Healthcare volunteering must be high-quality to be sustainable

Yesterday The Kings Fund published ‘Volunteering in Acute Trusts in England’, providing a valuable addition to our knowledge base of volunteering in this field and to the research that IVR has completed in the health and social care field. The research confirms that volunteers make an enormous contribution to these trusts, undertaking a diversity of roles. It provides some useful and powerful numbers which help to get a sense of the scale, highlighting, for example, that there are more than 78,000 volunteers involved across all acute trusts or that together they contribute approximately 13 million hours every year.

The Kings Fund also makes a useful attempt to quantify the value of this volunteering, finding that the return on investment for trusts was about eleven times that of the cost of supporting volunteering. This figure is broadly in line with findings from our cost-benefit analysis work for volunteer-involving organisations in a whole range of sectors. We know that volunteering is cost-effective, but perhaps the most important message here is that in order to produce a positive output, volunteering and volunteers need investment in the first place: it is not cost free.

It was interesting to see that volunteering appears to have become more diverse over the past five years, especially in terms of age and ethnicity; something that isn’t always the case in more formalised settings. While focusing on increasing the number of people volunteering is clearly valuable, it is perhaps more important, to look at who is volunteering and how we can increase access amongst those groups traditionally less likely to participate.

This report is, crucially, not simply a one-sided endorsement of the value of volunteers. I was particularly pleased to see that the potentially thorny issue of job substitution runs through much of what it says, as this remains a key issue for volunteering not just in the field of acute healthcare, but also in libraries, museums, parks and many others. The report’s statement that volunteers are not ‘cheap labour’ is a welcome reminder of what is different about volunteering and its unique added-value. But this was not the core focus of the research, and it inevitably leaves us with many questions:

  • Should volunteers be involved in roles that were once the sole domain of paid staff?
  • What are the limitations to what volunteers can and should do?
  • How can organisations minimise tension and conflict between staff, unions, and volunteers when developing new roles?

These are complex issues that must be carefully negotiated in each organisation.

This report suggests that volunteering in acute trusts is changing, with the vast majority of respondents stating that volunteering will grow in the next three years. In an environment of continued economic difficulty and a policy environment which seeks to encourage volunteering, this is not entirely surprising. But we need to ensure that it is not just the quantity of volunteering that grows, but that it is open to all, that roles are developed appropriately, and that the quality of experience, and the impact that volunteers can have, ultimately on the quality of life of patients, continues to be the focus of our attention.

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Nick Ockenden is an NCVO research associate and former head of the research team. As part of this role he led the work of the Institute for Volunteering Research, where he worked from 2005.

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