Volunteer Passports: An update on the scoping review with the voluntary sector

Juliet Lamb

This blog was written jointly by Juliet Lamb and Catherine Goodall. Juliet Lamb is the project manager for the UK Year of Service at Volunteering Matters, and Catherine Goodall is a senior policy and influencing advisor at NCVO.

Volunteering Matters and NCVO have been working in partnership to explore the potential role of a national volunteer passporting scheme. We know that there is a lot of interest in volunteer passporting, and we want to share the emerging findings and evidence from this work.

You can find out more about the background to this in our blog from February on developing a national volunteering passport scheme. Many volunteer-involving organisations and infrastructure bodies have long sought to improve the experience for volunteers, reduce barriers and improve collaboration and coordination. 

The covid-19 pandemic also had an immediate, significant, and likely ongoing impact on volunteering. We saw substantial changes in who volunteered, how and when. Danny Kruger MP’s report in September 2020 recommended that the government develop a national volunteer passporting system to respond to many of these changes. As a result, both the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and No 10 are interested in the potential role that passporting could play.  

What we did

In February 2021, we started working together to develop an understanding of volunteer passporting. We conducted desk-based research on current and previous examples of volunteer passporting schemes and projects. 

We put a call out for volunteers and organisations to provide feedback via email, and to join us for a set of meetings and events to share their experiences, learning and feedback. We heard from over 120 different volunteers, groups and organisations in less than six weeks.  

We worked together to review the evidence, to develop initial ideas, and to test these with volunteer-involving organisations. We heard really useful feedback which helped us to refine our ideas, and to represent the diversity of volunteers and their activities. 

Understanding what a volunteer passport is

Our main finding is that there is no consistent understanding of what a volunteer passport is, or what it could do. There are many elements which could fit within a passport scheme, project or system. We heard from organisations and groups which have established their own form of passport. These differed greatly in their format, aims and what they include. 

We think further work is needed to define what volunteer passporting is, and what it could achieve. For this to be effective, it has to be done in collaboration with volunteers, volunteer-involving organisations and infrastructure bodies.  

How useful could a volunteer passport system be?

As there is no consistent understanding of what a volunteer passport is, or what it could be used for, there is also no clear evidence on how effective a national system could be. It is likely that there will be a range of settings and volunteer activities which could benefit from some form of volunteer passport system. However, in other settings it could be ineffective or inappropriate. More work is needed to understand where and in what circumstances it would be most useful.  

Many volunteer-involving organisations are interested in ways they could better attract, engage and support volunteers. For any national initiative to be successful, it would need to systematically review and engage with existing passporting schemes, drawing out the learning on what works well, and what conditions are needed for passporting to be effective. This should account for the huge variety and diversity of volunteers, their activities, and the organisations they engage with. 

Areas across the country have differing processes, structures and relationships within and between organisations, as well as with government. Any national initiative would also need to be designed to align with and build upon the existing voluntary effort and infrastructure. Addressing local, regional and national need will also be crucial.  

Upcoming plans

It is very clear from this piece of work that we need to know more to understand how volunteer passporting could be useful. We have developed an initial report for DCMS and No 10, which will hopefully be useful both as learning from the sector, but also to support us to work together in the future on any initiatives they might wish to develop. We will continue to work together on ways we can support and improve the volunteer experience, and provide evidence to government to inform their decision making. DCMS have recently published a research report on volunteer passports.

We want to say a huge thank you to everyone who contributed to this initial stage of our work. Your evidence, insights, experiences and feedback were crucial in developing our understanding and in framing our recommendations to government.  

We know from this and other work, such as the Mobilising Voluntary Action Research Project, that there is much more we can do to support volunteering across England. We want to see increased coordination, investment and strategic direction for volunteering. This is one of the reasons we are involved in developing a new Vision for Volunteering. There are lots of ways you can get involved in shaping this new vision. Please take a look and join us as we work to support and improve volunteering. 

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Catherine Goodall Catherine Goodall is a senior policy officer at NCVO, working primarily on public services policy. She has a background in research and practice, working with local authorities and universities to drive service improvement and facilitating participatory action research.

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