Our head of policy and performance Duncan Tree, highlights the importance of volunteering and social action, and how it should be instrumental in shaping how health services work in the future.

This piece makes up a chapter of the report ‘Priorities for the plan’ which you can read in full here.

What is the problem?

‘Volunteering’ is time given freely for the benefit of others. It takes many forms and may take place through organisations (formal) or with friends and neighbours (informal). Within health and care, it can happen in any service, including GP surgeries, hospitals and community centres.

‘Social action’ is time freely spent with others to tackle local challenges, negotiate with public services, and improve conditions that benefit all. It is often carried out through community groups – some of which are long-standing, and some of which come together for the cause in question. Social action can be aimed at maintaining
or improving the health of people and their communities.

Volunteering and social action are regarded by the NHS and its partners as broadly positive and helpful, with almost 3 million people volunteering in health and social care services in England. Yet our public debate, our commissioning and our operational management are often out of kilter with the reality of volunteering’s importance, let alone its greater potential.

There are well-documented reasons why volunteering and social action are yet to be mainstreamed:

• Volunteering has a less positive reputation among certain groups, notably among many men, some younger people and some ethnic groups. These groups are significantly under-represented in formal volunteering, including health and social care volunteering.

• There are particular issues for disabled people. These include ‘access issues’ and the impact of the stigma still sometimes associated with disability.

• Potential volunteers and social activists have other important commitments, including work, caring responsibilities or study.

• Some volunteering opportunities lack flexibility or do not provide sufficient financial help for unemployed or low-income volunteers.

What needs to happen?

Volunteering and social action – already integral to the NHS today – should be instrumental in shaping how health services work tomorrow. Across local government as well as the NHS, there is increasing interest in approaches that seek to work with and build upon the assets of our communities. Many of these approaches depend on volunteers and social activists – as ‘health champions’, advocates, information givers, representatives, peer supporters, patient leaders, community organisers and concerned, empowered citizens. They could be transformative in shifting behaviour and building relationships that support our individual and collective health and wellbeing.

We face fundamental challenges in terms of skills, culture and organisational rigidity. We need to take action to:

• Promote the public understanding of volunteering and social action.

• Improve genuine access to volunteering opportunities for all in society.

• Offer more tailored, person-centred opportunities, so that we engage people in activities they really care about.

• Become better at measuring and understanding the impact of volunteering and social action on health and care; and learn and then build upon what we find.

What does this require in practice?

• Key NHS and social care personalisation and integration programmes should be required to clearly set out how volunteering and social action are part and parcel of their delivery through individual citizens’ involvement in, for example, ‘social prescribing’, personal health budgets and health champion initiatives.

• Strategic investments should be made in local organisations, such as Centres for Voluntary Service and Volunteer Centres, that promote and support volunteering in their communities; as well as at local volunteering and social action initiatives carried out by other charities, voluntary sector organisations and Community Interest Companies.

• There needs to be support for national and local ‘demonstrator’ work on promoting and broadening volunteer participation, particularly with regard to improving the inclusion and experience of those who are currently benefiting least from volunteering.

Where is this already being done well?

There are many examples from across the country of exemplary schemes that promote volunteering and social action. One is Volunteering Matters’ project, Futures Norfolk, which recruits and trains volunteer mentors to support young volunteers with disabilities into the right volunteering opportunity for them. The mentors also support mentees to acquire the skills and resilience they may then need to stick with that opportunity, so making a meaningful and personally fulfilling contribution to society. To achieve this, the project works closely with young people, their families, schools and other support networks and organisations. It provides an opportunity for young people with disabilities to maximise their skills and future employability; enables them to make friends and expand their networks; and helps ease many of them through the difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood.

There are of course also many well-established schemes in our hospitals, health and community centres, libraries and GP surgeries – each of which makes a contribution to the mental and physical health of people using services, to the wellbeing of the volunteers, and to the wider public health and resilience of the whole community.

What priority action needs to be taken ‘now’?

The health system cannot achieve its goals without the support of volunteers and social activists. The “new NHS,” as outlined in the Five Year Forward View, and coming to life through national programmes including New Care Models and Integrated Personal Commissioning, must be built on a bedrock of empowered citizens – each of whom has a personal stake in their health and care services. Patient activation and active citizenship need to be thought of as two sides of the same coin. These programmes now need to be at the forefront of shifting volunteering and social action from margin to mainstream.

Read the full report