Top ten myths of managing volunteers in the NHS

Carol RawlingsCarol Rawlings is the chair of the National Association of Voluntary Services Managers.

The following are my top ten myths about engaging and managing volunteers in the NHS. As you read them you will probably agree that there are many similarities to managing volunteers in any sector.

I am starting my countdown in reverse order…….

10. The more volunteers the better

This is a common myth that is most often articulated by someone who knows nothing about how to manage a voluntary service or volunteer project. Quality not quantity is the best approach for ensuring that volunteers are matched to an appropriate role so it provides the most fulfilling experience for the volunteer, patients or service users and the organisation.​

9. Volunteers are free

Oh, that old chestnut! Need I say more? Volunteers may provide their skills and time free of charge, but there are costs associated with the publicity, recruitment, induction and training of volunteers. There are resources necessary to ensure that paid staff are prepared for their support to volunteers, and in the development of new roles and the assessment and mitigation of the associated risks. The associated costs are insignificant when compared to the benefits to the organisation, both in terms of the virtual cost savings and immeasurable contribution to the patient, public and staff experience. So, no, engaging volunteers is not free.

Are your volunteers worth it?

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8. Volunteering is the same as ‘Work Experience’

No! Volunteering in the NHS is not work experience. Volunteering it is giving your time, freely, for the benefit of others and is a commitment usually for six months or more. Work experience opportunities are available in the NHS, usually through a dedicated department or work experience co-ordinator. Work Experience in the NHS gives people the opportunity to sample jobs or shadow staff, including clinical roles, to enable them to make a decision about their career and are usually for a short term placement, typically two weeks.

7. Managing volunteers is no different to managing staff

Yes, it is. The motivation for someone who volunteers is very different to that of paid staff. They have a choice in giving their time to undertake the role, and so can choose not to. This means that they may not always be available, or that if they are not treated well they can walk away. Therefore, the skills needed to manage and supervise volunteers can be different to those needed to manage staff. This means that staff within placement areas need to be adequately prepared and educated in best practice for this to be successful.

6. Volunteers are kept in cupboards

Unfortunately, this is not the case and so it is not possible to ring the Voluntary Services Manager and ask them to send along a couple of volunteers for a couple of hours to help with a given task!

5. Volunteers can substitute or replace staff

Volunteers complement the role of paid staff within the NHS, they do not replace them. They add value to what is already being provided by paid staff and so should not be engaged in any personal care of patients or service users, or in providing core services.

4. NHS volunteers are usually retired women

Volunteers within the NHS span the age spectrum from 10 years old to 90 years old. The volunteer profile has changed over the past five years, with new volunteers tending to be younger, men and women, and more ethnically diverse.

3. Volunteering in a great way to practice on patients

A popular misconception by applicants who think that volunteering in the NHS is a way to practice their new-found healthcare skills. However, volunteers are not permitted to undertake any activity that involves direct personal, psychological or emotional care of a patient or service user.

2. Volunteers are the icing on the cake

Volunteers contribute so much more than just the ‘icing on the cake’ in the NHS. I consider them to be the fruit within the cake. They are integral to any service that provides a compassionate, caring, quality experience for our patients, service users, carers, visitors, and staff.

1. Voluntary Services Managers have a lovely job

Voluntary Service Managers are knowledgeable, skilled experts and their role has many facets to it. They have to be excellent communicators at different levels within complex NHS organisations, have excellent time management, prioritisation and organisational skills. They need to be able to work on their own and as part of a team, be intuitive decision makers, and have the ability to assess and manage risks. They need to be excellent judges of character and match people to roles. Their personal toolkit must include diplomacy, resilience, pragmatism, political awareness, common sense and a good sense of humour. The job is not easy or ‘lovely’ as some would perceive it. It is challenging, exciting, humbling, frustrating, exhausting, and fulfilling. It can be the best job in the world to be able to turn the gift of time into a great experience for patients, carers and staff.

I am sure that you could add others to this list, so over to you…..

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14 Responses to Top ten myths of managing volunteers in the NHS

  1. Leo Clifton says:

    This is a fantastic article that really resonates with me; these are points I make time and again to colleagues and friends regarding volunteering in the NHS.

  2. Jamie Wilcox says:

    Brilliant Carol! Well thought through and articulated! I couldn’t agree more!

  3. Julie Wiseman says:

    Excellent top 10 Carol! I would add to the list “juggler!” You can have a clear objective of how you would like your day to go, but by the end off it…you will have juggled 20 other plates, and kept them all in the air, and not achieved the objective you planned to fulfil at the beginning of the day. You start the day calm, and hit the ground running by midday! The variety of the role is rewarding but exasperating at times:-)

  4. Chrissie Beard says:

    Excellent Carol, preaching to the converted? Managing volunteers and voluntary services, we all know the true value of volunteers and the amazing contribution they make. Would be good to get this out to a wider audience

  5. helen collins says:

    had a request to get some volunteers from my cupboard just this week loved the comments

  6. Mandy Cleaver says:

    Well done Carol, for highlighting our role, spot on and totally agree.You’ve said it all!!

  7. Ann Myatt says:

    Excellent – this article is a useful, practical guide to how to get the best out of our volunteers. I have worked in hospitals for many years and I really value their contribution, which seems to be getting bigger and better. They give great service to patients and to staff and I want to pay tribute to them. I feel a tweet coming on.

  8. Beth Breeze says:

    Great piece, thanks Carol!
    I agree with Chrissie Beard – why not see if you can get this piece onto the Guardian Voluntary Sector blog?

  9. Marian Askew says:

    Fabulous article Carol, you always manage to articulate / express our thoughts and feelings so well! Thank you!

    • Carol Rawlings says:

      Thank you to everyone who has commented. It is good to know that I seem to have captured your thoughts and represented you well. Best wishes, Carol Rawlings.

  10. Liza says:

    Excellent list! I posted something similar to #6 on my snarky volunteer management blog: http://workingwithvolunteers.tumblr.com/post/73526505360/where-my-coworkers-think-volunteers-come-from Enjoy!

  11. Brilliant, top 10…. you never know what the day will bring

  12. Allisn Byrne says:

    Fab-u-lous! Thanks for this Carol, i will now put this in my cupboard and get it out when needed to enlighten those who think they’re in the know.

  13. Rob Kendrick says:

    A good summary though I feel flatterd about the VSM description! I would particularly endorse the quality over quantity bit. There is absolutely no point in having a vast number of unplaced volunteers on the books. It creates unnecessary frustration for all concerned and reflects badly on the NHS trust concerned.