We must invest more in NHS volunteering to reap the benefits for patients, staff and the volunteers

Volunteers have always been part of the NHS but the pandemic saw many more people come forward to help out. The NHS Volunteering Taskforce was set up to explore how we might encourage more people to stay involved by boosting opportunities for volunteering and making it quicker and easier to sign up. It points the way for us to release untapped potential to support with current challenges – but to achieve this the NHS must raise the status of its volunteering programmes.

We are very grateful to the charity, civil service and NHS leaders who lent us their time to inform the report, as well as the NHS staff and volunteers who shared their ideas.

It is important to say, up front, that volunteers are not a substitute for paid staff but they can give time and emotional support to patients who need it. Many of the patients we surveyed, for example, said they did not have friends, family or neighbours they could call on to help out. They appreciated extra human contact and a helping hand from a volunteer, whether that was to help them get to or from a GP clinic or hospital or make a stay in a ward shorter and more comfortable.

Today we welcome the taskforce’s recommendations, which set the agenda for volunteering in the NHS for the next three years. And we are pleased to provide our response as well as confirmation of further investment.

The taskforce said the NHS should invest more in volunteering infrastructure to make it easier for people to step forward. We learned from the pandemic that in some areas this infrastructure is less well developed, which can limit the potential of volunteering. This is a challenge that integrated care systems are considering, and to help with this we are announcing a new £10 million investment in NHS volunteering. We are still considering how to maximise the impact of these funds and will have more to say in the coming weeks.

In addition, the taskforce said that we need to ensure we’re involving all of our communities in volunteering opportunities. We agree, and we’re committing to improving data about the number and demographics of our volunteers. This will help us better appreciate their enormous contribution as well as the beneficial impact that can be achieved for volunteers themselves, in their own health and wellbeing and potentially their future careers.

Furthermore, the taskforce recommended that the experience of signing up as a volunteer should be easier. At present, in most areas people have to find each volunteering opportunity independently, as there is no one location to view all the opportunities on offer. We acknowledge this and are working on a national volunteering portal which should make it much easier to research and sign up to be a volunteer.

Case studies in the report demonstrate how volunteers are helping us address some of the key challenges within the NHS. For example, encouraging dedicated volunteers to join our workforce is paying off in a number of trusts – such as Shaun, who is now an emergency medical technician at our North West Ambulance Service Trust. Meanwhile, at Wye Valley NHS Trust, a focus on recruiting volunteers from local colleges has encouraged a number of young people to join the staff team. This kind of marginal gain adds up to a massive impact when it is multiplied across the NHS.

Although our remit was volunteering in the NHS, we welcomed the expertise, shared values and vision of our partners in the voluntary sector and social care. We recognise that volunteers want to support local people and not just individual institutions and are therefore delighted that we are now extending the NHS Volunteer Responders programme to include volunteering in social care, as well as reinforcing our commitment to working with partner organisations in the voluntary sector.

The COVID-19 pandemic marked an exceptional period of volunteering, and we understand that time, work and cost-of-living pressures will inevitably influence how much time people are able to give. Our commitment, however, is to highlight the vital role played by volunteers throughout the NHS and to make it simpler, more convenient and more rewarding for people to step forward and help people in need.

But volunteering doesn’t run itself. To recruit and retain more volunteers we need staff at all levels to continue to support what they do, and NHS organisations to further invest in their volunteer management teams.

NHS England is kickstarting this transformation – let’s work together to make this happen.

Dr Neil Churchill

Neil is Director for People and Communities at NHS England, having joined the NHS after a 25-year career in the voluntary sector. His work includes understanding people’s experiences of the NHS, involving people and communities in decision-making and leading change to improve the quality and equality of care. He has a particular focus on strengthening partnerships with unpaid carers, volunteers and the voluntary sector.

Neil has previously been a non-executive director for the NHS in the South of England, is a member of the Strategy Board for the Beryl Institute and Chair of Care for the Carers in East Sussex. He is himself an unpaid carer. Neil tweets as @neilgchurchill