Jullie Tran Graham shares insights and learnings from a recently released report that evaluates the impacts of volunteer interventions

Volunteers do puzzle in Kissing It Better project

Volunteers have always been an important part of the NHS, and around 78,000 volunteers currently provide vital support to patients and staff across England’s acute NHS trusts. Yet there is wide variation in the scale and effectiveness of volunteering across different trusts.

With the NHS long-term plan committing to double the number of NHS volunteers over the next three years, it is critical that we learn from the best initiatives that already exist, so that they can be refined and scaled to all NHS settings.

As a key part of this, Helpforce has published the learnings from our work with five pioneering NHS trusts, who we’ve partnered with since 2017 to test and understand the difference volunteers can make in a range of roles.1

We hope the findings will inspire all trusts to integrate safe, reliable and trained volunteers in impactful roles, so that many more patients, staff and volunteers can benefit.

The findings – which are brought together in two reports co-produced with the five trusts – demonstrate the positive difference that volunteers can make to local health services and communities.

For example, volunteers at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Foundation Trust contributed to the reduction of “Did not attend” rates by around 50 per cent by providing appointment reminders.

In addition, 93 per cent of staff at Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals Trust said that volunteers saved them time to concentrate on their core roles.2

And at West Suffolk FT, transport companion volunteers collectively saved 16.5 hours of waiting (from point of discharge to going home) in a small pilot study.3

Aimed at senior leaders and volunteer managers at other trusts, the reports highlight three key learnings that support the successful development and integration of volunteering:

Co-design volunteer services with outcomes in mind

  • At each of the five trusts we’ve worked with, volunteers weren’t just recruited for the sake of increasing the number of volunteers; an unmet need or goal was identified that volunteers could help address. This included volunteer roles to support the national “Eat, Drink and Move” and “Pyjama Paralysis” campaigns, and roles to support patients’ transition from hospital to home.
  • To help really embed the volunteer roles and ensure they were best suited to the trusts, the services were designed alongside staff. For example, at Sandwell and West Birmingham Trust, nurse leaders were specifically asked “what would help you?” At West Suffolk FT, the volunteering team spent a lot of time building relationships with clinical staff – particularly with teams that had not engaged with volunteer support historically.

Leadership, governance and infrastructure are vital

  • Volunteer services need senior level support to truly become embedded, scaled and sustained. One important way to do this is by reporting volunteer activity and new services to your trust board – as was the case at Northumbria Healthcare FT and University Hospital Southampton FT.
  • Another option is to form a taskforce or working group to ensure key people within your trust are informed of successes and barriers. At Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals Trust, the chief nurse chaired a taskforce including senior trust representatives – the taskforce allowed a dedicated resource to discuss and define strategy, and also opened lines of communication with departments and wards.

Be prepared to adapt – change takes time

  • Continuous learning and improvement must be at the heart of any new service design and development. The five trusts worked hard to plan their volunteer interventions, but when things didn’t go as planned they adapted and moved forward with an improved offer.
  • For instance, at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, the team spoke regularly with staff, issued surveys to gather feedback and held focus groups with volunteers; this allowed the team to make important adjustments, such as providing specialist dementia training for volunteers.
  • It also proved important to be brave enough to stop and re-assess volunteer initiatives that weren’t making the right impact. At Northumbria Healthcare FT, there was initial senior management support for young volunteers to work in the X-ray department, as it was felt they were needed. However, once it became clear that the support wasn’t required, the initiative was discontinued

The next stage in our ongoing work to understand the impact of volunteering and share best practice is the launch of our new Volunteering Innovators Programme.

Over the next 18 months, Helpforce will work with 10 new hospital trusts funded by NHS England, and two trusts funded by the Royal Voluntary Service, to develop high-impact volunteer innovations that will be refined and shared to help other trusts in the UK adopt effective volunteer services.

The trusts, who were chosen after applications from 90 trusts, will focus on a range of specific volunteer roles – ranging from end of life care in the community, “Hospital to Home” and transport services. Together we want to help volunteers to make an even bigger impact and ensure that volunteering is well integrated into day-to-day hospital services.

By continuing to shine a light on the best existing volunteer initiatives, and learning and evaluating from what is already happening, we can help patients and our brilliant frontline staff get the very best from the health service.


1 The five trusts are: Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Foundation Trust, Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals Trust, Northumbria Healthcare FT, West Suffolk FT, University Hospital Southampton FT.

2 67 per cent of staff reported that volunteers saved them between 1-60 minutes over the course of a day, and 20 per cent said that volunteers saved them more than 60 minutes.

3 The pilot study consisted of four patients. The trust is currently working to expand the service.