Financial pressures risk undermining volunteering in NHS and social care

A new report, Volunteering in health and care, published by The King's Fund has found that, unless a more strategic approach is taken, financial pressures risk undermining the use of volunteers in health and social care.

An estimated three million people in England volunteer in the NHS, health charities and social care organisations, adding significant value to the work of paid staff. The report highlights the vital role they play in delivering services, for example assisting with mealtimes in hospitals, providing support for bereaved families and befriending older people in care homes. It suggests that volunteers could become an increasingly important part of the care team, providing trusted support to paid professionals and an important source of help for patients and service-users.

However, research undertaken for the report suggests that if the right steps are not taken, the funding squeeze in the NHS and cuts to local authority budgets could have a significant impact on volunteering. Financial pressures are prompting concerns about the motivation of public bodies in using volunteers and heightening sensitivities about them 'substituting' for paid staff in future. Budget cuts are also increasing pressure on voluntary organisations providing and co-ordinating volunteering opportunities, with some smaller grassroots organisations struggling to survive the economic downturn.

The King’s Fund is today calling for a strategic approach to volunteering throughout the health and social care system. Commissioners and service providers need to focus on how volunteers will help improve quality and bring benefits to patients and communities. Boundaries between professional and volunteer roles also need to be clarified to allay concerns of job substitution.

Chris Naylor, Fellow at The King’s Fund said: ‘There are huge opportunities for volunteering to help transform health and social care services and bring about real improvements for patients and the wider public. However, for this to be realised service providers and commissioners must take a much more strategic approach to volunteering, with clarity of roles and clearly articulated objectives. Volunteering should be used as a means of improving quality rather than reducing short-term costs, and this vision needs to be communicated clearly.’

More on volunteering in health and care

Notes to editors: 

For further information, or to request an interview, please contact the Press and Public Affairs office at The King’s Fund on 020 7307 2585/82 (if you are calling out of hours, please ring 07584 146 035).

The report, Volunteering in health and care: Securing a sustainable future is based on qualitative research involving focus groups with volunteers and patients, in-depth interviews with commissioners and providers of health and social care services, and a scenario analysis conducted with a workshop of invited experts. It also draws on a review of published  evidence and benefited from the insights of an external advisory group.

The research was commissioned and funded by the Department of Health and conducted independently by The King’s Fund. The remit was to explore the future of volunteering in the context of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 and wider system changes.

There are an estimated three million volunteers in health and social care. This is approximately the same  as the paid NHS and social care force combined.

The report includes a number of recommendations.

  • Service providers and commissioners should take a much more strategic approach towards volunteering, with a clear vision of how volunteers will help meet organisational objectives and benefit patients and the local community.
  • The value of volunteering needs to be better measured and articulated at all levels in the system. There is a striking lack of information about the scale or impact of volunteering in health and social care. Addressing this should be a priority.
  • Volunteering should be used as a means of improving quality rather than reducing short-term costs. The management of volunteering and supporting infrastructure should be adequately resourced or there is a risk it will not achieve its potential.
  • There is a need for clarity regarding the boundaries between professional and volunteer roles. Sensitivities around job substitution, real or perceived, need to be handled carefully.

The King’s Fund is an independent charity working to improve health and health care in England. We help to shape policy and practice through research and analysis; develop individuals, teams and organisations; promote understanding of the health and social care system; and bring people together to learn, share knowledge and debate. Our vision is that the best possible care is available to all.