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Adding value: a strategic vision for volunteering in NHS trusts


  • The NHS Long Term Plan and the most recent NHS workforce plan recognise and commit to maximising the value of volunteers, and Covid-19 has further highlighted the huge potential and contribution of volunteers. As organisations seek to ‘build back better’, there is now an opportunity to consider the role of volunteers in the NHS and for trusts to develop a strategic approach to volunteering.

  • Our research found evidence of support for volunteering in all acute and ambulance trusts, and in the majority of specialist, mental health, and community trusts. Irrespective of the individual scale of provision, there has been a significant expansion in capacity and capability of volunteering in recent years.

  • However, we also identified that current approaches to volunteering and recruiting volunteers mean that volunteering in NHS trusts is currently unlikely to be open to everyone and trusts may be contributing to ongoing inequalities in volunteering, restricting the recruitment of volunteers who are representative of their local communities, meaning trusts miss out on benefiting from the resources and skills that exist within those communities.

  • How can a strategic approach to volunteering in NHS trusts add value? provides a framework for senior leaders to use to understand their trust’s current approach to volunteering, which offers a practical way of identifying how to move from volunteering as an ‘added extra’ to it making an integral contribution to the delivery of health care.

  • In addition, Adding value through volunteering in NHS trusts is a resource that explores ways in which volunteering can have a positive impact: for organisations and their staff, for patients and carers, and for volunteers themselves, and shares practice and learning from trusts that have taken a strategic approach to developing volunteering.


In March 2020, NHS England and NHS Improvement and Pears Foundation commissioned The King’s Fund to explore the current status of volunteering in NHS trusts and opportunities for supporting the future strategic development of volunteering. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic during this research provided the additional opportunity to explore how volunteering has changed in NHS trusts and what that means in terms of its future strategic development.

The work has resulted in two reports:

  • How can a strategic approach to volunteering in NHS trusts add value?, a brief report aimed at boards, senior managers and policy-makers. This includes a proposal on how to develop a strategic approach to volunteering in NHS trusts. It outlines how board members and senior managers can assess progress towards such an approach, and the support that policy-makers and funders can provide to enable this.

  • Adding value through volunteering in NHS trusts, a comprehensive report intended as a resource for volunteer services managers and policy leads that includes an overview of our research findings, supported by examples drawn from the experiences of trust volunteer services. This report also reflects on some of the challenges, and the role of NHS trust volunteering within the wider community and integrated care systems (ICSs).

Used in tandem, the two reports identify opportunities for maximising the impact of volunteering in trusts and the resources needed to support the development of volunteer services.

Adding value through volunteering

Our research outlines three main ways in which volunteering can add value – for the organisation and its staff, for patients and carers, and for volunteers themselves.

Figure 1 The three pillars of added value through volunteering in NHS trusts: Volunteers, Patients and carers, and Organisations and staff

Pillar one: value for organisations and staff

The value of volunteers is often framed in terms of organisational support – such as freeing up staff time to care or supporting the flow of patients through the hospital. Some roles, such as meet-and-greet volunteers or buggy drivers focus on supporting patients, but by doing so, also benefit the organisation in getting people to where they need to be in a timely manner. Other roles, such as support for administration, directly benefit the organisation.

Pillar two: value for patients and carers

Often activities volunteers undertake have a direct impact on outcomes. For example, supporting older people to eat and drink directly affects to their ability to recover and leave hospital. Volunteers can also enable activities or provide a level of care/activity that would be more limited or unlikely to happen without their input. One area that receives less attention is the unique value of the volunteer themselves and the nature of the relationship and communication between volunteers and patients. Volunteers can provide distinctive value in being able to speak up and ‘go beyond’ the necessities – supporting people to articulate their needs, or modelling and providing encouragement – and bridging the gap between patients and the clinical team, strengthening the capacity to provide person-centred care.

Pillar three: value for volunteers

Some of the strongest evidence for the impact of volunteering is for volunteers themselves. Volunteering can contribute to reduced mortality risk and improved mental wellbeing. It can also promote a healthy lifestyle, increase physical activity and improve daily living skills. As a social activity, it can improve companionship, tackle social inclusion, increase social capital, and provide opportunities to form new relationships, and improve existing ones. Volunteering activities and the support volunteers receive can increase an individual’s sense of social connectedness, increase self-worth and improve confidence as well as providing opportunities to develop a sense of purpose, and enhance skills and resources.

Ensuring volunteering is inclusive

Our research found that current approaches to volunteering in NHS trusts may unduly restrict recruiting and supporting volunteers who are representative of their local communities. It is vital that any renewed focus on how volunteers can add value also addresses issues of inclusivity. This will ensure that the benefits derived from volunteering are available to all and will enhance and share the value added. For example, a focus on inclusivity means that volunteers, patients and carers benefit from a range of backgrounds and lived experiences in their support, and that an organisation is strengthened through diversity and different perspectives.

Developing a strategic approach to volunteering

A strategic approach to volunteering seeks to achieve alignment and support of the organisational strategy. In trusts that have a strategic approach to volunteering, this process has been enabled by a focus on core aspects of the volunteering service and its function within the trust. This, in turn, has led to trusts being able to clarify the objectives of the service and identify ways in which supporting and developing volunteers can be optimised to better support the trust’s overarching strategic aims.

Six common components of volunteer services that facilitate a strategic approach to volunteering include:

  • dedicated volunteer management capacity and capability

  • organisational leadership to develop volunteering

  • a plan for developing the scope and scale of volunteering

  • a means for developing and embedding new projects as part of service delivery

  • funding and resources that support delivery and development

  • building relationships with the wider community.

National bodies and organisations supporting volunteering in the NHS can take specific actions to enhance progress. A key component of this is ensuring that policy aims align with and support a shift from simply what volunteers can do to outlining a clear purpose for volunteering, reflecting the different ways in which volunteering can add value.