Fiona Liddell, WCVA’s Helpforce Cymru Manager, has been finding out how one organisation enables young people to gain experience through volunteering and educational placements.
Those who aspire to a career in health or social care often look to volunteering to gain relevant experience. It strengthens their application for a course or a job. It enables them to test their vocation and to develop those all-important ‘people skills’.
Increasingly, such experience is becoming a necessity. People completing an introductory course in social care, for example and presenting for a job interview have been told to ‘go and get more experience’. Those who study health and care related courses may be variously ‘encouraged’, ‘expected’ or ‘required’ to get relevant extra-curricular experience.
SKILLS VOLUNTEERING CARDIFF
Skills & Volunteering Cardiff (SVC) works closely with three universities in Cardiff and with numerous other partners including Cardiff and Vale University Health Board. Young people are able to volunteer within a portfolio of projects under the umbrella name of the ‘NHS placement scheme’.
Opportunities include volunteering on inpatient wards (dementia wards, assessment units and acute mental health wards) and in rehabilitation houses supporting people following episodes of mental ill-health.
Adrienne Earls, SVC Manager told me:
‘We have been working with the health board for more than 20 years, supporting volunteers in different health settings. We aim to add an extra level of care and opportunity to patients through activities organised by volunteers.’
Volunteers operate in teams, under the oversight of a volunteer lead. They commit to involvement for an academic year.
VOLUNTEERING OR EDUCATIONAL PLACEMENT?
I asked Adrienne about the expectations of the universities that they work with – and whether this compromises the nature of volunteering.
Different institutions have different approaches, she explained:
‘In one [university], volunteers are encouraged to volunteer, they simply come to us and we discuss with them what they would like to do.
‘Another [university] has courses which offer a placement module as part of the degree. There are specific requirements which need to be fulfilled, such as the number of hours completed, or a final presentation to be seen and assessed by our staff. The university approves our opportunities as suitable for their purposes and covers the cost of DBS checks.
‘In another case, the university generally encourages students to undertake 70 hours of volunteering but it varies from course to course as whether this is recommended or is mandatory to pass their degree. DBS costs often aren’t covered by the university.’
MANAGING A COMPLEXITY OF PLACEMENTS
Such a range of approaches creates challenges for SVC as a host organisation, which they manage with diligence.
Mia Bromley is responsible for the NHS placement scheme in SVC. She said:
‘Volunteers are asked on their application form “Are you undertaking this opportunity as part of your studies?” If they tick “yes” we arrange to have a chat with them.
‘We review with them what we have available that will meet their requirements – for example, some placements would not involve enough hours of volunteering, or there may be expectations for a supervising staff member (eg doctor/ nurse) to sign off hours which, as a third party, we can’t commit them to.’
‘If “volunteering” is a part of the degree, then as far as we are concerned it is not volunteering,’ Adrienne added. ‘But we can support it nevertheless. We discuss each request on a case-by-case basis. For the sake of equity and where resources permit, SVC will cover the costs of DBS checks if necessary.’
VOLUNTEERING IS CHANGING
The national picture is one of decline in volunteering and yet the need for experience in health and care settings is increasing.
Adrienne explained why offering both volunteering and educational placements is beneficial for them:
‘We have commitments, linked to funding streams, to support a number of projects and we would have difficulty in fulfilling some of these commitments if we relied on altruistic volunteers alone. Taking students on placement gives us the capacity to support projects in the way we would want to – even though it involves us in more admin and supervision.
‘We have seen a change in volunteers’ attitudes over the years. There are more issues for us about levels of commitment. This can lead to an impact on the vulnerable people being supported, for whom continuity is important and unexpected changes are unsettling.
‘When the placement is recognised or required as part of someone’s own career journey it increases levels of commitment. They can see their involvement as part of a bigger picture.’
LESSONS TO SHARE
The experience of SVC is that it is possible to provide consistent high-quality experience for those who are looking to gain unpaid experience to support career aspirations. However, it requires careful consideration of the expectations and requirements in each case and the confidence to say ‘no’ when appropriate.
Some organisations, like SVC, may be able to manage a variety of arrangements and expectations in a mixed approach to volunteering and educational placements. Others will have tighter criteria as to how far they are willing or able to meet external requirements.
The distinction between what is volunteering and what is an educational placement matters because at the one extreme, volunteers have agency to choose what they do and at the other, an educational body sets the parameters.
A GREY AREA?
In reality though, the issue is not entirely black and white. There is a ‘grey area’ in which volunteering is highly encouraged or even necessary for career progression and yet is not a formal requirement for achieving the educational qualification.
Volunteer involving organisations need to decide for themselves the limits to what they engage with. Whatever they conclude, volunteer experience is paramount. Adrienne says:
‘We as organisations need to provide exceptional support and opportunities with quality service and recognition for volunteers’ contribution. Organisations need excellent volunteers more than the other way around!’
Cardiff and Vale University Health Board was a finalist in the Helpforce Champions Awards ‘Volunteering Collaboration of the Year – Partnership’ category, this October, for the Mental Health NHS placement scheme which they run jointly with SVC.
ABOUT HELPFORCE CYMRU
Helpforce Cymru is working with Third Sector Support Wales (WCVA and 19 CVCs), Welsh Government and other partners to develop the potential of volunteering to support health and social care services in Wales.
We will be pleased to hear your experience of providing volunteering opportunities to support career journeys. Please contact Fiona Liddell email@example.com.