The following information was originally written with particular reference to users of mental health services but may be applied to a variety of other settings.
Proactively involving service users as volunteers, is a decision which is as much culturally based as it is practical. It involves a shift of perception and practice, seeing service users as potential assets and resources, not just as dependants or recipients of care.
Benefits from this approach include:
- Improving individual lives – all services users, not just those volunteering, can benefit from being recognised as assets, rather than being recipients of care, and users of services and resources
- Offering volunteer roles which are a ‘soft’ step into mainstream volunteering for service users - in a familiar environment, or one where they feel ok about being open around any issues in their lives
- Broadening services – by being more inclusive and representative of those they serve
- Improving the relationship between service managers/staff and service users - engaging service users as volunteers, and therefore in delivering services, is a powerful and meaningful form of involvement
- Gaining skilled and knowledgeable volunteers – people who have experienced a particular issue themselves often have a passion and experience which makes them excellent volunteers
- Offering valuable role models to other service users for their own recovery
Much of what follows is as relevant to all volunteers, not just service user volunteers.
- Have an outline of the role (no matter how brief) including basic tasks and skills needed. It will also help volunteering roles be seen as genuine and valuable, not tokenistic
- Boundaries and confidentiality are two areas that Service Users may need extra support in. It is not unusual for Service Users to know or have friends among the people who are using the services in which they are now volunteering; in addition to history and relationships with other volunteers and staff. Support and guidance around these areas can help prevent and deal with any issues that come up as a result
Preparation (Questions to ask before getting started)
- Are you clear about what service users will gain by taking on a volunteer role, especially if you are recruiting from within your own service users?
- Have you communicated the benefits of involving service users as volunteers?
- Have you considered what polices and procedures you will need to amend or add in order to involve and support service users as volunteers?
- Have you discussed plans with staff and service users and addressed any issues that have come up?
- Have you identified suitable volunteer roles? Can others be created or adapted? For example, someone may have a talent for art. If there is already an art group or therapy class can they help organise it or work one to one with other service users who attend?
- Have you considered supervision needs? As with all volunteers, service users need supervision, and access to training or support around their role.
How to overcome excuses!
For many professionals, making the move to involve service users as volunteers, including people who they already support, can present a challenge. It can seem a daunting task to balance the support role, with one in which they ask the service user to take responsibility as a volunteer and undertake important roles in the organisation.
Service users may also object to being asked to take on roles without pay, especially when working alongside paid staff and with the wide practice of paying service users for their involvement on boards, or recruitment panels.
There are ways to work through objections, including:
- Give people a safe and non judgemental space to air their concerns and to think through the practical issues, even if you go ahead without everyone’s enthusiasm
- Engage services and service users who have used or been volunteers to give a talk and meet people - first hand experience is often the most persuasive
- Take time to review how things are going and evaluate the quality of volunteering experience for staff and service users
- Pay expenses - people may be volunteering within a service they normally attend, but it is still volunteering and reasonable out of pocket expenses should be reimbursed
- Get support from the top - sometimes the block to progress is in a department you have no influence over; having strategic champions and top down support can help address this