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Leeds Beckett University research shows success of Community Champions programme in tackling health inequalities in Leeds

A volunteer-led programme established in response to Covid-19 is helping to reduce health inequalities in Leeds – and could offer a way to grow inclusive volunteering in the city.
New research from Leeds Beckett University has highlighted the strengths of the Leeds Community Champions programme, which uses informal volunteer networks to engage diverse communities.

During the pandemic, Community Champions supported the uptake of the vaccination and helped to break down barriers between formal health services and communities by acting as trusted messengers.

The approach has helped to shape a new volunteering strategy for the city, set to be launched this week – alongside the publication of the Leeds Beckett research report – at a Community Champions event at Leeds Civic Hall.

The Leeds Community Champions programme was set up during the Covid-19 pandemic to connect better with local communities. It has now evolved to have a broader health and wellbeing focus, and continues to work with communities with the highest health needs. Community Champions are members of the community who volunteer to spread public health messages informally, and in an accessible way, in their local community networks. In February 2023, more than 240 people were registered as Community Champions in Leeds.

Jane South, Professor of Healthy Communities in the Centre for Health Promotion Research at Leeds Beckett University, led the research. She said: “Our research has shown that Community Champions have made a positive contribution to the public health landscape in Leeds. They supported Covid-19 vaccine pop-ups, have raised awareness of local health services, and have been a friendly face to talk to during challenging times.”

The research found that a strong partnership approach, between Leeds City Council and more than 80 local Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) organisations involved in outreach activities in Leeds, has been a major factor in the success of the programme. The programme has created new partnerships and boosted the connections between organisations, with many of them developing successful neighbourhood outreach activities through funding – provided initially by the Department of Health and Social Care and then the Government Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

The research report includes learning from the Leeds Community Champions programme and recommendations for developing a sustainable Champion model in Leeds, shaping future action on health inequalities in Leeds and helping to strengthen volunteering in the city.

Professor South said: “Community Champions have been invaluable for engaging diverse communities and their informal approach has shown to build trust and relationships. There is a lot of support for Community Champions to continue in Leeds. The programme has been associated with a very collaborative way of working, which if continued, would be beneficial to the Leeds public health system.”

The report, together with a new Leeds Volunteering Strategy – led by Voluntary Action Leeds and the Leeds Volunteer Managers’ Network – will be launched at an event at Leeds Civic Hall on Thursday 12 October.

Andrina Dawson, Coordinator for Volunteering at Voluntary Action Leeds, said: “We are delighted to see the findings of this research and that it confirms that the Community Champions project demonstrates an excellent approach to engaging people from diverse communities in Leeds. We will use the findings to strengthen our approach moving forward, particularly in relation to ensuring that volunteers understand the difference that they are making in communities.

“The evaluation findings have very much influenced the new Leeds Volunteering Strategy, which also launches this week. A key feature of this is the involvement of volunteer voice and influence within our volunteering offer in Leeds. As has been demonstrated, offering flexible volunteering opportunities and putting volunteers in the lead of social action are key elements to the success of Community Champions and these are key recommendations within the Leeds Volunteering Strategy.”

Professor Jane South has been at the forefront of establishing an evidence base for integrating community-centred approaches into public health. She has published widely on community-based prevention and is an expert on volunteer and peer interventions. From 2014 to 2023, she worked as a national adviser on communities for Public Health England (later the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities). During the pandemic, she led national research into how community champions might help address some of the emerging inequalities.