Culture Champions is an age-friendly cultural volunteering and engagement programme. It works with people 50+ to instigate conversations and ideas about what they would like to see and do in their local area. This large-scale programme provided an opportunity for people to co-design and deliver community projects that were relevant and engaging for their peers and wider community.

The challenge

The Greater Manchester Culture Champions approach was developed against a backdrop of:

  • Widely varying cultural participation, and therefore cultural capital, amongst older residents of Greater Manchester
  • A lack of representation of the diversity of almost 1 million older people amongst cultural audiences, participants and volunteers1
  • Growing potential audiences – it is projected that Greater Manchester will be home to 1.1 million people over 50, in 20 years’ time
  • Negative representations of older people in the press, media and civic life that reinforce negative stereotypes
  • Programming resulting in cultural opportunities designed for older people but not by them
  • Prevalent issues faced by older people, for example, isolation and loneliness, significant concentrations of income deprivation, poor health and high levels of economic inactivity.

‘As an older black lesbian, I don’t see people like me represented in mainstream media and to be able to create something that was so diverse was really special.’

Trafford Culture Champion

The rationale builds upon Greater Manchester’s Ageing Hub’s citizen-based approach to ageing, promoting agency and active participation led by older people. This ethos enables work across the ageing agenda by, with and for local people. This longstanding approach seeks to improve the quality of life of older people and make the city region one of the best places to grow older. 

Culture Champions has some similarities with the Community Champions model which is often associated with health promotion. This model is characterised by a focus on volunteers drawing on community connections and local knowledge to make a difference in their local community.  

A successful Champions programme had been running since 2011 in the city of Manchester. This was the first one of its kind to focus primarily on delivery of benefits to residents through culture and creativity.

Our approach

Greater Manchester Culture Champions aimed to stimulate age-friendly cultural programming and activity, by and with people age 50 and over, especially those at risk of social isolation. 

The programme spanned five Greater Manchester boroughs – Manchester, Bolton, Bury, Salford and Trafford – and was developed through a unique collaboration between local authorities, public funding bodies and the cultural sector: 

  • Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s (GMCA) Ageing Hub 
  • The Greater Manchester Great Place scheme based within GMCA and funded by Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund 
  • Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester 
  • Ambition for Ageing (AfA) led by the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation (GMCVO) and part of the national Ageing Better programme
  • Trafford Housing Trust.

The partnership created a new post to support this work, the Greater Manchester Age-Friendly Culture Champion Manager. This post was the link between the funding partnership and the projects across the city region and was based between GMCA’s Age Friendly Hub and Manchester Museum. Each project had a part-time coordinator based within a local cultural or community venue, with support from the Culture Champion Manager. 

Culture Champions uses culture and creative activity as a vehicle to encourage active citizenship and chimes with the citizen-led approach to creative ageing in Greater Manchester.

The programme comprised a suite of projects across the city region, involving a wide range of partners including housing providers, voluntary and community organisations and cultural organisations, with each project tailored to local need. Three practice models emerged from the projects:

  • Creative Local Communities model By delivering a programme that focuses on a small geographical area and working hyperlocally, benefit can be seen in the local community and projects have thrived
  • Age-Friendly Cultural Organisations model By using the principles of the Culture Champions programme, organisations can become more age-friendly and diversify both their audiences and their programme of work
  • Active Older Citizens model This activism model can empower and support older adults to become more active and have more agency both within the local cultural offer and in the wider community.

Many projects were developed with a relatively small core group of Culture Champions meeting regularly to generate ideas, surrounded by a larger more informal group attending events and workshops. Small-scale seed funding was available to help make ideas a reality.

Culture Champions from the five programmes participated in, advocated for and shaped cultural activity in organisations and their communities from volunteering programmes 

and workshops to festivals and radio shows.
For example:

  • Poetry in the Pub
  • Regular music lessons for guitar, drums, keyboard and ukulele
  • Club Nights – ‘night out’ for older people including live acts, DJ and dancing
  • Bus tour taking in musical highlights and heritage of the city 
  • Celebration of South Asian food and music
  • Cabaret night for local older LGBTQ+ community
  • Pop-up cycle project which offered bike maintenance training, cycling support and social cycles 
  • Wall of Fame – a public arts project celebrating people connected to Old Trafford and who had contributed to arts, culture and social change 
  • Bring On the Brass – a promenade brass band street show.

Culture Champions were recruited by:

  • Attending community events and meetings, and working with existing older-adult groups
  • Local leafleting through community networks 
  • Targeting places that older people already frequented – such as shopping centres, libraries, GP surgeries and community hubs – with leaflets and information days
  • Connecting to local religious and cultural organisations e.g., Shree Krishna Temple, the African Community Association and Bolton Asian Elders Resource Centre.

‘I see [Culture Champions] primary purpose is to build bridges with the older population in Bury and culture.’

Bury Culture Champion

What we achieved

The programme delivered a wide range of benefits for individuals and organisations, including:

Creating cultural leadership and engagement opportunities the programme gave the chance for older residents to volunteer within their communities and help set the cultural agenda. Culture Champions have developed new civic space in their communities where other older people can collaborate and participate. Culture Champions feel strongly that they and others who engaged in a similar programme benefit by:

  • More opportunities to meet more people in their area, helping them feel less lonely and isolated
  • Being more connected to local cultural activity, which in turn strengthens connections to the wider community 
  • Developing skills and confidence through social and creative activity
  • Being encouraged to stay or become an active citizen
  • Having a voice and role in the cultural life of their neighbourhood and ensuring they feel valued 
  • Providing ways to improve wellbeing by taking part in the five ways to wellbeing.

‘I can relate to cultural institutions, but I’m more interested in grass roots things and implementing at a community level and avoiding the elite.’

Manchester Culture Champion

Bringing together the community – Culture Champions created spaces where older residents can discuss their local area, what they want it to be like and what it means to them. This collaborative approach to place-making has resulted in an enhanced sense of place and community identity and in some cases fed into neighbourhood planning with local authorities.

‘It attracted people from different walks of life. I was chuffed to be asked to be a Culture Champion – it helps us find things to do as we get older. It gets ordinary folk involved, not those in the circles where decisions are made – helped us to have a say.’

Bolton Culture Champion

‘Being part of the Pink Purse live-stream event [part of Trafford Culture Champions] made me feel empowered that I could make a small change in how the queer community are represented.’

Trafford Culture Champion

‘Getting local people involved in different cultural activities helps them; it gives people something to take back to their communities, gives them a reason to connect to people.’

Manchester Culture Champion

Growing the cultural offerCulture Champions has supported localities across the region to put in place an asset-based approach to developing new age-friendly cultural programmes. 

The new projects focused less on individual Culture Champions being advocates for the existing cultural offer and more on volunteers driving the creation of culture in their local area. Culture Champions developed their own creative ideas and have a direct influence on a local cultural eco-system. 

The programme has shown that in developing an inclusive cultural offer, it is not enough to aim to appeal to a wide audience. Activities and events need to be led by diverse communities if they are to be relevant to them.

For example, prior to Culture Champions, Stretford Public Hall’s programming was led by board members, staff and volunteers. Cinema nights, art exhibitions, art classes, live music nights… all aimed at and appealing to a fairly narrow demographic. The success of Culture Champions has meant a shift to more resident-led programming and the appointment of a Community Coordinator. This role is working with volunteers and local residents to establish a ‘Community Programming Panel’ to agree on future activities and events at the Hall.

‘Culture Champions energised my love for Stretford, it made me feel differently about my area.’

Trafford Culture Champion

‘In the beginning, I started getting other older people from my area involved in cultural activities that they wouldn’t have traditionally got involved in. Then I ended up speaking at a symposium in London about why that’s a good idea! I wouldn’t have done that before.’

Manchester Culture Champion

What we learned

The Greater Manchester Culture Champions programme has successfully trialled the model. The following tips for success have been identified:

  • Ensure staff capacity to coordinate Dedicated staffing is needed to coordinate project activity and to manage the overall programme. Find, support and retain knowledgeable staff to recruit volunteers and participants, and build connections
  • Allow sufficient time Allow enough time in the project design to develop relationships with a wide range of older people. Building genuine relationships between Coordinators and Culture Champions is key
  • Vary depth of volunteer roles The majority of Culture Champions wanted to ‘advocate’ or ‘attend’; however, the small number of Culture Champions who did ‘lead’ and ‘create’ found the experience extremely rewarding. A range of available roles allows everyone to find something to meet their needs

  • Go to where the audience is comfortable Recognise that some people are happier to be associated with groups that reflect their hobbies/ethnic identity/life experiences (e.g., male voice choir membership, religious affiliation, support post care responsibilities) rather than joining a group based on age
  • Use inclusive language and imagery Use familiar terms to describe the Culture Champion role and start with events that are familiar to the target audience. Source images that are realistic, diverse and positive about older people. This will help ensure the offer is attractive and relevant 
  • Agree your working principles Work together to agree guiding principles and stick to them. For example, co-curation was vital in finding relevance with new cultural audiences
  • Capture the impact Be assertive with funders and strategic stakeholders about the kind of evaluation that is appropriate for the audience. Capture robust data that does not disrupt the flow of delivery and add additional administrative burden to Coordinators. Consider evaluation methods that can be embedded into delivery, such as reflective diaries, and include reflective questions into regular meetings 
  • Stay flexible and adapt The Covid-19 pandemic forced cultural organisations to quickly change how they worked with older people. They adapted their practices and, where possible, moved activity to online platforms, which had a good take-up by older people wanting to stay connected. However, there are still a considerable number of older people who are not digitally connected in Greater Manchester and some projects were progressed via radio, post and telephone. Some older people had multiple barriers to returning to public spaces and some organisations therefore went out into communities to help re-establish relationships with older adults, delivering activity at a more local level. The hope is that, over time, people’s confidence will grow and anxieties around being in public spaces and using public transport will lessen. 

Next steps

Despite the disruption of the pandemic, it is clear that many Culture Champions experienced a wide range of benefits from participating in the programme and they have substantial appetite for creating and participating in cultural activity and for making a difference in their neighbourhoods. Culture Champions offers a model with the potential to  encourage older people back into civic life and build their confidence to return to and gather in public spaces. 

Given the range of ways in which older people have engaged with the possibilities offered by Culture Champions, there is an opportunity to harness the collective energy of those involved in creative ageing in their communities at this time of change. This has begun with the ‘Future Fires’ training programme in collaboration with Contact Theatre and inspired by their young people’s producer programme of the same name. Ten Culture Champions took part in this intensive weekend introduction to project management and producing and were supported with a small budget and mentoring to produce an event in their community. 

’We want learning and support – all round learning – nothing intimidating, something that will help us build confidence.’

Manchester Culture Champion

Greater Manchester Combined Authority commissioned a report from the Creative Ageing Development Agency (CADA) on the future of Culture Champions.2

Informed by this research, CADA plans to explore bringing those Culture Champions interested in leadership together with other older people who lead creative ageing projects elsewhere in the country, to begin a conversation about creative ageing and to encourage networking and knowledge exchange across England. CADA is also exploring establishing a reference group based on lived experience to draw on, amplifying the voice of older people in the cultural life of the country. 

’Keep things local and close to [older] people and in a community.’

Manchester Culture Champion

The continuing development of social prescribing, and the growing role of the arts and creativity in this non-medical approach to health and wellbeing, offers another opportunity for the Culture Champions model. It is vital to establish and maintain links between social prescribing link workers, and others in community connector roles, with Culture Champions projects and other age-friendly creative opportunities. The evidence base for the effectiveness of creative activity in combatting isolation and increasing connection, building confidence and supporting wellbeing is growing, thanks to the work of organisations such as the National Academy of Social Prescribing (NASP), and there are opportunities to explore around the commissioning of Culture Champions programmes to meet health and wellbeing outcomes. 

‘Some Culture Champions have lived in Stockport all their life but had never visited the art gallery; the project opened up places in Stockport. In the past you’d pass the buildings on the bus and never go in but with Culture Champions you have an invitation.’

Stockport Culture Champion

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Image credits: ©Len Grant  ©Richard Tymon  ©Joe Smith  © Joel C Fildes