viability of these groups. Most local authorities are less able to offer support with premises or funds. Raising money from local supporters has been harder as people feel the pinch themselves. Meanwhile, many charities report increased demand for their services, usually leading to an increase in costs as they do their best to meet rising need. Research by SCVO also shows that smaller charities are most likely to have incurred deficits in the last couple of years as their costs increase and income doesn’t keep up. Some 45 per cent of charities with an annual income under £25,000 ran at a deficit in 2012-13. Few will have sufficient funds in reserve to sustain them if this continues.
Encouragingly, Foundation Scotland is working with more and more people and companies who want to give to local charities. Research undertaken by UK Community Foundations confirms that most people are keen to connect more to local groups through donations or volunteering. In a 2013 survey, it found 54 per cent of people in Scotland already give time to local causes, while 44 per cent give money. More than half said they would give more if it was made easier and they could see the difference it made. People also said that they thought giving locally is twice as effective as giving to national or international causes.
With increasing interest from policy-makers in promoting well-being and preventing future demand on public services in a challenging financial climate, there has never been a more important time to support local charities and community groups. Let’s invest financial capital to grow Scotland’s social capital, because we’ll be a happier – and healthier – nation if we do.
• Nick Addington is head of philanthropy services at Foundation Scotland www.foundationscotland.org.uk