Addressing health inequalities through volunteering

Jurgen GrotzDr Jurgen Grotz is the Director of the Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR) at the University of East Anglia (UEA). This blog is part of a series of work NCVO and IVR are carrying out as part of the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) Health and Wellbeing Alliance.

IVR has been exploring the role of volunteering in health and social care for over two decades. Covid-19 has thrown into sharp relief the complexities of volunteering in this sector. In response IVR has brought together individual voices and national networks from patients, members of the public and VCSE organisations with academics in a number of projects. Some of these have been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) for example.

IVR has continued to work closely with NCVO and others like the Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN), to share emerging evidence with volunteer-involving organisations and to connect researchers with experiential knowledge and crucial new data, for example, through the informal Volunteering and Covid-19 Evidence Group. Here are four messages emerging from recent conversations between IVR and NCVO based on the significant ongoing research effort involving VCSE organisations.

Increasing health inequalities

Evidence about how the pandemic has affected communities and groups differently, both globally and in the UK, is becoming stronger and increasingly concerning. There have been suggestions of a range of possible future public health crises beyond the pandemic. For example, in December 2020 the Office for National statistics (ONS) published evidence on the social impacts of the pandemic on people, households and the community in Great Britain including worsening adult mental health.

In November 2020 IVR reported effects of pandemic policy making on older volunteers who had to cease volunteering. In October 2020 IVR reported how volunteering affects volunteers’ wellbeing differently, for example, depending on age, social economic status and existing chronic physical health conditions.

Mobilisation of volunteers

In one of the largest studies of the programme Get funding for ideas that address COVID-19 by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)/ESRC, IVR is gathering evidence with colleagues across the UK, while NCVO focuses on England. The research shows how volunteers have been mobilised at national, local, hyperlocal and individual levels in response to the pandemic.

IVR is also carrying out separate research at hyperlocal levels in London and Norfolk working directly with participant observers and peer-researchers. Several cross-UK themes are emerging, like people willing to become involved in their communities. Additionally, the evidence also points to notable differences in pandemic policy-making and how this has affected the mobilisation of volunteers.

Patient and Public Involvement

IVR is working closely with colleagues from the NIHR-funded Applied Research Collaboration East of England (ARC EoE), linking VCSE organisation and volunteers with work on Inclusive Involvement in Research for Practice Led Health and Social Care researching Patient and Public Involvement.

Before the pandemic, NHS England planned to double the number of volunteers in health and social care as well as increase Patient and Public Involvement in its decision-making. In December 2020 IVR showed these are closely related pursuits. Emerging evidence shows volunteers do not simply act as ‘alternative deliverers’ of services who can be called on at will, but that, especially in crisis, volunteers are seeking active roles in shaping how health and social care services are delivered.

Local relationships

The House of Lords Public Services Select Committee report A critical juncture for public services: lessons from covid-19 marks out local community organisations as some of the quickest to respond to local need. IVR and NCVO, drawing on the experiential knowledge of their volunteer links, separately submitted evidence to that committee.

Local community organisations have been widely evidenced as playing a key part in countering health inequalities, but only where local relationships are strong and supported, as this recent Locality report highlights. Such local relationships had, however, been eroded in England before the pandemic, some evidence suggests.


The pandemic has not only disrupted our individual lives but also long-standing relationships and understandings between VCSE organisations, government, and health and social care organisations. The emerging evidence, and the ambition of the NHS Long Term Plan to significantly increase volunteer numbers, leaves no doubt about great changes in role for volunteering in health and social care. The evidence of rising health inequalities, from volunteer mobilisation, patient and public involvement, and the need for strong relationships, point to change in both the scale and form of volunteering in health and social care as well as rethinking volunteering less as service than as involvement and participation.

To face the immediate and medium-term challenges of post-pandemic public health inequalities, partnership working will be essential. The relationship between IVR and NCVO exemplifies how collaborative working and drawing on experiential knowledge can equip the VCSE sector to offer the evidence, which new policy and practice now urgently needs.

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