Changing role (not just) for Volunteer Centres

It all started in 2011, with the government Giving White Paper. Nesta, as part of the Innovation in Giving Fund, then announced The Volunteer Centre Programme an opportunity for pioneering Volunteer Centres to showcase their pivotal role in supporting the growth of volunteering with a focus on increasing their impact and helping them to be more sustainable.

Round one

Eight Volunteer Centres (Blackburn, Blackpool, Durham, Gateshead, Kirklees, Leeds, Lincolnshire and Staffordshire) were funded in 2013 to develop their proposals which had been judged to be innovative.  Over the course of nine months, the intensive programme offered financial and practical support to the eight to develop their ideas.

Round two

One year on and the government has released funding for Nesta to continue to work with three of the Volunteer Centres to further develop their innovation.

County Durham

2D in County Durham will develop and embed the original concept of social prescribing for long term conditions. The now named ‘Path for Life’ service will be operating across the whole of the Durham Dales and working in close partnership with the Durham Dales Easington and Sedgefield Clinical Commissioning Group (DDES).

The project is developing more robust evidence through increased activity and evaluation as well as  proving that cost savings to the NHS and others can be achieved and making a difference to the lives of individuals:

‘When I started I wasn’t interested in much. I am now volunteering and it has helped me socialise a bit more.’

Blackburn with Darwen

In Blackburn with Darwen the economy is struggling. The ‘Community Hive’ reverses the traditional notion of CSR by getting people to give time to provide practical help to help young businesses grow and prosper. By doing this, they encourage businesses to provide support to communities further down the line once they’re established.

In round one they learned that volunteers want to give time to help the local economy – but at the same time, want to support businesses that contribute to the community and the environment. So the focus is now on support for social enterprises or socially orientated businesses.

’If we can support the economy to grow, create opportunities for people to grow, tackle social issues that key intermediaries are targeting, and contribute to sustainability of Volunteer Centres – everyone is a winner.’


Leeds has been running a unique volunteering service for people who have had contact with the criminal justice system. The service is run by prisoner volunteers from inside three prisons in Yorkshire, as well as by local referral organisations offering drop in sessions for ex-offenders. Leeds provides in-depth training and support for volunteer managers to break down barriers and discrimination whilst also raising awareness among organisations that have volunteers. Over 100 volunteers are already taking part and, to date, no one involved has re-offended.

What we’ve learned so far

None of the eight bespoke projects could have been created or developed without the Volunteer Centres’ local knowledge, connections or expertise in the good practice of volunteer management.

Round one showed that a short, intense funded period is an effective way of implanting innovation but that this made it challenging to embed sustainable business strategies. A key learning point was also the need for cross-sector participation (voluntary, statutory and private) realigning service delivery by maximising disparate skills. The difficulties involved in cross-sector communication, understanding and using new language to engage new audiences, came up in all eight projects.

Round three

The experience gained from rounds one and two will be critical to any culture change in the delivery of local services. The evidence so far suggests that success will mean accepting a change in role for the statutory and the private sectors.

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John is NCVO’s volunteer centre support manager. He is responsible for NCVO’s strategy for maximising the impact and sustainability of Volunteer Centres and other local organisations in England.

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