How can you involve volunteers successfully in developing and delivering your strategy?

Volunteering image

The involvement of volunteers can be the difference between success and failure of your mission, but doing this effectively is an area in which some organisations struggle.  Based on experience as an Investing in Volunteers assessor, this post sets out what some of the common problems are, what volunteers bring to delivering the organisation’s objectives, and some suggestions about the practicalities of involving volunteers successfully.

Investing in Volunteers standard

There are various practices in Investing in Volunteers that address involvement of volunteers in strategy, including:

  • 1.1 The organisation has a written policy on volunteer involvement that sets out the organisation’s values for volunteer involvement and highlights the need for procedures for managing volunteers, based on principles of equality and diversity.
  • 1.3 People at all levels of the organisation have been informed of, and can articulate the organisation’s reasons for involving volunteers and the benefits to volunteers.
  • 2.4 The organisation’s annual plan includes objectives for volunteer involvement which are reviewed regularly.
  • 8.4 Volunteers are asked for feedback about their role and their involvement with the organisation.
  • 9.2 Volunteers have an opportunity to make known their views about the organisation’s work, including its policies and procedures, and to participate in decision making.

Common gaps in involvement

These include:

  • Strategies and plans mentioning volunteers but only as an input or resource and not including them in the outcomes / objectives / action planning sections.
  • Not mentioning volunteers at all.
  • Not involving volunteers in the review of services or development of plans.
  • Not being clear with volunteers and staff what volunteers contribute to delivering the strategy.
  • Not providing the systems, structures or resources necessary for volunteers to undertake their roles, including not linking volunteer managers sufficiently into management structures.
  • Not involving volunteers or volunteering measurements in reviewing progress.
  • Not linking volunteer managers into the planning process.

Being clear about what volunteers contribute

When asked what volunteers bring to organisations, as well as the obvious added capacity, common answers are:

  • A range of skills, knowledge and experience to deliver the strategy that the organisation wouldn’t otherwise have, from life and professional perspectives.
  • Connections to the local community, geographically or specific groups of people to broaden an organisation’s reach and help beneficiaries feel the organisation is “for them”.
  • Bringing a wider range of voices into the organisation to provide fresh ideas or challenge to existing practice to help with innovation and developments.
  • Improving outcomes for beneficiaries.  Volunteers have the time to spend with clients to build relationships and to meet emotional needs see How can volunteering improve health outcomes? for more information about some research on this in the health field.
  • They are someone who interacts with clients “without a clipboard” as one service user said to me, who can focus on the client’s needs without a particular agenda.
  • Volunteers help beneficiaries to feel valued and important.  It is meaningful to service users that someone is giving their time freely rather than being paid to be there – to some this is an unknown concept.

How can organisations involve volunteers in strategy?

There are various steps that you can take, many the inverse of the gaps:

  • Involve volunteers in research about your beneficiaries’ needs and evaluation of your services. Volunteers can often be the people in your organisation with most time to speak to your service users and may be told things that staff do not get to hear.  They also provide a wider reach into your local community.  This can be through ensuring you have mechanisms to ask volunteers through to involving volunteers as community researchers with a specific role to find out what people need or think about your services.
  • Set up mechanisms to hear volunteers’ voices  For some this is about involving volunteers in existing staff structures such as team meetings or awaydays, for others it’s about having a volunteer steering or advisory group, or volunteer forum.
  • Enable volunteers to feed into the development of your plan. This may be by involving volunteers in a strategic planning or leadership group through to giving volunteers the opportunity to comment on a draft plan.  Let people know the contribution that volunteers have made to the plan and what has been adopted or rejected in the development of the plan.
  • Ensure that for every strategic objective in your plan you have identified whether and how volunteers contribute towards this. Make it clear in the plan what volunteers’ roles are and be specific about how it will be delivered and what resources are required to support delivery – some of the more detailed information may be in an action plan or service- or team-level plan.
  • Communicate inside and outside your organisation what volunteers bring. This can be through staff meetings, training, individual meetings, articles or case studies on your website, newsletter or intranet, social media, or any other mechanism you use to communicate.
  • Consider how volunteers delivering services relate to the governance of your organisation. You could involve service delivery volunteers as trustees, have a trustee/trustees on the board with specific responsibility for liaising with volunteers, make a volunteer steering group a part of the board structure, or hold shared meetings and activities.
  • Involve volunteers in the regular review of your strategy throughout the planning cycle.
  • Ensure that your volunteers are well managed and get training, support and recognition. Investing in Volunteers can help you to review your volunteering practice and highlight the voice of volunteers to identify what you do well and what you can improve.  You can get a free, no obligation quote.
  • Recognise the crucial role of volunteer managers. They are likely to have a huge amount of expertise in relation to what does and doesn’t work and are vital in working directly with the volunteers to ensure that your strategy is a success.

Ideas to Impact can help you with all aspects of the process of involving volunteers in your strategy: working with volunteers to get their views and ideas about what works, involving volunteers in the planning process, supporting setting up steering groups or volunteer forums, reviewing your existing processes to identify strengths and areas for improvement, writing policies and procedures, facilitating meetings, holding good practice workshops, and coaching and mentoring.  Get in touch for a discussion, contact details and form are at the bottom of each page on the main Ideas to Impact website.

How can volunteering improve health outcomes?

I was lucky yesterday have an opportunity to discuss volunteering in healthcare settings, primarily hospitals, with NCVO, NHS England, NHS Trusts, a Healthwatch and Investing in Volunteers assessors. In the NHS’s Five Year Forward View, increasing community engagement including through volunteering is one the aims (see chapter 2).  The purpose of the meeting was to look at how working towards and gaining Investing in Volunteers could help with this.

Organisations that have achieved the Investing in Volunteers quality award identify that it has had a positive impact on their volunteering programmes (see the Investing in Volunteers Impact Assessment downloadable from WCVA), but I wondered what the bigger picture was in terms of evidence about how volunteering helped to improve patients’ health outcomes.

So here are some of my thoughts after a quick review of the literature on the way home.  I look at:

  1. The type of support the volunteers provide
  2. How these help healthcare services to achieve their outcomes
  3. How Investing in Volunteers can help with this process.

It’s not intended to be exhaustive, it’s a fairly short train journey back to Market Harborough, but I think provides a case:

  1. For the value that volunteers bring to patient satisfaction and health outcomes; and,
  2. That properly resourcing and managing the volunteer management programme makes a difference to these outcomes.

What sort of support do volunteers provide?

Faulkner and Davies (2004) break down volunteering support into four categories – the interpretations and comments are mine:

  • Appraisal support that helps someone to think through the situation they are in, the impact on them, and how they might be able to deal with something, this could be counselling, but could be key worker / support worker roles.
  • Informational support is, as it says, providing information to someone and can also include referral.  This might include advice services in GP surgeries or social prescribing.
  • Instrumental support is practical help, this could include support to help people to leave hospital and return home, such as safety checks, getting food in, settling someone back at home, or may involve providing goods, services or financial help.
  • Emotional support that helps a person feel cared for, listened to, understood, this is typically provided by volunteers on wards, outpatients departments, clinics etc.

It is the power of volunteers to provide emotional support and why this is so important that I will focus on.  The impact of social isolation on health is well documented.  Hilary Cottam in a paper or excellent and thought provoking TED Talk  discusses how public services have become a series of transactions, but what is really transformation is the relationship between people – for example we know that the strength of the relationship between a therapist and a client is more important than the specific approach they take (De Haan, 2008).

Neuroscience helps with explanation: our brains are not optimally configured but have adapted over time and the different parts are not always working in harmony with each other.  The best model that we have is that of the triune or three part brain, a reptilian part that deals with instinctive behaviour, the mammalian brain that developed to care for our young that processes emotions, and the prefrontal cortex, the rational thought bit that we prize in the west.  Because of this Lewis et al point out, much of people’s brains are not “amenable to the pressure of argument and…much of one’s brain does not take orders” (2001: 33), instead identifying that changing how someone feels is a matter of tuning in to them at an emotional level, which has the ability to stablise and change their emotional state.  It is this that clinical staff often don’t have time for, but volunteers do.  Handy and Srinivasan (2004) highlight the important role of volunteers in reducing patients’ anxiety, which they identify is important in quality of care.  In addition, Hotchkiss et al cite research in America that “volunteers are more agreeable and extroverted than paid employees who performed the same jobs. This allows what otherwise might be an impersonal environment to become more personal and enhances patient satisfaction” which they theorise gives the organisation a “competitive advantage,” a notion that might be a bit strange (at least at the moment) to our NHS (2014: 1112).

In what ways can volunteers help healthcare services?

Hotchkiss et al (2014) identify a number of ways that volunteers can help hospitals or other services:

  • Improving health outcomes through the activities above – researchers identify that more work needs to be done directly to link volunteering to health outcomes (e.g. Naylor et al in a Kings Fund report state, “There is a striking lack of information about the scale or impact of volunteering in health and social care. Addressing this should be a priority.”(2013, viii)).  However, a picture is starting to emerge through some of the research cited in this article, and other initiatives such as social prescribing that are being developed (although these are not new, Faulkner (2004) evaluated a social prescribing type service in South Yorkshire in 2001-2).
  • Increasing capacity and helping out staff Both Jones (2004) and Handy and Srinivasan (2004) surveyed staff in hospitals and found that they rated volunteers’ support highly in helping with their workloads.  The latter found that providing personal care, providing support to patients and families in waiting rooms, clinics, support groups, and providing companionship and friendly visiting were most important for staff.
  • Delivering early intervention and prevention activities either in the hospital or in the community, including peer support provided by volunteers who have had similar experiences.
  • Providing positive messages about the health service to communities Jones (2004) identified that this can help to combat poor media coverage or poor general impressions, also suggesting that volunteers from diverse communities can help to increase social inclusion and community cohesion.
  • Reducing people’s stay in hospital through hospital to home schemes, providing support for people to leave hospital who are currently there because of the need for social care / support rather than for medical reasons.
  • Increasing donations to the hospital Handy and Srinivasan (2004) found that volunteers highly likely to donate to hospitals in fundraising campaigns as well as to be ambassadors into the general community.

Can Investing in Volunteers help to improve health outcomes?

Hopefully the case for involving volunteers in healthcare has been demonstrated, but what might the role of Investing in Volunteers be in improving both effectiveness and efficiency for hospitals?  Rogers et al (2016) investigated whether hospitals taking a cost-driven approach to volunteers (minimising costs) or a quality maximising approach (putting investment into volunteers) had any effect on patient satisfaction.  Their findings were that there was a positive relationship between good volunteer management and patient satisfaction.  Interestingly this related to volunteers opportunity and ability to perform, but had no impact on their motivation.  We know that Investing in Volunteers has been demonstrated through the impact assessment to improve volunteer management, so we could infer from this that Investing in Volunteers can help to get the best out of your volunteers, which will ultimately improve the outcomes identified above.

Other resources and developments

The Institute for Volunteering Research along with NAVSM has published Health check A practical guide to assessing the impact of volunteering in the NHS this discusses their work in a number of NHS Trusts across the country.

The Institute for Volunteering Research is also working with researchers in Canada to investigate the role of volunteering in helping people coming back home from hospital.


De Haan, E. (2008) Relational coaching. Chichester: John Wiley.

Faulkner, M., & Davies, S. (2005). “Social support in the healthcare setting: The role of volunteers” Health and Social Care in the Community, 13.

Handy, F., & Srinivasan, N. (2004) “Valuing volunteers: An economic evaluation of the net benefits of hospital volunteers” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 33

Hotchkiss, R., Unruh, L., and Fottler, M. (2014) “The Role, Measurement, and Impact of Volunteerism in Hospitals” in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 43(6)

Jones, H. (2004). Volunteering for health. Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Welsh Assembly Government. Available at

Lewis, T., Amini, F. and Lannon, R (2001). A general theory of love. New York: Vintage Books.

Naylor, C., Mundle, C., Weaks, L., Buck, D. (2013) Volunteering in health and care Securing a sustainable future, The Kings Fund, available from

Rogers, S., Jiang, K., Rogers, R. and Intindola, M. (2016) “Strategic Human Resource Management of Volunteers and the Link to Hospital Patient Satisfaction” in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 45(2)






Investing in Volunteers – is it masses of work?

IiV logo

I was asked this question recently as an Investing in Volunteers assessor, along with other questions around costs, benefits and price.  Investing in Volunteers (IiV) is the UK quality standard for good practice in volunteer management.  It can be gained by any organisation that involves volunteers regardless of size or sector.  This was my response; please get in touch if you want to know more.

What are the benefits?

An impact report on the standard identified that achieving IiV:

  • Raised the profile of volunteering in the organisation
  • Cemented the place of the volunteering programme in meeting the organisation’s outcomes
  • Increased pride in volunteering
  • Developed a more consistent approach to volunteers
  • Gave a sense of achievement to volunteer managers

Other benefits could include:

  • It publicly demonstrates commitment to volunteering
  • Increasing volunteers’ motivation and enhancing their experience
  • Encouraging more people to volunteer
  • Enhancing your reputation in the local community and with funders
  • Minimising potential risks arising from the involvement of volunteers.

Do funders recognise it?

Like other quality standards it can give reassurance to commissioners and funders that you have robust practices in place to manage volunteers.  I have seen one procurement exercise that specified that organisations must have Investing in Volunteers, I would be interested to know whether there are others.

How long does it last for?

Three years.

Is it masses of work?

If you’ve already got basic procedures in place as many organisations have, for example around recruitment, training, induction and support of volunteers, it’s not necessarily going to be a huge amount of work, it depends how much organisations want to put into it. Unlike other quality standards, we don’t rely heavily on policies and procedures but focus more on you demonstrating how you meet the requirement in various ways – speaking to volunteers is a key part of the assessment, so for example if you don’t think you need to have a written support or supervision policy you don’t need to have one, as long as you can tell us what you do, volunteers confirm this, and if you say that there is paperwork to support this then you do produce it (e.g. supervision notes).

We ask you to do a self assessment against the practices in each indicator, which then identifies what steps you need to take to meet the standard.  Your assessor or adviser will talk you through this to help you to decide what you should and shouldn’t do.  Areas that organisations often need to do more work around are:

  • Demonstrating how volunteering delivers their strategic plan
  • Monitoring and analysing actions to take to increase equality and diversity
  • Risk assessments and ensuring that volunteers know about risks and how to avoid them
  • Ensuring that there is a mechanism for volunteers to feed in their views / participate in decision making

How much does it cost?

The question that everyone wants to know of course, and the answer is … it depends.  The cost is worked out based on the number of your volunteers overall, number of roles and location of volunteers.  You can fill in this form for a no obligation quote.

You may be able to find funding to cover the costs, for example Lloyds TSB have identified that IiV is eligible for their Enable grant for IiV if you meet their guidelines.

Finally, if you do decide to apply for Investing in Volunteers as a result of this, please mention me in the “other” box!

Becky Nixon, Investing in Volunteers Assessor