Compassionate Neighbours is an award winning Community Volunteering programme designed to help alleviate loneliness and isolation in East London.


How the project works

Compassionate Neighbours is an award-winning social movement designed to help alleviate loneliness and isolation in East London. Since the project began in 2015, we have trained 290 compassionate neighbours and made 165 matches of compassionate neighbours with community members who are at the end of life, through age or illness.

Once matched, compassionate neighbours visit their community members at least once a week for a social visit; this could be in their home, out in the community or at one of our community-led social hubs. Compassionate neighbours provide the following:

  • a listening ear; a cup of tea and a chat
  • helping others stay connected to friends and the community
  • directing others to local support services and opportunities.

We had the vision to create something different from other befriending projects and more traditional hospice models: a group of advocates for social change and to empower them to promote compassion within their communities.

These values reflect the project today and have evolved through practice, learning and the involvement of the community.

The compassionate neighbours themselves are at the heart of the project, and they often benefit as much as the community members. Through training, support and involvement we see compassionate neighbours as an opportunity to future proof a group of people who will potentially experience loneliness throughout their lives.

Our training is designed to be inclusive and experiential: our aim is not to teach anyone how to be compassionate, empower them and give them the confidence to express their compassion in their local community.

A key part of the project is the relationships that develop with the hospice, with community members, between compassionate neighbours themselves and with the wider community.

We aim to make the relationship between compassionate neighbours and community members as reciprocal as possible, and we encourage all those involved to get more connected to their local community.

Many of our matched compassionate neighbours and community members have become firm friends but there is so much more to this project than that. Those who are involved are part of a social movement, spreading compassion across East London and supporting each other to do so.

How and why we began the Compassionate Neighbours

The Compassionate Communities concept was originally brought to St Joseph’s Hospice by Heather Richardson and Dr Libby Sallnow who had travelled to Kerala, South India and discovered the Neighbourhood Network project there.

During their time there, they observed the value that compassionate community members were able to add to the lives of those suffering from serious work-related injuries.

Compassionate Neighbours was launched by St Joseph’s Hospice in June 2014. It was developed in partnership with local people and is designed to increase capacity within communities local to the hospice to support people living with a terminal, serious and long-term illness, the frail and elderly, the socially isolated and the carers of people with such conditions.

The first cohort of Compassionate Neighbours was trained in partnership with Social Action for Health. Thanks to their input St Joseph’s Hospice has developed this model to create an immersive and empowering Compassionate Neighbours experience.

In 2015, the project expanded to support one of St Joseph’s strategic priorities, 'to build capacity amongst its local communities, to be well informed, to support each other and to enable people to care for themselves and to remain independent for as long as is possible.'

In 2016, we received funding from Connect Hackney, Hackney Council and Hackney Parochial Charities to focus our work on the borough of Hackney. In 2018 we secured funding from the Big Lottery Fund to expand this project across Hackney and into Tower Hamlets, where we created many compassionate neighbour social ‘hubs’, led by the volunteers themselves.

The challenges we faced and how we overcame them

The challenges faced have been how to manage such a rapidly growing project that is only funded to operate in certain boroughs. We can help those in other areas, but our capacity can only stretch so far.

Another challenge has been gaining the understanding and developing working relationships with referring organisations such as the hospice itself, local hospitals, GP surgeries and other charities.

As we are not a traditional befriending service, it is important that we receive appropriate referrals from community members and that their expectations are managed effectively. Through outreach and open dialogue, we have managed to develop these relationships to ensure that there is a good understanding of compassionate neighbours across the borough.

The benefits we have seen

The benefits to people are wide-reaching. Our compassionate neighbours develop their confidence and social networks as a result of being involved in the project and our community members benefit from the social and emotional support they receive.

'I'm retired, and becoming a Compassionate Neighbour has improved the quality of my life; gaining new skills and making new friends from cultures I would never otherwise have connected with. I now feel part of the local community I've lived in for so long. It has given me a whole new lease of life.' (Bill, compassionate neighbour).

'I was matched with a very elderly lady [...] who was previously unaware of the support offered by the hospice and is very grateful for being referred to this project. I am retired. I live alone and can get lonely too. We both look forward to our weekly meetings.' (Ms M. compassionate neighbour)

‘It’s a natural friendship. You can’t buy that. It’s a real, true friendship and that is what I love about compassionate neighbours.’ (Judea, community member)

'My compassionate neighbour has been very good for me, someone to talk to when things have been difficult. I’ve been more social since meeting her, I feel more alive and we’ve been on a few trips to the local shops.’ (Michael, community member).

Our advice to others

Our advice to others thinking of setting up a compassionate neighbours project would be to stay true to the principles and make sure the model is delivered according to these. It should also be recognised that because the principles are based on a community development model, the project will change and evolve but that is OK, as long as the core principles remain in place and are adhered to.

For more information please contact Carly Attridge, Head of Volunteering or Richard Julian, Project Manager.