‘Mark Brooker, Senior Projects Manager’
The arguments in favour of volunteering within the NHS appear straightforward. How can the help of volunteers not deliver benefits to NHS organisations, their staff and patients? Such assumptions, related to the benefits of volunteering, appear to sit at the heart of both the NHS Long Term Plan and the NHS Volunteer Responders programme developed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, do these assumptions stand up to scrutiny?
Helpforce, a charity that works with hospitals and healthcare workers to accelerate the growth and impact of volunteering in health, recognises the need to do more than just assume benefits related to volunteer activity and the charity is on a mission to grow the evidence base on health volunteers. In partnership with NHS England and NHS Improvement and the Royal Voluntary Service, Helpforce delivered the Volunteering Innovators Programme (VIP).
During this 18-month programme Helpforce partnered with a group of NHS Trusts to develop and evaluate innovative volunteering interventions, introduced at different points in the patient care pathway. The VIP set out to strengthen the evidence base related to volunteering and help identify possible opportunities for scaling and spreading what works.
The reports setting out the VIP findings are now available here. These reports provide an invaluable new source of evidence for understanding the impact of volunteering in the NHS, based on a mixture of standardised survey responses and bespoke data collection. Some notable VIP findings are that nurses estimate volunteers free up an average of 26 mins per nurse per day, and that volunteers speed up discharge by up to 44 mins per patient when they assist with collecting medications. Volunteers also have a tangible impact on patient experience – the VIP found that 11% more patients felt that their healthcare provider was interested in them as a whole person when supported by volunteers.
I was asked to assist with developing these reports. For me personally, this was a fantastic opportunity to learn about the many and varied ways that volunteers help within the NHS. My knowledge was previously limited to the meet-and-greet and Friends cafe volunteers that I had encountered through hospital visits.
This project also highlighted to me just how challenging it can be to collect data that demonstrates volunteer impact. Establishing attribution in such a complex environment is very difficult unless processes are fully understood, and data collection is carefully planned. Moreover, just gathering enough data to give you confidence in your findings can be difficult when the interventions themselves are both small in scale and the time they are in place for is limited. This is especially the case if key local stakeholders do not have the capacity, skills or buy-in from colleagues to support the data collection process. Helpforce recognised these challenges and adopted a robust evaluation approach for VIP which helped to deliver findings that are both promising and exciting.
The VIP findings represent an important step in helping the NHS to make best use of a finite pool of volunteers. Helpforce’s commitment to continuing to assist NHS organisations with the collection and analysis of volunteering data should ensure that this is just the start and gives us all greater confidence that volunteers will increasingly be given roles that maximise their impact.
If you wish to discuss your needs to develop evidence for your volunteering services or projects, please get in touch with the Helpforce team at firstname.lastname@example.org
 It is worth noting that data collection related to the VIP was greatly restricted because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on a number of the volunteering interventions