One cause that does not receive a lot of attention from philanthropists is mental health. Under that umbrella, social isolation has emerged as a new focus of some donors, even if most of the larger grantmakers continue to ignore the issue. Researchers have accumulated a significant amount of data showing how much loneliness impacts health. In fact, loneliness can be as strong a predictor of early death as obesity, hypertension, and even tobacco use. Moreover, data shows that this risk factor is on the rise, with more than 42 million Americans currently facing chronic loneliness. At the same time, loneliness remains much harder to define and quantify compared to the risk factors mentioned above, which is perhaps why philanthropists have not paid much attention to the problem.
The First Major Foundations to Address Loneliness in the US
Recently, some charitable organizations have begun to address the loneliness problem, the most notable being the AARP Foundation, which works primarily with older Americans. While the organization has historically focused on housing, it began looking last year for projects to fund that would address social isolation among seniors, with an emphasis on scalable initiatives. Another player that has become involved in the conversation is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which pledged $2.5 million to the issue of social isolation. RWJF complements the work done by the AARP Foundation by focusing on social isolation among younger people. Social isolation affects people of all ages and often develops slowly over time, or results from a single major life event.
RWJF has also broken from the approach adopted by the AARP Foundation by drawing on work abroad, especially considering that the RWJF pledge to work on social isolation came under the umbrella of the organization’s global learning program. Some of the projects that the organization looked to for inspiration include Men’s Sheds and Welcome Dinners. Men’s Sheds offer a place for men to gather and plan community projects, fix household appliances, and even build furniture. Started in Australia, the project is meant to take over the role of the workplace in offering social support to men after they retire. Welcome Dinners began in Sweden. This program involves households hosting dinners to welcome immigrants, refugees, or other community newcomers.
Tackling loneliness has become a focus of several national governments around the world. For example, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the UK would start a cross-government strategy to deal with the problem, and a national commission on loneliness was created. Early this year, the British government announced a new fund totaling £20 million to address social isolation, with the money going to both charities and community groups that address the issue. Notably, the British fund has allocated money to tackle loneliness at all ages, including among young people.
Criticism Aimed at Loneliness Research and the Way Forward
In the United States, the idea that loneliness has become an epidemic has been challenged, which is perhaps another reason why relatively few philanthropists have demonstrated interest in the issue. The Social Capital Project has published multiple reports about loneliness in the United States and has concluded that the evidence about its real impact is not sufficient for the conclusions that have been drawn. These reports point to Harris and Gallup polls over the decades that show a fairly constant rate of loneliness between 20 and 25 percent—although some might say this figure is alarmingly high. Other studies attempting to quantify loneliness in the United States have all used different measures of social isolation, which makes comparison difficult.
These sorts of reports put donors in a difficult place. Does it make sense for donors to fund more research into the epidemic of loneliness to get a better grasp on the problem and how to address it? Perhaps, but this approach requires a lot of time and money that could be used more strategically to support strategies that have already been shown to work. For example, the Men’s Sheds movement mentioned above has had a measurable impact where it has already been implemented, but creating more locations involves a significant investment of time and resources, from purchasing land and buildings to hiring lawyers who can help with zoning. Strategic investment in this movement might make more sense than supporting yet another research study.
The charities getting involved in the fight against loneliness are taking the right approach by asking for projects that foster greater community involvement. Strategies to mitigate loneliness need to directly engage the community by creating new physical spaces and opportunities for connection. Other strategies could address related obstacles that may prevent social connection, such as lack of access to transportation.
Philanthropists who wish to work in this sector should remember that loneliness is not always an issue tied to advanced age, as it is sometimes portrayed. Even younger people with hundreds of friends on social media report serious loneliness that could impact their health in a variety of ways as they grow older.