Hospice volunteers: Bridging the gap to the community?

sara_morris Marie Curie Blog black and whiteBy Matt Hill, Senior Research Officer, Institute for Volunteering Research and Sara Morris, Senior Research Associate, International Observatory on End of Life Care, Lancaster University.

New research, commissioned by Marie Curie, and undertaken by the Institute for Volunteering Research and International Observatory on End of Life Care, urges organisations to adapt to the changing palliative care context and think much more critically and strategically about the role of volunteers as ‘bridges’ to the community.

What the research involved

The research set out to explore volunteer management in palliative care in all its complexity – from day-to-day coordination to wrestling with deeper strategic issues. As well as a survey of volunteer managers in hospices we carried out 11 organisational case studies involving in depth interviews with 205 people – volunteers, staff, patients and their families. This blog, and the journal article in Health and Social Care in the Community (free to access), look at one specific aspect of the research findings – namely the current and potential role of volunteers in bridging the gap between the hospice building and the wider local community.

Bringing the community in

The deep community roots of hospice volunteers remain a fundamental reference point within the organisations we visited with the ‘ancient model’ of strangers caring for strangers frequently invoked. On top of this, local ties also contribute to the trend of increasing community engagement by palliative care services – playing a central role in a variety of new initiatives to open the hospice building up as a community space such as community cafes or meeting venues.

To ensure this works positively for everyone, it is important to improve the diversity of volunteers in hospices to ensure they represent the local community.

Taking the hospice out into the community

One of the most important developments is the recent involvement of volunteers in the direct delivery of community services in some organisations. While not all organisations involve volunteers in these areas, due to intense anxieties over both resources and risk management, the success of these schemes shows that the challenges are by no means insurmountable and that there is huge potential for increasing this role for volunteers in palliative care.

Volunteers also played an important role in challenging some of the widespread public misunderstandings about exactly what goes on in hospices.

The need to think strategically

So, there is a clear push for hospices to increase their community engagement in a number of ways. History shows that volunteers already play a fundamental role – practically and philosophically – in both bringing the community in and taking the organisation out in a wide variety of ways. However, hospices currently face a number of dilemmas in this area that need to be strategically confronted at all levels of organisations – including the senior echelons. These include tensions around risk and control, thinking through, more fundamentally, what community engagement is and the need to broaden our understanding of community engagement.

The above is just a snapshot of our research. Read the full article for more detail and let us know your thoughts below.

We thank our funders, advisory board and the many participants who made this research possible. This work was funded by Dimbleby Cancer Care and Marie Curie .

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Avatar photo Matt is a senior research officer at the Institute for Volunteering Research (now part of NCVO) where he has worked since 2008.

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