Analysis: Alzheimer's Society aims to recruit one million volunteers

The £2.4m government-funded programme, launched by health secretary Jeremy Hunt with chief executive Jeremy Hughes, follows an example from Japan

Launch: (from left) Hunt, Hughes and a charity supporter
Launch: (from left) Hunt, Hughes and a charity supporter

One of the most ambitious volunteering initiatives of recent years was launched last week, when the Alzheimer's Society called for one million people to become 'Dementia Friends' by 2015.

The £2.4m government-funded programme was launched by the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, with Jeremy Hughes, the charity's chief executive. It will provide awareness sessions for the public on how to spot dementia and support people with the condition, and it is hoped those who attend will use the knowledge they gain to volunteer in their communities.

But how will the charity recruit such a vast number of people, and what challenges are associated with a voluntary project of this scale?

Dementia FriendsPeople can register their interest in the project online or by text message now, but the scheme will be launched fully in February. Until then, the charity is testing its model with existing volunteers; market researchers are working with two groups and 50 people are being trained in a separate pilot project.

Gayle Willis, head of communications at the Alzheimer's Society, says the charity is looking for about 6,000 volunteers to make a "greater commitment". They will receive training and deliver awareness sessions to other people in their communities - for example, at their workplace, a church hall or a Women's Institute meeting. These people will be called Dementia Friends and will be identified by 'Forget-me-Not' badges.

A similar scheme in Japan, the Dementia Caravan programme, was launched in 2007 with the target of recruiting a million ninchisho (dementia) supporters over 10 years. So far, it has recruited three million people, with many volunteers from the health and social care sector.

The Alzheimer's Society is in talks with charities including the Red Cross, CSV and WRVS about forming partnerships to deliver the scheme. It is also recruiting a staff team, working across England, to support the volunteers and Dementia Friends.

About 5,000 people registered their interest in the project on the launch day alone. Debbie Usiskin, vice-chair of the Association of Volunteer Managers, says one of the risks of making a big announcement is that people might not sign up because they think everyone else is doing so. But she believes the Alzheimer's Society has the right model to ensure the project gets "the right number of people in the right places" because it has local groups in touch with their local communities.

But Usiskin says details of the project are not informative enough. "The charity hasn't been clear about who it is looking for and what these people need to do," she says. "I think anyone who plans to volunteer wants to have an idea of what they would do before they commit to it."

She says it is not enough for the charity to say it is looking for Dementia Friends: it needs to be more specific and say it is looking for people to educate others about dementia.

Mike Locke, director of policy and communications at Volunteering England, says the recruitment of a million people "seems a very ambitious target" and other volunteer managers in the sector will be watching the project with interest.

He stresses the need to support volunteers and ensure they feel they are helpful. "It's not just about the numbers; it's also about the quality of the volunteers' experience and the support they receive," he says.

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