By Claire Fisher, Senior research and projects officer, National Office
Assessing the social impact of a campaign is no easy feat. As outcome-focused approaches have come into favour, the need to shift from measuring outputs, to measuring outcomes, has helped the social sector to understand the long-term impacts of our work and prove that what we are doing is working.
However, the nature of social issues mean there are many interdependent factors making it difficult to measure change. Neighbour Day was established as a vehicle to connect with elderly and vulnerable people across neighbourhoods, with an underlying assumption that loneliness disproportionately affects these groups. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Neighbour Day. Across time, the campaign has grown and our approach has shifted. This has occurred, in part, because our understanding of loneliness and its causes has also shifted. Additionally, the major events of the last few years have shaped a society in need of greater connection and mutual support.
Now, Neighbour Day represents many things to many people – a celebration, a catch-up, a reminder to check in every day, an acknowledgement of the importance of community, just another day to continue connecting with those around us. For Relationships Australia, we see the campaign as a way for us to support respectful relationships in every community. We know that respectful, supportive and enduring relationships are integral to health and wellbeing. Neighbour Day provides us with the opportunity to extend our outreach and help all Australians address issues such as social disconnection, loneliness, mental ill-health and suicidality – sometimes in communities we have never reached before.
Relationships Australia has been evaluating our social connection campaign, Neighbour Day, since 2018, with outstanding results. This blog explores the findings from our 2021 evaluation, with a particular focus on disentangling some of the more entangled social impacts we have not previously been able to expose. For details of the research findings from 2018-2020, you can read a recent blog we wrote.
We released our 2021 research report on March 3, 2022. For now, this represents the final piece of the puzzle in our four-year evaluation journey with the Australian National University (for information on what we will be doing next, you can read our previous blog). In the past, we have measured our key campaign outcomes by surveying people before and after Neighbour Day. In 2021, our methodology explored the experiences of people involved in Neighbour Day against a group of people who had never before heard of, or been involved in, Neighbour Day. This allowed us to increase the sample size and make comparisons against a control group (i.e. people not involved in Neighbour Day.) As such, we were able to make conclusions about how Neighbour Day affects people not only before and after involvement, but also, further understand which outcomes are attributable to the campaign itself.
Testing our assumptions
As mentioned, social research is challenged by the difficulty of separating out cause and effect. Our lives are complicated and our relationships especially so, meaning there are many external influences which affect social research. For example, during 2021, between our surveys, most parts of Australia experienced severe lockdown restrictions, ranging from 3-days to 3.5 months. Emerging research and anecdotal evidence suggests that this had an enormous effect on the health and wellbeing of Australians, which adds a complexity to understanding our data. Despite this, we know that social connection is one of the strongest predictors of health, including predicting a longer life, higher immunity, lower rates of anxiety and depression, better emotion regulation skills and higher self-esteem and empathy (Seppälä 2014). This means that if our evaluations can delineate improvements to social connection, we can begin to understand how involvement in Neighbour Day reduces loneliness, and improves mental health and wellbeing. In response, the evaluations have focused on measuring changes to people’s neighbourhood identification as a result of engagement with Neighbour Day. This specific measure of social connection is a gateway to understanding how the campaign affects overall wellbeing.
While our research in 2019 and 2020 illustrated a consistent increase in neighbourhood identification and/or satisfaction as a result of involvement in Neighbour Day, we still did not know if this was because of the exceptional nature of the kinds of people who became involved in the research. Therefore, in 2021, we sought to compare this against those never before involved in Neighbour Day. This helped us to identify some of the social outcomes of the campaign, drawing conclusions despite the rapidly changing social environment in which we find ourselves. The remainder of this blog explores some of the assumptions the team at Relationships Australia had about the effects of the campaign and how the research proved (or disproved) those assumptions – you will see in some cases we were pleasantly surprised by the results!
Assumption One: Neighbour Day is only useful and effective for specific types of people
Across the years, Neighbour Day has received significant feedback about the amazing impact it is making. You can read some of these stories from our 2022 ‘Tell Us Your Story’ competition winners. Yet without robust, evidence-driven research, we were unsure if these benefits were extending to all kinds of people getting involved in Neighbour Day – irrespective of whether they were hosts or Neighbour Day ‘attendees’. The 2021 research found that the benefits of Neighbour Day for social connection appeared to be largely indistinguishable between hosts and attendees. Additionally, the benefits of Neighbour Day were the same across different ages, genders, educational background, relationship status, employment status, and socioeconomic background – suggesting that people from all walks of life, reap the benefits of Neighbour Day.
Assumption Two: Knowing your neighbours is important for all the relationships in your life
Across the years, we have seen that Neighbour Day participation creates new relationships, improving neighbourly satisfaction and neighbourhood identification. Neighbourhood identification is a key tool for feeling connected and satisfied with your community – it is the integral first step to community-based improvements in health and wellbeing.
While we intuitively understood the importance of belonging on relationships, we had not explored the connection between getting to know your neighbours and improvements across the relationship spectrum. In 2021, we found that compared to non-participants, Neighbour Day participants had a significantly higher sense of neighbourhood identification. We also found that neighbourhood identification led to increased relationship satisfaction across a variety of relationships, including with family, friends and colleagues. Ultimately, Neighbour Day participation predicted greater satisfaction with all types of social relationships. The only relationship it did not significantly effect was those with a partner. This suggests that Neighbour Day should be considered a powerful tool in your relationship support toolkit.
Assumption Three: The resilience generated by strong community connections will protect against mental ill-health and loneliness, even in challenging circumstances
Since 2019, our evaluations have shown varying improvements to participants’ mental and physical health, wellbeing and loneliness. Part of the reason for these improvements is the greater relational satisfaction with a variety of support systems. The reports have demonstrated that there are several causal chains linking knowing one’s neighbours with perceived access to support from friends and family, and improved relationship satisfaction across a variety of relationships. Together, this led to enhanced mental health and wellbeing over time.
Despite this, the effect of lockdowns and other life events did not go unnoticed in the research. In 2020, respondents reported a decreased sense of mental wellbeing and an increased sense of loneliness between February and April – not surprising given the impact of COVID on Australian communities during that time. In 2021, respondents reported decreased psychological wellbeing and increased psychological distress. Yet in both years, we saw that the relationships fostered through Neighbour Day played a significant role in increasing participants’ resilience, even if they did not completely negate the effects of the pandemic.
For example, in 2020 we found that six months on from the initial Neighbour Day celebrations, people were feeling less lonely than in pre-pandemic times (February 2020). While in 2021, when compared with non-participants, Neighbour Day participants were protected against the decline in mental health during extended lockdowns across Australia in late 2021.
Assumption Four: Neighbour Day is owned by the people who celebrate it
Finally, we were most pleased to hear about the universal applicability and effectiveness of Neighbour Day. The evaluators noted that the indiscriminate benefits of the campaign were “unusual in social and health research and [are] potentially attributable to the grass-roots nature of Neighbour Day” (Fong et al., 2021). Feedback shows that Neighbour Day allows people to tailor their style of connection to the needs of their specific community, rather than a ‘top down’ imposition of a one-size-fits-all model. We found that this research defines Neighbour Day as a grass-roots campaign, yet one that is uniquely scalable – allowing us to support community connection across the country in different ways that benefit everyone.
As discussed, the 2021 dataset only surveyed people post-Neighbour Day. This means that the direction of the effect is not always clear. For example, one may argue that people with stronger social connections may be more likely to participate in Neighbour Day, rather than the other way around. However when considered together with previous evaluations (Cruwys et al., 2019; 2020; Fong et al., 2021), which did include a pre-Neighbour Day survey, we found the same pattern of results.
For example, we know that getting involved in Neighbour Day led 85% to get to know their neighbours better and that the strongest reason for getting involved has been to meet new people – suggesting it is reaching people who were not previously connected (Cruwys et al., 2020).
Neighbour Day may not currently be reaching every Australian, however it is an evidenced-backed, accessible movement that is growing each year, and supporting many Australians to create the community they want to live in.
A collective responsibility
Finally, the evaluators noted in a recent webinar that social isolation does not occur in a vacuum. Just as there are many reasons why some community members feel more empowered to go out and connect, loneliness itself is often a symptom of social exclusion, ostracism or discrimination. Neighbour Day provides all kinds of people with an opportunity to get involved in their community in a way that suits them. It also provides individuals, communities, councils, workplaces and businesses the opportunity to reach out to those around them and help build the community they want to live in as well.
As we continue to be challenged by world events, Neighbour Day is the perfect occasion to demonstrate respect, acceptance and inclusion in your communities in a tangible way. Everyone deserves to feel connected and it is our collective responsibility to address loneliness. Visit neighbourday.org to find out how to get involved and tips for taking the first step.
If you would like to see an amalgamated version of these findings, we have also created an infographic summarising the ongoing affects Neighbour Day has on all our relationships.