Rob Jackson: Two concerns about plans to expand volunteering in the NHS

Plans to double the number of volunteers in the health service are not good in themselves - attention has to be paid to what they actually achieve

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

July 2018 marks the 70th birthday of the NHS and the contribution of volunteers to the health service is rightly being recognised. Capitalising on this opportunity, HelpForce, a community interest company founded in 2017 by the philanthropist Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallet, has recently been growing its work and profile. Just last month it announced a major new partnership with the Royal Voluntary Service, geared towards achieving HelpForce’s aim of doubling the number of volunteers in NHS Trusts by 2021.

Announcing the partnership, RVS shared the results of a YouGov poll that explored the NHS volunteer roles people were already, or would consider, doing. The poll found that more than 22 per cent of adults would consider volunteering to support the NHS, with popular roles including:

  • Providing companionship to patients on wards.
  • Volunteering in the shops, cafes or the trolley services that go out on wards.
  • Helping out on wards during meals.
  • Helping patients get to and from appointments.
  • Leading activities and social groups for patients.

I commend HelpForce’s purpose and goals, but I do worry about the focus of doubling the number of NHS volunteers and about the assumptions that might be made in light of the YouGov poll.

First, I am concerned that the success of HelpForce will be judged solely on doubling volunteer numbers.

Productivity is typically defined as more output for less input, yet here is another volunteering initiative where the focus will be on growing the input (volunteers) with apparently little regard for the output (what the volunteers achieve).

More volunteers isn’t always the solution! A greater emphasis should be placed on valuing the difference volunteers make to people’s lives.

Second, although it’s great that more than a fifth of adults would consider volunteering to support the NHS, that doesn’t mean they will.

Promises to volunteer do not always translate into actual volunteering. The public are usually generous with their time and money, but both of those resources are in shorter supply than ever. So, when asked to consider volunteering, many people say yes to the researcher or recruiter, but struggle or fail to turn their good intentions into action.

Furthermore, just because people would like to do certain tasks doesn’t mean they need doing. Is there a strategic plan for engagement of volunteers that identifies need and priorities for voluntary service? Do the volunteer roles people would consider match those needs?

Thinking more broadly, what about non-NHS volunteer roles that could be developed – for example, activities to enable more social prescribing, reducing the demand for NHS services in the first place? Isn’t prevention better than cure after all?

Don’t get me wrong, there is huge untapped potential for volunteering in the NHS, and HelpForce is a step in the right direction. I just hope that as plans develop they are driven by real need, not potentially misleading data, and their efficacy isn’t evaluated by simplistic metrics.

The NHS, it’ volunteers and the public deserve more.

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant

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