An older woman reaching out and holding hands with someone out of frame.

Learning from social care volunteering with older people

Published: 13/09/22 | Categories: Volunteering, Author: Fiona Liddell

Research from the University of Bristol explored the contribution of volunteers in different social care settings and highlights some of the challenges.

The need for more sustainable models of social services is clear, given the increasing population demand and the struggling capacity of the care system. Volunteering can offer a way to harness community goodwill, at the same time providing opportunities for people to gain experience and to undertake purposeful activity.

Research focussed on seven voluntary organisations, all involving volunteers. Two were rural and five city-based. All but one had a long tradition of involving volunteers.  


The seven services delivered by volunteers were:

  1. Befriending, in a retirement village
  2. Social activities in day care centres (two projects – one specially providing care to older people from BME communities)
  3. Physical and musical activities in residential care settings
  4. Visits to and activities in a care home
  5. Support at home service after hospital discharge
  6. Lunch club

Three distinct models of volunteer involvement were observed:

Service augmentation, in which volunteers provide something over and above what was provided by paid care workers. The befriending service within the retirement village (a), and the voluntary agency delivering activities within care homes (c) are examples.

Discrete, free-standing service. The support at home service is an example, set up and managed by a national charity and commissioned by the local commissioning group and local authority (e). Likewise, the lunch club, set up by a timebank with members of the local community in response to perceived need for social activities amongst older people (f).

Assisting paid members of staff. This third model was observed at the two day centres (b) and the care home (d). Although the initial remit of volunteers was to participate in and support activity sessions for residents, roles became more blurred especially in times of staff shortage, with volunteers working within a team, filling gaps and doing what was needed.


These models illustrate different organisational motivations for involving volunteers.

The befriending programme grew out of a history of volunteer involvement and a vision of volunteers contributing to the life of the retirement village, in different ways, to enrich residents’ lives. It recognised that ‘there is something different a volunteer brings to the table’.

The scheme allowed the village to respond to loneliness and isolation in a person-centred way, based on the sharing of interests. Similarly, volunteers providing exercise and musical sessions in care homes were part of a longstanding volunteer led organisation, which promotes community participation through volunteering and social action.

The settings in which volunteers provided a discrete service (e and f) similarly reflect a culture in which volunteering is a core organisational principle.

By contrast, where volunteers were ‘assisting paid staff’ or filling gaps in provision, the motivation was more obviously financial:

‘there are days when I would have had to close the service if it weren’t for volunteers.’

The research identified particular challenges, which resonate with experience elsewhere. The first concerns recruitment.


Contrary to the belief of some (including government ministers), there is no ‘army’ of volunteers waiting to be recruited to bolster social care. The study found that difficulties in recruitment were common across all seven organisations.

Reasons for this may include increased intergenerational care (care for grandchildren or for parents), changing pension legislation and challenges relating to particular locations. (We might add to this list the ongoing reservations of some people to return to volunteering post COVID-19 and the cost of living crisis).

For volunteer recruitment to be successful, the ‘offer’ must be sufficiently attractive. It may be tailored to meet the needs and aspirations of particular population groups and marketed accordingly.


Training is often assumed to be an attractive ‘benefit’ of volunteering but in this study, most people were retired, no one said that access to training was a motivation for volunteering.

In the two projects described as ‘service augmentation’ (a and c above), a specific and mandatory training programme was developed for volunteers, which they were happy to attend. In the case of exercise classes (c) this included assessment of the volunteer as they ran a class for their peers.

Where volunteers were ‘assisting paid staff’ (b and d) there was little in the way of formal training and attitudes of staff towards this were mixed. One day centre manager remarked:

‘I would like to see a little training package prior to them actually volunteering…. they go straight into volunteering and then they don’t want to step back and learn anything.’

A care home manager explained that she had not identified any formal training for volunteers because ‘these individuals have got life skills… that they are bringing to us.’

Some care workers felt that volunteers needed training in order to understand protocols and boundaries:

‘Volunteers don’t understand that there are set ways to do things.’

The ‘discrete, free-standing’ services (e and f) give a mixed picture. Volunteers could be critical of the extensive initial induction training which delayed the start of their volunteering to support people in their homes. Ongoing, compulsory training was a reason given for some volunteers to leave the organisation:

‘…they just had enough, and they went.’

Finding the right balance between providing essential training and overburdening volunteers is not easy but is crucial to the success of volunteer services.


The crisis in the care sector and the climate of cuts is impacting negatively on the experience of volunteers.

Those with responsibility for volunteers, in all of the settings studied, spoke of the need to protect the volunteer contribution:

‘What people are offering should be really respected, because it’s amazing what they are doing. Don’t devalue them by saying ‘You can go and do the photocopying’.’

This challenge was the hardest to manage in settings where the boundaries between the contribution of volunteers and the work of paid staff were less clear. Traditional forms of day care such as day centres have been particularly badly hit by austerity and there was a tendency here for volunteers to get drawn further into direct care work, often due to shortages of paid staff.

A service under pressure is not likely to render a positive experience for volunteers. As one manager commented:

‘When you get a service that’s under stress and under pressure, it’s not a good place for a volunteer to be if everybody’s rushing around, trying to provide care on an impossible amount of money.’


The study highlights learning that is relevant within social care more widely

  • That recruitment needs to be specific, targeted, realistic and the offer attractive to volunteers
  • Training of the right amount and presented in the right way is crucial – and this probably needs regular review
  • Volunteers thrive in a healthy cultural environment where their distinctive contribution is understood, appreciated, supported and protected
  • Volunteering is best developed as a distinct service – either to augment care provision or as a discrete and independent operation. Where volunteers are there to assist staff, without clear roles, there is the greatest danger of compromising volunteering spirit and of exploiting volunteers.

This research comes from The contribution of volunteers in social care services for older people, by Cameron, A, Johnson, E.K, Lloyd, L., Willis, P and Smith, R – Voluntary Sector Review, 2021.

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