Principles to help volunteer-involving organisations plan with confidence

The opportunity available

For organisations offering social prescribing pathways, volunteering can play a positive role as part of a menu of opportunities you offer. The enhanced wellbeing benefits associated with positive, well-managed volunteering opportunities can offer much for those on a social prescribing pathway, including:

  • improved life satisfaction
  • increased happiness and
  • decreases in symptoms of depression.

a person painting

These Principles are here to help you consider how best to create an offer and a pathway that works for the individual and maximises those wellbeing benefits.

The context you may face

Perhaps your organisation already does volunteering really well and wants to extend your offer to individuals on a social prescription – whether they come through clinical routes (usually via an NHSE Link Worker, where they may have had a ‘what matters to me’ conversation) or more of a community-based referral (through another voluntary organisation, or someone they trust locally).

Whatever route has brought them to you, bear in mind that you are likely to be working with a very different type of volunteer – a different set of needs, motivations and capacities to those typically found within your wider pool of volunteers.

Even if volunteering has been suggested they may not yet be very open to the idea, or able to consider it. Some providers report individuals having high support needs, including their mental health and wellbeing, and as such any idea of ‘giving something back’ may initially feel beyond them. Equally, those with access challenges may require personalised 1:1 support to properly access social prescribing opportunities.

What this means is that even if you think volunteering could really help them, you should consider the possibility that their journey may not be quick or typical. Or indeed, it might not happen at all – another type of ‘prescription’ or referral may simply be a better option.

You will hopefully get a clearer picture of this as your relationship with the individual develops and these Principles are designed to help you adapt your approach as you progress. Many simply reflect common sense or good practice in all types of volunteering and, in addition, they highlight some of the particular factors you may find when supporting individuals who come to volunteering through these routes.

For this reason, we have created them to mirror the kind of journey they will typically experience, each Principle helping you to consider and plan. In mapping this journey we’ve spoken with Link Workers, local voluntary and community organisations, national charities and wider health and volunteering specialists.

The specifics you may need to consider

Rather than treating volunteering as a ‘yes or no’ option we suggest you consider it a continuing possibility, alongside other types of social intervention from which the individual may benefit. So much is likely to depend on their needs and circumstances, but based on the conversations we’ve had here are some factors you may wish to keep in mind:

  • Remember there could be multiple entry points into becoming a volunteer. Some individuals start out as a service user and progress into light or more committed volunteering roles. Their identities may for a time be a blend of both ‘beneficiary’ and ‘volunteer’
  • Personalised approaches are vital – from the volunteering types of roles to the levels of commitment being asked – be prepared to offer a range of options
  • The early stages are key – they may require more time, resource or even expertise than the usual induction phase of your volunteering programme. Some individuals may have high mental health support needs, which you may need to assess to ascertain whether you have the capacity or capabilities to meet these – and finally
  • Even if the individual starts a volunteering journey you don’t have to work with them in isolation. Many of the more positive experiences of volunteering in social prescribing engage a wider ecosystem – perhaps you maintain an active relationship with the Link Worker or original referrer, or your wider cohort of staff and volunteers develop buddying or supporting roles.

Above we’ve introduced the first four Principles (Meet people where they are, Make it personal, Wellbeing at the heart and Build circles of support) reflecting the stages of the volunteer journey our stakeholders suggested were of most importance. There are three further principles (Make it Social, It’s a Journey and If you Treasure it, Measure it).

We’ll be launching the principles at our webinar on Volunteering and Social Prescribing on 7th June. Join us to find out more about this project and how you can use the principles in your work.