To support the increased interest in and adoption of community champion approaches during the pandemic, Public Health England (PHE) have commissioned Leeds Beckett University to pull together a rapid scoping review of existing research evidence. This has been part of our contribution to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s (MHCLG) community champions programme, alongside a range of activities to build the evidence base around community champions approaches and share best practice and learning from local schemes, including through webinars, case studies and online platforms

Community champions approaches are not new, having previously been highlighted as part of PHE’s family of community-centred approaches and RSPH’s work on health champions. Despite this, they have achieved particular prominence during the pandemic as a way of reaching those communities most disproportionately impacted by the virus, and many local areas now have community champion programmes that are helping to support their local COVID-19 response. 

We know that the communities in which we live, work and play are important to our health and wellbeing. Community life, social connections and having a voice in local decisions are all important factors that contribute towards this. Building stronger, more sustainable and more resilient communities is a key part of addressing health inequalities

Never has this been truer than since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK, as we’ve battled with a threat to our collective health and wellbeing the scale of which hasn’t been seen for over a century. At the forefront of this have been our local communities. Since the very start of this pandemic, communities have played vital roles in the national response, helping to meet essential needs of some of the most vulnerable and supporting each other’s social and emotional wellbeing.  

Despite this, we know that COVID-19 has widened existing inequalities, with those communities who are already marginalised or seldom heard being disproportionately impacted by the virus. Inequities in power and lack of trust experienced by these communities further exacerbate the situation. As such, approaches are needed that target those communities most at risk from the virus and that seek to build trust, share power, value insight and engage with communities in a culturally competent way. 

Community champions approaches are one way of doing this. They utilise community members who volunteer to promote health and wellbeing or improve conditions in their local community. Champions use their social networks and life experience to address barriers to engagement and improve connections between services and disadvantaged communities. They act as credible and trusted sources of health information, linking into communities and groups that traditional communications and messaging are less suited to engaging tailoring messages to ensure that they are accessible and culturally competent, and feeding back insight and intelligence to help guide policy. 

Our review aims to give those in a position to commission and deliver community champions programmes a better understanding of the evidence base for these kinds of approaches, including different ways of building local programmes and key factors to consider for successful implementation.  

The findings from the review show that: - 

  • champion approaches are highly relevant to reducing health inequalities in a range of contexts  

  • there is evidence of improved service reach and connections within communities 

  • there is also consistent evidence on the benefits for those individuals who become champions. 

  • there are a range of different models and ways of building community champion programmes 

  • these approaches can be applied flexibly to meet local needs and reflect local assets 

The review also offers pointers on how public health can build local champion programmes going forward: 

  • champions can be key connectors in communities, but these roles do not operate in isolation and need to be embedded in effective community engagement strategies. 

  • using training approaches that build skills and confidence, along with a supportive infrastructure, has direct relevance to those considering the future development and sustainability of local champion programmes 

  • longer term investment in local coordination and support helps build a cohort of champions and there was some evidence of positive social return on investment (SROI) 

As the current MHCLG programme of funding and activity for community champions starts to wind down, and we enter a new phase of the pandemic response, many will be casting their sights ahead and considering how community champions schemes can be sustained as a way of continuing to support community engagement in their pandemic response and recovery. When implemented well, these kinds of approaches can deliver a return on investment and be effective at tackling entrenched health inequalities, but they require proper commitment and investment to be effective. Our research provides those responsible for making these kinds of decisions with the best available evidence to help inform their work. 

The value that community-centred approaches can bring is clear; the challenge will be in finding ways of continuing to invest in and grow these approaches sustainably. 


This blog was written by:

Jane South National Adviser on Communities at Public Health England
Jude Stansfield National Adviser on Public Mental Health at Public Health England
Tom Mapplethorpe Public Health Programme Support Manager at Public Health England
Conrad Eydmann, Improvement Lead at Public Health England
Nelly Araujo, Development Manager at the Royal Society for Public Health