Volunteering and community health – what we know and what’s to know

Jane South, Professor of Healthy Communities, Leeds Metropolitan University. This guest post is part of a series of guest posts commissioned as part of Volunteers’ Week 2014.

As a researcher with an interest in volunteer roles in health, I am often asked for evidence of impact. This request usually comes not from the sceptics, but from people engaged in supporting volunteering or from those wanting to explore the added value of volunteers in health and social care. In other words, we want research to back up the hunch that volunteering works or to corroborate our experience. That poses some challenges because volunteering isn’t neatly packaged, but more often a mix of formal and informal help between people. So we are left with a bit of a knowledge gap – the evidence base doesn’t quite match what we observe about the power of volunteering. But this doesn’t mean that volunteering is unproven. This is my brief stocktake of what we do know and what is to know.

What we know

Volunteering is big in health, and I suspect the current contribution is vastly underestimated. A recent King’s Fund report estimated that 3 million people volunteer in health and social care. We know that volunteering makes an economic contribution and although not cost free, volunteering offers a good return on investment.

There is a strong association between volunteering and health and wellbeing. This could be because healthy people are more likely to volunteer, but the most likely explanation is that volunteering has distinct health benefits – it keeps people active, gives a sense of purpose, enhances mental wellbeing and keeps them more connected. Last year, our research team did a large survey of volunteers as part of the evaluation of the Department of Health’s Health and Social Care Volunteering Fund (HSCVF) – visit my university’s website for a summary of key findings. Out of 623 people responding, 99% reported some personal benefit from volunteering, including enjoyment (50%), a sense of personal achievement (47%), meeting people and making friends (40%), and improvements in confidence (27%). The figures don’t convey the individual stories of transformative change. Many of the volunteers in HSCVF projects were drawn from disadvantaged groups or had health needs themselves and volunteering had helped them step onto other things, such as education and employment. This is a pattern we have found in other studies.

What’s to know?

We need more evidence of the impact of volunteering in communities. Our evaluation found that many volunteer roles went beyond the project activities, with people spreading health messages and connecting to their neighbours and people in similar circumstances. This is the basis of the health champion role, volunteers acting as agents of change in their community. We need more research that captures the impact of informal activities in addition to formal roles as this is very much part of the volunteering offer. Is the person who drives the community minibus only doing transport, or is it about social contact and inclusion? If we concentrate on measuring formal tasks, then we will miss out on the real contribution of volunteering. That’s my hunch anyway!

Find out more

To find out more about the Health and Social Care Volunteering Fund evaluation visit www.leedsmet.ac.uk/vfp. To contact Jane South, email J.South@leedsmet.ac.uk.

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One Response to Volunteering and community health – what we know and what’s to know

  1. Really useful blog thanks Jane.

    At Join In we’ve just completed some research into the wellbeing of volunteers in community sport – you can read the early findings at the link below, with more to come on the wider community value later in the year.

    http://www.joininuk.org/volunteering-happier/