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Volunteers are a big local asset

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We haven’t heard much about the Big Society recently but the importance of voluntary and community action has never been more important.

The plaudits accorded to the Olympic ‘games makers’ last year has stimulated fresh thinking about how the traditional concept of volunteering that pre-dates the welfare state could be reinvented in the context of 21st century needs. What could this mean for health and local government?

Volunteers are a big local asset. About a quarter of the adult population is involved in volunteering on a formal basis, and an estimated three million people are involved in health and social care settings alone.

Our newly published research highlights four areas where they add value:

  • Improving the experience of care and support;
  • Strengthening the relationship between public services and communities;
  • Improving public health and reducing health inequalities;
  • Supporting integrated care for people with multiple physical and/or mental health needs.

An evaluation of volunteer-led preventive services provided by the British Red Cross estimates savings from the services to be at least 3.5 times greater than the costs involved in delivering them.

Volunteering is changing. In many places it’s at the heart of innovation in developing co-produced public services - examples include timebanking, micro-volunteering, peer-led support and social co-operatives. The potential is massive but there are risks, with real fears that volunteering could become a slippery slope to a de-professionalised workforce and cost cutting. Some perceive a tension between the ethos of volunteering and increasing reliance on private providers.

The best case scenario is one in which public services use volunteering as a way of strengthening their relationship with the communities they serve and to improve people’s experience of care and support. Organisations need to think strategically about volunteers as an integrated part of their workforce planning - based on a clear vision of how volunteers can help organisations and communities and be supported in doing so. As councils take on new health responsibilities, there’s no better time to think differently about volunteering.

Richard Humphries, assistant director, policy, The King’s Fund


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