Volunteering in acute trusts in England: Understanding the scale and impact

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Around three million people volunteer for health, disability and welfare organisations in England – the same number as the combined NHS and social care workforce. But very little is known about where these volunteers work or what they do.

This paper addresses the gap in local knowledge that was highlighted earlier this year in a related report by The King's Fund on Volunteering in health and care.

As part of a project funded by the Department of Health, the authors gauge the scale and value of volunteering in NHS acute trusts in England by analysing survey results received from 99 of the 166 acute trusts contacted. Their independent research aims to help local providers and system leaders understand the contribution of volunteering and provide organisations with benchmarking information, including possible returns on investment in volunteering.

Download our volunteering in health literature review

Key findings

  • The acute trusts surveyed have on average 471 volunteers. Scaled up, this equates to more than 78,000 volunteers across all acute trusts in England, contributing more than 13 million hours per year.
  • There is a wide variation in the numbers of volunteers, with only a weak link between trust size and volunteer numbers. Some trusts report as few as 35 volunteers, while others have 1,300.
  • The volunteer profile has changed over the past five years, with new volunteers tending to be younger and more ethnically diverse (according to 66 per cent and 56 per cent of respondents respectively). 
  • All the respondents see volunteering as a growth area with 87 per cent expecting the number of volunteers to increase over the next three years.
  • Respondents feel that volunteers play a critical role in improving patient experience. But most trusts recognise that they were not doing enough to measure this impact more formally. 
  • Analysing our survey data analysis suggests that for the average trust, every pound invested in volunteering could yield around £11 in added value. But trusts need a more sophisticated approach for measuring the value of volunteering, to include patient experience and quality of care.

Policy implications

  • It appears that some trusts do not have enough information on volunteering to enable them to exploit the full potential of volunteering services.
  • More research is needed to understand how organisations receive information and make decisions on their volunteer services; failure to feed information in at board level will make it hard for volunteering services to be strategically aligned to trusts’ ways of working.
  • Our examples of best practice show how hospitals are supporting and developing their volunteers and managing the tension at the boundary between volunteer and staff roles.
  • More clarity is needed for acute trusts on the extent of checks required and for potential volunteers on how volunteering affects benefits entitlements.


Our new set of infographics looks at volunteering in acute trusts in England – including the important roles volunteers play, the variation in the number of volunteers between trusts and volunteering growth in future.

These infographics are for you to use and share – please just mention The King's Fund when you do so.

Download a copy of this slideset

Case studies

In  this report, we took an in-depth look at three sites to build on our knowledge of how some volunteering schemes work. The first site was chosen as it has a relatively small volunteer base but is developing a number of different roles. The other two sites were chosen because they have a large volunteer base covering wide-ranging roles.

The three sites we chose were:

  • University College Hospital Macmillan Cancer Centre
  • Northern Lincolnshire and Goole Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Pennine Acute Hospital NHS Trust

About the service

The UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre opened in April 2012. A partnership between University College Hospital and Macmillan Cancer Support, it aims to transform cancer care in the United Kingdom by linking world-class clinical outcomes with excellence in patient experience.

The centre has around 500 members of staff and approximately 75 active volunteers plus around 700 people on the database who are interested in volunteering. The number of volunteers continues to grow. The volunteer service manager (VSM) was brought in to develop the service in December 2011. At the time the staff team were going through many changes and had little experience of working with volunteers.

As a result many staff were reluctant to engage with the service and some saw volunteers as a threat to job security. This changed after the VSM worked with staff to describe the vision for the volunteering service and the contribution it could make to both staff teams and their patients. Volunteer roles are now co-designed with staff.

The centre now has 19 different roles and the volunteer service has worked to match people’s skills to roles. Once a job role is specified, a member of staff is designated and trained to supervise the volunteer. Interview questions are drawn up between the VSM and the supervisor. Once recruited and with the necessary checks completed, volunteers have a general and site-specific induction. A minimum volunteer commitment of six months is required but this may vary as defined by the role they are fulfilling. Volunteers are easily identifiable by wearing a lanyard and/or a name badge. They are also encouraged to wear colours similar to those in the area in which they work.

Examples of how volunteers contribute to the hospital

Pharmacy: Volunteers work at the pharmacy desk greeting patients, recording basic details and providing general information and advice on waiting times. This enables staff to focus on providing medical advice and preparing medicines. It helps provide a friendlier, faster and more customer-focused service.

Complementary therapy: In the first 12 months, volunteers delivered complementary therapies such as reiki, massage, aromatherapy and reflexology to 400 patients and carers in the cancer centre and on wards. Patient feedback, collected in a book or on forms, has been very good. Feedback from staff was also positive and they reported that volunteers brought expertise and ideas to the team.

Creative word and art workshops: Patients of all ages, their families and carers get time to relax, have fun and think about something different together. The weekly creative word group is led by an experienced volunteer and supported by a staff member as discussion can, at times, prompt people’s emotions. The group produces poetry and prose and, in the words of one of the participants, has given them the opportunity to ‘sit at a table with other cancer patients and have a focus other than cancer. I generally feel lighter because it has helped take my mind off the “situation” and allowed it to take a freer, more creative path’. As a result of the impact of this group, the trust is now recruiting a poet in residence. The art workshops are run on different floors of the cancer centre: in the support and information service, on the chemotherapy floor while people are receiving treatment, and for teenagers and young adults. They range from animation to print-making and pumpkin carving and are tailored to suit different groups.

CV and interview workshops: Volunteers from a leading recruitment company trialled a workshop with the Support and Information Service to help patients and carers think about how they address their cancer experience on CVs and in job interviews and applications. This included how to talk about time taken out of work due to illness or care responsibilities, addressing physical and mental changes, and thinking about communicating new skills developed as a result of their experience.

Measuring impact

The VSM records the number of volunteers, the time they give and collects feedback from patients, staff and volunteers on specific roles or projects where volunteers are involved. They also collect feedback via forms provided on each reception desk in the cancer centre that include a question asking whether a staff member or volunteer has been particularly helpful. There is also an exit questionnaire for volunteers to complete if they leave.

Annually (though it has been running only one year) they ask volunteers and staff for detailed feedback on their experience of the service including the difference they feel volunteers have made to staff and patients and the difference the service has made to them. The volunteering service would like to include a question on volunteering in its patient experience survey to provide a more complete picture of its impact and help guide improvements in the service. Value is calculated in terms of volunteer hours rather than monetary terms, which it believes is more appropriate for its purposes.

    About the service

    Northern Lincolnshire and Goole Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is made up of a number of small hospitals and employs 7,000 people. It has 700 volunteers; approximately 600 recruited by the trust and another 100 recruited via external organisations. The volunteering service forms part of the chief nurse department and receives 10 to 15 calls a day from prospective volunteers.

    Examples of how volunteers contribute to the hospital

    Place: Volunteers assist with the unannounced inspections and check the hospital, for example, for cleanliness and quality of food. Staff report that it is very useful to have volunteers involved in this process.

    Meal-time volunteers: They ensure patients have a positive meal-time experience by eating and drinking properly, through support and encouragement.

    Testing: When a policy change takes place, for example, a change in the visiting hours, volunteers are asked to collect feedback, speak to patients, relatives and staff and report back to the management team.

    Guides: Volunteers provide a guiding service, which is particularly important as the hospital has more than one entrance.

    Measuring impact

    Data is mainly collected through comment boxes placed around the hospital, and through feedback from volunteers. In future the trust would like to understand better the cost benefit of the service.

    About the service

    Pennine Acute Hospital NHS Trust employs around 9,000 people and has 1,069 volunteers. The trust recruits the majority of volunteers (769) while another 300 are recruited by external organisations. The volunteering service is part of the patient experience department.

    Volunteers span 40 different roles including meal support, chaplaincy, radio, reception, cancer buddies, outpatient clinics and patient experience surveys. The volunteer service manager tries to develop roles to suit volunteers’ skills.


    • Volunteer service manager: Agenda for Change band 7
    • „„Administration assistant: Agenda for Change band 3
    • Recruitment checks and immunisations: £200 per volunteer
    • Travel expenses: £25,000 per year
    • Volunteer events: £6,000 per year
    • Uniforms: £2,000 per year
    • Miscellaneous (stationery, etc): £4,000

    Examples of how volunteers contribute to the hospital

    Walkabouts: Volunteers walk through a ward and speak to patients prior to discharge. Patients are asked questions about their stay in hospital and the information is recorded electronically and transmitted to the trust’s board. This provides an up-to-date picture of the services at a particular location in a specific point in time.

    Ticker Club: Stroke patients who are also volunteers will attend cardiac wards to describe their experiences and coping strategies to patients who are suffering from heart attack and/or related conditions.

    A&E: Volunteers cover reception desks in A&E. They direct patients, provide assistance to patients and families, and carry out short patient surveys on discharge from A&E.

    Measuring impact

    The volunteer service manager works with ward managers to understand how the volunteering service is running. The trust has ‘listening to action’ activities, where multi-disciplinary teams from across several different specialty areas come together to discuss problems with the executive. Increasingly, during these sessions, volunteers are being seen as part of the solution to some of the problems aired.

    The future

    Pennine works hard to ensure that staff are clear about volunteers’ roles. Good leadership in the areas where volunteers are placed is critical. The next step for the trust is to evaluate the impact that volunteers are having on patient experience.


    Fiona Horton

    Self- employed
    Comment date
    11 April 2016
    Having read about The Kings Fund I understand that you endorse Complemntary Therapies and appreciate the benefits of reflexology. I'm keen to volunteer my services as I've seen how this therapy can help on both an emotional and physical level. In particular it is very effective in reducing stress and helping with a range of mental disorders. I currently practice from home but would be willing to travel to anywhere in the Warwickshire, Gloucestershire or Worcestershire area.

    I'm fully qualified and insured. Please view my website for further details;

    I look forward to hearing from you

    Redwana Hoque

    Health Assistant,
    Comment date
    04 July 2015
    I would like to do volunteering in NHS

    vicky chopra

    Drama Student at Staffordshire University,
    Comment date
    03 June 2015
    As I am currently studying drama performance at Staffordshire University I have gained the knowledge and experience working to meet people’s needs and requirements.
    I have volunteered in a centre called Day Space in Surrey shadowing drama therapist's working with children who have disabilities such as ADHD and autism.
    During this time I held story workshops and and performances for the children to relate too.
    my long term aspiration is to work with children as a career and volunteering with children is what makes me happy knowing I'm helping and supporting them.
    After my degree I would like to go on to my master which will lead me more towards my career in this particular field of being a Drama therapist in The future.

    Shyam Bhat

    Student taking Access to medical Sciences,
    Lambeth College
    Comment date
    29 August 2014
    I am a student who has been offered an unconditional place at Lambeth. I am seeking Voluntary work within the hospital. I have extensive interest in personal training and physiotherapy within a gymn.
    I am very interested in any hospital based volunteer work from serving food or reading to patients or working with porters. I speak Gujarati and and am very aware of religious and cultural needs. I would be more than happy to support people from this community who may have difficulty in communicating in English.

    Bethany Humphreys

    Woodkirk Academy Sixth form
    Comment date
    31 July 2014
    I am 17 years old and I wanted so work experience during my six week break which ends 1st September in a hospital. I am wanting to be a midwife, but I am willing to do it in any health care environment.

    Adesola Joseph

    Kensington and Chelsea college.
    Comment date
    29 July 2014
    I am 46 years old and I have just completed a level 2 BTEC certificate in health and social care, i will be going on to level 3 this September; as part of my course requirement I have to undertake a work placement or find a voluntary job working in healthcare, can you tell me how I can find this.

    Ivan sembatya

    Comment date
    25 January 2014
    Am currently living in Uganda i want to volunteer.

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