Can volunteering help to achieve better health and care?

Published: 03/11/19 | Categories: Author:

A seminar, organised by Helpforce and Wales School of Social Care Research, together with Social Care Wales, brought together 36 people from different backgrounds in research, volunteering practice, planning and policy. Fiona Liddell, Helpforce Cymru Manager, reflects on the event, the emerging themes and the role of Helpforce.

Helpforce Evidence manager, Dr Roland  Marden,  gave a presentation based on a general evidence review commissioned by Helpforce and also some early findings from Helpforce Volunteer Innovators programme. Helpforce is working with 12 NHS Trusts in England who are undertaking pilot intervention projects (funded by NHS England) and exploring how to transform volunteering in and around hospital settings, to increase the impact on patients, staff, services as well as on volunteers themselves.

The experience of these projects and partners, together with the impact data collected and the sharing of ideas through a wider learning network, are  helping  us to grow an understanding of how to develop and design impactful volunteering within healthcare settings and what needs to be in place for this to flourish.  The aim is to identify what are the essential ingredients of success that enable good models of volunteering to be transferable, and what needs to be locally adapted or improvised.

These are significant questions for the NHS as whole, although often not of major interest to those who are running projects at a local level.

Wales’ perspective

Three panel members responded to Roland Marden’s presentation: Carl Cooper, Angela Hughes and Nick Andrews, bringing the perspectives of a county voluntary council, nursing and patient experience and social care research, respectively. They set the stage for some wide ranging discussions.

Our strategic frameworks in Wales  (in A Healthier Wales and the Social Services and Wellbeing Act) encourage thinking about the  prevention of  ill-health, provision of services closer to home and building integrated models of care which cut across the traditional boundaries of health, social care and voluntary sectors.

Regional Partnership Boards give an opportunity for integrated thinking, planning and commissioning and for involving a wider range of partners in shaping services that are fit for the future.  There is vast potential for individuals to contribute to better health and care, both as citizens in their communities and as volunteers within voluntary and public sector organisations, such as the NHS.

Wouldn’t it be good if, as a matter of course, regional planning included volunteer solutions to meet identified health priorities and that appropriate resources were channelled to enable this?

What gets in the way?

Arguing for volunteering is like arguing for ‘motherhood and apple pie’. Everyone knows it is a ‘good thing’ for individual and community wellbeing.  It contributes to several of Wales’ wellbeing goals; not only A Healthier Wales, but also a Resilient Wales, a More Equal Wales and a Wales of Cohesive Communities. (Where volunteering is a pathway to employment it contributes also to a Prosperous Wales and where Welsh language is used it contributes to a Wales of Vibrant Culture and Welsh Language).

But this is not enough to convince planners and funders to invest in volunteering, nor to trust its potential to make a difference to health and social outcomes.

We need evidence. There is a place for academic research, to answer key questions  with robust evidence that is valid  (measures what it is supposed to) and  reliable  (produces consistent results).  But there other kinds of evidence too – more iterative methods of evaluation that can help to improve practice and to demonstrate impact. It is possible to ‘learn backwards’, reflecting on what has happened and what has contributed to a desired and identified outcome.

The Developing Evidence -Enriched Practice project at Swansea University is leading the way  on building links between research and practice in social care  and developing  methodologies for measuring meaningful impact. Inspiring Impact offers online  resources  and training which is geared particularly at voluntary organisations as well as  the opportunity to engage in peer learning networks.  Helpforce is developing an Insight and Impact toolkit, based on its experience of evaluating the Volunteer Innovators programme. When complete, this will be available as a  framework for others to use.

We need more asset-based and joined up thinking – to draw on and build upon the existing resources available. When it comes to volunteering, voluntary organisations have skills, experience and a capacity for innovation which cannot be ignored. But the environment in which voluntary organisations operate is fragile and the vagaries of funding and commissioning mean that good projects, good staff and continuity are lost for all the wrong reasons.    The challenge remains to build up integrated systems of care in which different players have their place: professionals, paid workers and volunteers in statutory and voluntary organisations, creating a joined up and sustainable fabric.

We need to continue developing flexible and appropriate patterns of volunteer involvement.  In formal settings, consistent standards of behaviour and practice are important. But that should not mean ‘one size fits all’ in relation to recruitment and support, for example.  Volunteering could be made more attractive and more accessible for young people, for those with a limited period of time available, and for those with particular skills or needs.

A recent survey of more than 10,000 adults, Time Well Spent, gives  a good insight into what makes for a quality volunteering experience for volunteers and this can help us to tailor our volunteering ‘offer’ to  a more diverse range of volunteers.  The Investing in Volunteers quality standard, currently undergoing review, offers a practical framework for volunteer management.

More informally, community spirit and neighbourliness contribute significantly to our health and wellbeing, with large amounts of human kindness nurturing health and happiness at the grassroots!

What can Helpforce do?

Helpforce began barely 3 years ago, born out of the NHS in England and with a vision of transforming volunteering within the NHS.   It has developed rapidly and now works with a range of NHS and voluntary sector partners. As well as working with local projects as described above, it is creating readiness and capacity for volunteer involvement by, for example, working with clinical leaders and by developing educational resources and a peer learning network.     It has recently been contracted by NHS England to support the process of developing integrated, regional health and care services which embed volunteering.

Helpforce works with partner organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who are developing the work in ways that are relevant to their own national contexts.

In Wales, Helpforce Cymru, hosted by WCVA,  has a role in continuing to raise the debate, influencing those in power to think differently about the possibilities for volunteer involvement and urging investment in the resources and leadership that support this. It flags exemplary practice, sharing stories for others to learn and be inspired.  It connects individuals and projects with national initiatives (Wales and UK) and wider expertise.    It is bringing a Wales perspective to some of Helpforce UK wide developments, including an education portal for volunteers and volunteer managers and induction standards for volunteers in health and care.  Last but by no means least, it has obtained funding from Welsh Government to enable the development of some pilot projects in Wales, as part of a UK wide Helpforce/Marie Curie programme to recognise, enhance and expand the role of volunteering in end of life care.