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Flexibility is key to unlocking the power of volunteering

Mark Lever
By Mark Lever Chief executive of Helpforce
8 June 2023

Over half the UK public (56%) is willing to volunteer to support the health and wellbeing of people in their local communities, according to Helpforce’s latest research with YouGov. Despite the clear willingness of the public, volunteering is at an all-time low, with 1.6 million fewer people volunteering over the past five years. Through our research, we have identified a number of obstacles that stopped people from stepping forward. But to remove those obstacles, the Government, local authorities, health and care leaders and community organisations need to work together to create flexible, sustainable and impactful volunteering opportunities.

Public attitudes to health and care volunteering in our research shows that the number one barrier to people taking on volunteer roles is a lack of flexibility. Nearly half (44%) of the UK population cannot commit to set hours for regular shifts each week.

That’s why we’re calling for more investment in local infrastructure to help NHS Trusts and other health and care organisations create opportunities that will offer people flexible volunteering opportunities. We need new kinds of variable roles aimed at those in employment.

Indeed, a surprising finding from our research is that those with jobs are keener to volunteer than older demographics. Counterintuitively, the proportion of people not interested is higher amongst retired people (25%) than it is amongst people who work (21%). Those in their sixties are least interested in volunteering.

Traditionally, most volunteer roles have been geared towards those not in employment, but now we understand that it’s working people who are more motivated to help, we need to design new approaches that will fit with their lifestyles.

When reshaping volunteer roles, we also need to consider why people want to help. In terms of motivations, a third of people (34%) said making a difference to individuals was the most compelling reason, while slightly less (28%) said they wanted to do something for their local community.

The survey found that a third (30%) of people want to provide practical help to people in their local communities, doing tasks like grocery shopping, picking up medications and delivering rehabilitative exercise programmes. Around a quarter (23%) would like to make phone calls to check on patients’ wellbeing, while 22% of people are happy to visit people in their own homes to make sure they’re ok.

With the NHS and the social care system mired in crisis means that our health and social care system presently needs all the help it can get right now. And well-trained volunteers can help in different ways to ease the pressure on the system and make a real difference to the people who need the support.

For the past year, we have worked with 45 health and care organisations to carry out innovative volunteering initiatives as part of our Back to Health campaign. Within one year, we have seen 25,000 volunteers making a difference to over 90,000 patients and 48,600 staff. The results were highly positive for all parties. Of health and care staff, 81% say that volunteer support helps them feel less stressed. Each volunteer interaction is estimated to save almost one hour of their time. When it comes to patients, 96% said volunteer support improved their mood, which is crucial given that emotional and mental wellbeing is closely linked to physical recovery. And the volunteers themselves benefit too. Nearly three-quarters of them (73%) said they went on to secure employment or further education in the health and care sector. It is a proven and important pathway to securing much-needed new staff.

In an age of record-breaking NHS waiting lists, high shortages of staff, and lack of social care, the many benefits of health and care volunteers must not be underestimated. Cost-effective, efficient and impactful, volunteers are needed more than ever. However, we shouldn’t rely on outdated ways of doing things. Today’s new volunteers are more likely to be younger people in employment than retired people. We must redesign volunteer roles, accordingly, building in a fundamental flexibility that will allow them to offer the same high-quality support within the confines of their busy schedules.

We witnessed first-hand the huge power of volunteering during the Covid-19 pandemic – and now we must again unlock that community spirit to combat the health and care challenges we face. By building flexible opportunities, managed at a local level, we can involve many more people in volunteering.

Helpforce is an independent, non-profit organisation that partners with health and care organisations across the UK to accelerate the impact of volunteering. Find out more at:

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