Is the NHS ready for clinical volunteers?

14th May 2024

Karen Bonner 2022

Karen Bonner, Chief Nurse and Director for Infection Prevention & Control at Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust

The question of the NHS’s readiness for clinical volunteers has stuck with me since I was on the panel at Helpforce’s roundtable event “Clinical volunteering- Exploring the unknown”.

So, here I am, a nurse with over 25 years' experience and advocate for NHS volunteering, sitting at my desk and pouring out my thoughts on this question.


Volunteer supporting a carer to self-weigh a baby at Bradford District Care NHS Foundation Trust's Baby Clinic

1 – Facing the elephant in the room: might volunteers replace staff?

First, the panel of clinicians and volunteering leaders from across the NHS dealt with the question of how to define clinical volunteering. We agreed that it involves hands-on support for patients and that volunteers need to be supervised by clinicians.

Prompted by questions from the 100+ health and care professionals at the event, we then faced the bigger elephant in the room: could these volunteers be seen as replacing qualified paid staff?

As a chief nurse, I understand nurses’ point of view. It is an uneasy feeling to see someone who is not a qualified nurse take on some aspects of a nurse’s responsibilities.

But the data from Helpforce, a charity where I’m proud to be a trustee, looking at the impact of volunteering roles on staff provides reassurance. Helpforce has evaluated volunteering projects across dozens of NHS trusts and found that 90% of nursing staff say volunteers' support allows them enough time to deliver good care and 81% agreed that volunteer support helped them feel less stress.

Volunteers can never replace paid staff, but they can enhance their experience. We understand the huge pressures that our nursing colleagues are under. We need to consider how we can deploy clinical volunteers effectively, in the light of this evidence that they can boost nurses' morale and job satisfaction and give them the space to recharge.

Falls Prevention Landscape edit

Volunteer at Kingston Hospital NHS Foundation Trust encouraging the patient to do exercise at home

2 – Knowing volunteers give their times for free, but volunteering is not free

Although volunteers’ time is free, we can’t optimise the impact of that gift without adequate investment in volunteering infrastructure.

At the event, Juliet Butler, a lead physiotherapist at Kingston Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, shared how her team delivers the Falls Prevention volunteering service across the hospital, into the community, and now in care home setting.

The idea is very simple: falls prevention volunteers support patients with their physiotherapist prescribed exercises. The results have been fantastic with 100% of these patients improving their fitness and mobility, so reducing the risk of falls.

To achieve these results, with the help of Helpforce, Juliet’s team and the Trust’s volunteering service worked together to:

  • Design a clear governance system
  • Engage with physiotherapists to develop the volunteering role, and to explore the systems that were already in place to support the role and the practical issues around implementation
  • Ensure the safety of patients and volunteers
  • Evaluate the impact of the service

There is a cost to putting this kind of infrastructure in place but, when falls cost the NHS £2.3 billion per year, this kind of project can be seen as investing to save.

By contrast, Anne May, a strategic lead cancer nurse at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board, shared the challenges she and her team faced when they tried to roll out a new volunteer role to help reduce the DNA (Did Not Attend) rates at the cancer clinic. There was pressure to get the role up and running quickly, without first establishing the governance structure or fully engaging with the clinical team. This had meant the clinical staff weren’t ready to support volunteers, so the project never got going properly and is now on hold. Anne is positive the project will restart successfully, with this understanding of how to make it work – and because it has the potential to save lives, if more patients get a timely diagnosis and get into the treatment they need.

Community First Responders

The Low Acuity Community First Responders at the North West Ambulance Service

3 – So, is the NHS ready for clinical volunteers? “Yes and no”

“Yes”, because we can see some new investment in the health and care volunteering infrastructure, like the £10 million Volunteering for Health fund.

And there are multiplying clinical volunteering initiatives up and running , like the brilliant Low Acuity Community First Responders at the North West Ambulance Service and the Baby Clinic at Bradford District Care NHS Foundation Trust. These programmes are building up much needed knowledge, experience and evidence to help other organisations learn how to develop clinical volunteering roles.

“No”, because there’s still more to do to ensure patient pathways within the NHS have the flexibility to integrate volunteering support. And, although we all know budgets are under tremendous stress, we need to be able to continue to invest in the necessary volunteering infrastructure to allow clinical and other roles to achieve their potential impact across health and care.

We also need to do more to build understanding of how volunteer roles can complement qualified paid roles, rather than being a threat. I’m proud to see how Helpforce continues to gather and share the evidence to demonstrate that volunteers are not here to compete with paid staff, but to help them deliver and enjoy their work more.

SWBH volunteer

Volunteer at Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust encouraging patient to take a walk in the hospital


To end this blog, I would like to encourage health and care leaders and volunteer leads to continue being bold and exploring more high impact volunteering roles.

With clear governance, measures to mitigate risks, and the right volunteering infrastructure, organisations can optimise the impact of clinical volunteers. This will mean our staff feel more supported, local people can have more opportunities to volunteer, and patients can have better experiences with the health and care system.

You can view a recording of the Helpforce round table event “Clinical volunteering- Exploring the unknown” here.