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Realising the untapped potential of volunteering in health and care


The GSK IMPACT Awards are designed to recognise and reward charities who are doing excellent work to improve health and wellbeing in their communities.

One of the striking things about the winners for 2016 is the scale of support provided by their volunteers – the 10 charities work with more than 1,500 volunteers, many of whom are uniquely placed to reach out to those who find it hard to engage with their services.

Our 2013 report Volunteering in health and care highlighted the fact that there were three million volunteers supporting health, welfare and disability organisations in England – the same number as the paid NHS and social care workforce. So what do these volunteers actually do?

Age UK South Lakeland has more than 330 volunteers working across a wide rural area who support the health and wellbeing of local older people. The organisation has developed its own tool to identify the issues that may put an older person at risk of reaching crisis point, and volunteers then help to deliver intensive and holistic support for up to 16 weeks; for example, social support and befriending, cooking classes (mainly for newly single men), transport, condition-specific support groups (such as for coronary heart disease), exercise and walking groups.

Body and Soul, a London-based national charity that works to improve the physical and mental health and wellbeing of people living with or affected by HIV, has been able to almost quadruple the number of people it supports in the past five years by working with volunteers. They currently have 250 volunteers – giving 25,000 hours of their time in a year – many of whom have lived experience of HIV. The volunteers’ roles include offering emotional support via telephone or Skype, facilitating support groups, providing training and addressing issues around poverty and housing. In partnership with St George’s and St Thomas’ hospitals, they also place volunteer peer mentors at HIV clinics for young people, and the hospitals’ evaluation showed improvements in clinical outcomes, medication adherence and immunity.

And in the Homeless Health and Peer Advocacy (HHPA) service organised by London-based Groundswell, volunteers offer one-to-one support to help homeless people to make and attend health appointments, and to develop skills and confidence to access health services independently. Homeless people often have multiple health problems, but find it difficult to register with a GP and tend not to comply with treatment. An evaluation carried out by the Young Foundation in 2014 noted that HHPA reduced A&E attendance, missed appointments and unplanned admissions.

There are also benefits to the volunteers (some of whom have had personal experience of homelessness) – in 2015, 36 of Groundswell’s volunteers went on to external training or education opportunities and 10 went into paid employment.

These examples show what can be achieved when volunteering is well supported within an organisation. Our 2013 report highlighted that volunteers were a critical and often under-appreciated part of the health and care system, and concluded that with better understanding and management, volunteering could help transform health and social care services. Additionally, our survey of volunteering in acute trusts calculated that for every £1 invested in training and supporting volunteers, there was a return of £11 in value. In the 2015 British Social Attitudes survey we asked a specific question about whether people who are not currently volunteers would consider volunteering in health and care services, and half of respondents said they would. Scaling up to the entire population, that means that around 24 million British adults would consider volunteering in the health care sector, if approached in the right way and at the right time.

Perceptions of volunteering are changing, along with an expansion in the roles available. A critical point, however, is that volunteering does not come free, nor is it a substitute for paid staff. It works best when there is senior-level commitment to the work, a clear strategy, and when volunteers are well supported, trained and managed. In these instances volunteering can improve the experience of patients and communities and extend an organisation’s reach, while offering significant benefits for the volunteer at the same time. Can we afford not to look more closely at volunteering and see what more could be done to realise its potential?