The crucial role of volunteers in supporting compassionate, high-quality patient care

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Part of Vision for volunteering in health

The terrible tragedies at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust are at the forefront of everyone’s minds following the publication of Robert Francis’s second inquiry report last month. The NHS is now trying to develop and assert a ‘post-Francis’ identity, one that puts the business of compassionate caring very clearly at the top of its priorities. This will not be an easy task, but it is a necessary one, now more so than ever.

One way that NHS organisations can improve the quality of compassionate care is to invest in volunteers. The Fund’s new research on volunteering in health and care in England argues that volunteers are well placed to help organisations meet a number of Francis’s key recommendations, especially those in the areas of compassionate caring, delivering better information and signposting, and supporting cultures of openness and transparency. Volunteers could help the NHS to ensure that the patient really does come first.

Volunteers have been contributing a lot for a long time to the NHS and across care services. Citizenship surveys suggest that there are around three million people who regularly volunteer in health and social care in the voluntary and public sector, though critically what they are doing and where they are doing it is much less well understood. Our research includes case studies that show how organisations are working with volunteers to deliver high-quality care and improve patient experience.

Volunteers can offer an additional ‘human touch’ in the business of health care. They often spend time talking and listening to patients, and are a valuable non-clinical confidante for those who feel vulnerable or isolated. They perform a range of tasks, including sharing their own experiences and stories with patients, gathering information for them, and providing help to eat and drink. Many patients we spoke to suggested their care was all the better for having the support of a volunteer.

Volunteers should not be seen as substitutes for paid staff, but they can be a core part of the care team. In our research we found that patients and volunteers valued their contribution differently to that of professionals, often because it was part of a gift relationship, not a contractual one. The fact that volunteers are there out of goodwill matters a lot to patients. Many staff agreed. Paid professionals told us that volunteers let them get on with the core business of caring. A volunteer who can complete logistical tasks frees up a nurse’s time and allows them to get back to the bedside, where the patients want them to be.

However, it’s not as simple as getting a volunteer through the hospital door and leaving them to it. The organisations that used volunteers most successfully were those that were thinking strategically about the role of volunteers, facing up to complex questions (including the contested boundary between professionals and non-professionals) and investing in support structures for their volunteer services. They were ensuring that volunteers were adequately supported, trained and acknowledged. They were identifying the unique contributions volunteers can make, and including volunteers in meetings as part of the core care team. They were actively recruiting a broad and representative range of volunteers from the communities they served, and attempting to use the potential of peer-to-peer support. In these organisations, volunteers were not being used as part of a cost-cutting exercise; they were being called upon for their ability to add value to patient care.

This is an area of development for the NHS, and a lot of progress needs to be made across health and care organisations if the true value of volunteering is to be realised. During our research we saw signs of a growing cultural change, one where volunteers are increasingly positioned as part of the care team, and are part of the strategies used to improve patient experience – an important agent in the delivery of compassionate high-quality services. Our report puts forward a number of recommendations to help organisations make the most of volunteers and by doing so improve their business of caring – we hope Robert Francis would think it a worthwhile read.



Comment date
08 September 2014
I worked in the NHS for 37 years up until a few years ago.
I would love to return as a volunteer but am finding it very hard to find anything.Is there a central recruitment organisation?

Claire Mundle

Policy Officer,
The King's Fund
Comment date
27 March 2013
Dear Rob and Mary,

Thank you for your comments and I’m sorry that you found some of the wording above inappropriate. I hope that reading through the remainder of this blog – and our report – you can see how much value we place in volunteers, and that we are encouraging organisations to appreciate the vital role that volunteers play in the health and social care system.

Best wishes,


Ann F Hodson

Manager Volunteering,
Cancer Society NZ Wellington Division
Comment date
20 March 2013
I agree an interesting article. However, I endorse Rob Jackson's concern that volunteers are not to be used. The lack of respect or regard for the contribution that volunteers gift is a matter of great concern. They are not a resource to be causually dispensed with but integral to the successful delivery of many invaluable patient support services.

Rob Jackson

Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd
Comment date
15 March 2013
I will be reading this report with interest. However, can you please stop talking of using volunteers. Volunteers are people, not things. Paid staff would rightly be up in arms if managers talked of using them and it is equally inappropriate to talk of using volunteers.

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