Volunteering in the NHS: rhetoric or ambition?

‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others’ Gandhi.

My alarm went off at 5:30am; it was going to be a long day.

It was actually a pleasant journey down to London on the train. I supped coffee, gazed slumberously through the window and digested the Guardian. There was a great article on transgender Britain, but that’s for another blog.

I was on my way to a seminar by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and NHS England, looking at volunteering in the NHS.  The workshop was for providers…. I gate-crashed.

As a volunteer myself I didn’t need a lecture in the virtues of timesharing and there was no lecture here; people were already signed up to the approach; what they wanted was guidance and support to make the approach meaningful.

Volunteering in the NHS is nothing new; people have been giving up their time to support our national institution since it started back in 1948.  There are countless opportunities to get involved: helping out at mealtimes, serving in the shop, raising money, the list goes on. The problem it seems is not the willingness of volunteers but rather the capability and capacity of the NHS to manage them.  This was brought into sharp focus in February 2015 with the publication of Kate Lampard’s report on the Savile investigations.


The NHS Five Year Forward View (currently the three and a half year forward view) sets out six principles for empowering patients and communities. One of these principles recognises volunteering and social action as key ‘enablers’; an essential way of engaging communities.

Let’s be clear what we are talking about here; ‘volunteering’ refers to time given freely for the benefit of others while ‘social action’ involves time freely spent to tackle local problems, negotiate with public services and improve conditions for all.

Now principles are great; I’m all up for principles, but we all know they aren’t enough to get the job done. What we need is guidance, sustainability, training and capacity to manage volunteers in a way that meaningfully and safely, involves them in the planning and delivery of services.

IiV-croppedThe ‘Investing in Volunteers’ initiative goes some way to supporting NHS organisations to deliver effective volunteering programmes.  It provides a ‘robust assurance’ of volunteer management practice based on:

  • Planning for volunteer involvement
  • Recruiting and matching volunteers
  • Supporting and retaining volunteers

The quality standard offers some really useful indicators that will certainly help NHS organisations to develop smart volunteering programmes. To use the Investing in Volunteers stamp you’ll need to be assessed which incurs a cost and it seems a shame that already stretched budgets have to find yet more money for an approach which has been identified as a ‘key enabler’.

Of course, you could just cheat and use the standards anyway to develop your programme; no one’s stopping you doing that, but if you want the stamp (and I do) you’ll need to cough up.

So, what will I take from my London jaunt?  Well, quite a bit actually:

  • Regardless of accreditation I will be working with colleagues, and using the quality standards to develop our patient leader programme over the coming months. At first glance it appears we are already meeting a number of the indicators but the guidance offers us gold standard advice.
  • I made some useful contacts and was introduced to some really interesting national volunteering projects: www.daftasabrush.org.uk/volunteer/ www.togetherforshortlives.org.uk/get_involved/volunteering
  • I realised that while it is common with providers, volunteering doesn’t appear to have a defined role in commissioning. It left me wondering how providers can build capacity for their programmes if the organisations that commission them don’t understand and value the contributions of volunteers.  It also made me think that commissioners really haven’t grasped the potential of volunteers in assuring engagement in the commissioning cycle.
  • There is an interesting dilemma between safeguarding staff, volunteers and patients and providing flexible access to volunteering. Too much focus on safeguarding and DBS checks and you create barriers to volunteering, especially for people who only have small amounts of time to give. Too much emphasis on easy access and you raise the safeguarding risk. It’s a tricky one.
  • There needs to be clear direction with regards to DBS checks for volunteers. To ensure safeguarding and make programmes accessible, we need guidance on which roles require DBS checks.

In a presentation about the Five Year Forward view, Jeremy Taylor from National Voices talked about a ‘new relationship with patients and communities’.  He finished with his vision of volunteering in the NHS; a lofty outlook, perhaps inspired by achievements in the voluntary sector. He talked about volunteers being seen as equals and the role of the volunteer becoming normalised in the NHS.

Whether principle six is a statement of intent for a sustainable and engaging health service or simply a tokenistic nod to the latest fad only time will tell. What is clear is that well trained and supported volunteers could prove to be an essential future component of a sustainable, effective and efficient NHS.

Chris Bridle

Engagement Lead, NHS Leeds West CCG