Paddy Hanrahan: Volunteering in the NHS - not just a numbers game

Getting more volunteers into the health service is our ambition, but we are also concerned about the difference they make and the value they bring

Paddy Hanrahan
Paddy Hanrahan

HelpForce is working from the NHS, for the NHS, to expand volunteering. We want it to become an integral part of our health care.

Last week, Rob Jackson’s article threw us a challenge: he questioned whether it is right to focus on doubling the number of volunteers. He also asked whether a recent report by our partner, the Royal Voluntary Service, which suggested that more people would consider volunteering in the NHS would translate into reality. Rob made some excellent points.

The number of volunteers is not HelpForce’s sole driver of change. For us, it is about the difference volunteers can make, their role in improving care, the value they bring in terms of their skills and experience, their contribution to the patients and staff they support, and the confidence and purpose all this gives the volunteer.

The hospital trusts we work with do understand the full value their volunteers bring, but the challenge is how to measure it. This is why we are supplying the trusts in our network with volunteer management systems to better recruit, match roles to and engage with their volunteers. It is also why we are developing an "impact and insight framework" with our five pilot sites that will eventually allow all NHS hospital trusts to define and measure outcome metrics for their volunteer services. We have already measured significant nurse time saved by "bleep" volunteers collecting prescriptions.

We see excellent examples of volunteers adding huge value in the NHS, but they need to be connected and spread so that more of us can feel the benefit. We recently launched a learning network for NHS volunteer managers, alongside voluntary sector partner experts, to share practice, stories and successful initiatives. We are building new education programmes to train and develop volunteers. Volunteering in the NHS provides pathways to employment, social engagement and active citizenship. The volunteer experience provides implicit insight into careers in healthcare and a more informed, considered workforce for the health service.

Back to the numbers. We believe that creating room for far more volunteers in the NHS is part of the answer. In England there are 125,000 wonderful volunteers in hospices supporting 200,000 patients – that is not far off a 1:1 ratio. Imagine that: a volunteer for every patient. Compare this with an estimated 78,000 volunteers supporting the millions of patients in NHS hospitals. Wishing to double these numbers is an important ambition but, as Rob rightly pointed out, only when matched with a programme that recognises volunteers' true value: the wonderful difference they make to the patients and staff in our health service.

Volunteering is a powerful force across our public life. It brings great benefits to the recipients as well as the volunteers and is a pillar on which many public services are improved through closer contact with their communities. We want to harness the passion for volunteering so many people in our country have and bring it to bear on the NHS we all so cherish.

Paddy Hanrahan is managing director at HelpForce

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