Skip to content

This content is more than five years old


A social movement for health? It’s already here – it’s called volunteering


The NHS five year forward view has generated both debate and action, most of which has been about the push for new models of care, exemplified by the vanguard programme. But it is the second chapter of the Forward View that is truly radical. This sets out a vision of an NHS less focused on simply treating people and more focused on prevention and supporting people and communities to create the conditions for better health.

Behind the scenes, NHS England has been quietly developing its work on prevention through programmes such as Realising the value, and now, through more work on a ‘social movement for health’. But while these initiatives are welcome, we are in danger of missing the quiet force for change that is volunteering in health and care.

Our work and that of others over the past few years has documented the diversity and scope of volunteering in the NHS and health and care more broadly. The Citizenship Survey in particular brought to light the fact that almost three million of us in England regularly volunteer for ‘health, welfare and disability organisations’ – as many people as are employed by the NHS and social care sector combined.

To understand more about volunteering in health and social care, we included two questions in NatCen Social Research’s 2015 British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey – a representative survey of the British population aged 18 and older who are living in private households. Our questions are more specific than those in the Citizenship Survey, as the latter covers health within a wider definition of volunteering – and due to the richness of the BSA data, the questions allow us to explore ‘who volunteers are’.

Our first question focused on whether people were, or had been, ‘health and care’ volunteers. More than 3 per cent said they were current volunteers and more than 9 per cent said that they had volunteered in the past. If we extrapolate this to the population as a whole, it equates to around 1.7 million active adult health and care volunteers across England, Scotland and Wales, and around 4.6 million former health and care volunteers (see Figure).

Bar graph showing whether Britons would consider volunteering

Further analysis suggests that current female volunteers outnumber male volunteers by almost three to one, and more than two to one in terms of previous health volunteering. Adults aged 65 and over are significantly more likely to volunteer than younger age groups. But this was the limit for significance on a wide range of variables. Age and gender divides are important, but with the exception of these factors current volunteers are as diverse as the British population.

Our second question asked those who weren’t current health and care volunteers whether they would consider becoming so, to which half of respondents answered that they would. Scaling up to the entire population aged 18 and older means around 24 million British adults would at least consider volunteering for health, 16.4 million would not, and 6.7 million could not due to health reasons (see Figure).

Gender didn’t play a role in explaining responses to our second question – men are as likely as women to consider volunteering. However illness and disability are clearly important factors, with millions potentially ruled out of volunteering. There are indications that illness and disability may be particularly important for some groups in affecting ability to volunteer, for example those on low incomes, though more robust analysis is required to confirm this further.

So where does this leave us? First, we already have the ‘social movement for health’ that NHS England is aiming for – the 1.7 million people currently volunteering in health. Let’s therefore celebrate, value and make more of what we already have alongside seeking to do more. Second, there is an untapped pool of potential resource to develop this further – half the adult population would consider health volunteering if asked. What amazing transformative potential those people hold for health and care – even if only some of this potential is translated into action. The NHS and its leaders need to convert this goodwill and potential into reality. Finally, we need to find better ways to help those living with illness and disability – the NHS’s core customers – to give something back in terms of volunteering, if they wish to, in ways that make sense for them and fit with their lives.

We are soon starting a new project on the scale, scope and value of volunteering in general practice, so keep an eye out for this on our website.