Youth volunteering in hospitals: the Pears #iwill Fund NHS Network

Volunteers make a huge contribution to the NHS, helping hospitals run smoothly, supporting patients to feel less anxious or lonely, and staff to feel less stressed.

Research suggests that NHS volunteers can free up around 30 minutes of a nurse’s time each day for clinical tasks, and help reduce the time it takes to discharge a patient from hospital by 44 minutes.

Volunteers benefit too, through improved life satisfaction and happiness, and over half say that volunteering at their local hospital has increased their interest in taking up a career in health and care.

The Pears #iwill Fund NHS Network was set up in 2017 to increase the number of young people volunteering in hospitals and exploring careers in healthcare.

The network has helped 32 NHS trusts create new roles for young people, diversifying their pool of volunteers and increasing the number of young volunteers by up to 800% per trust.

This feature explores how the Network has done this and shows the positive impact this has on the young volunteers, patients, and hospital staff.

The Network in numbers

The value of volunteering

Volunteers are an invaluable part of the NHS. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were an estimated 100,000 volunteers supporting NHS trusts, from doulas supporting pregnant women to those helping patients get to their appointments on time.

Volunteers relieve pressure when wards are busy, for example, volunteers can speed up patient discharge by 44 minutes. 71% of nurses say that volunteers help them feel less stressed.

There are positives for volunteers, too - building new skills, improving wellbeing, and feeling proud of their achievements.

Volunteering will continue to be a key part of the NHS, with the 2019 NHS Long Term Plan and the most recent NHS People Plan committing to developing it.

But there’s a need to reach a wider range of potential volunteers. Volunteers in the public sector are often from specific socio-economic groups: most are aged 65–75, retired, and living in rural or less deprived areas.

Meaningful opportunities for young people

The Pears #iwill Fund NHS Network has given 32 NHS trusts an opportunity to inspire a new generation of volunteers through targeted work with young people.

Hospitals have created a menu of new volunteer roles with options that are suitable and appealing to 16–25-year-olds, and that match their diverse interests and career aspirations.

Many young people embrace frontline roles like greeting patients and families arriving at hospitals, or providing a listening ear to worried inpatients.

Others are interested in more operational roles and enjoy helping with testing in pharmacies, or collecting and delivering medication. Some support specific teams, like returning loved ones' possessions to families that have been bereaved, so they don't have to come back to the hospital while they are grieving.

Digital roles tap into teens’ familiarity with phones, tablets and computers. Some trusts successfully trialled “digital buddies” where young volunteers supported patients with testing video calling software, ahead of a virtual outpatient appointment. This helped patients to feel more comfortable using the technology and helped hospitals manage their appointments efficiently.

Some young people wanted specialist roles. As a volunteer at East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust, biomedical science student Poppy appreciated the chance to work with biomedical scientists – a perfect fit for her career aspirations.

“It is often difficult to gain experience without having specialised training,” she said. “Opportunities like this give us the best start to our career as we become the scientists, doctors, nurses and teachers of tomorrow.”

NHS Trusts have created new volunteer roles for young people

It's been important to consider practicalities. University College London hospitals (UCLH) used the funding to create both school holiday and term-time roles. Now 85–100 young people aged 16–17 volunteer 3,700 hours on Saturdays and in a summer programme each year. Inspired by this success, they’re now offering taster sessions to 14–15-year-olds.

West Hertfordshire teaching hospitals launched their programme in 2018–19 and recruited 170 young volunteers the following year. Funding has enabled the Hull teaching hospitals to grow their young volunteer cohort from just 20 in 2014 to over 1,000 by 2021. And nearly all volunteers have gone on to university, found paid work at a local hospital, or started an apprenticeship.

Diversifying volunteering

Evidence shows that people with the most to gain from volunteering face some of the biggest barriers to getting involved. Life satisfaction gains are greater for volunteers on low incomes, but this group are less likely to volunteer than those on higher incomes, with ill health and disability cited as particular barriers to getting involved.

To reach and recruit more diverse groups of young people and show that volunteering is for everyone, the Network hospitals have tapped into the trust and connections of the voluntary and community sector. They’ve recruited young volunteers through youth groups, Scouts and Guides, Duke of Edinburgh, and local charities. University Hospital Dorset worked with the local police and National Citizens Service, while UCLH partnered with the Red Cross and a local charity to reach young refugees and people seeking asylum.

Some trusts have used allies like careers advisors or head teachers to invite hospital volunteer leads to schools, to talk to students.

Chelsea and Westminster hospitals have recruited from over 70 schools, colleges and universities. UCLH has worked with schools with high percentages of students eligible for free school meals, while Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust has approached schools in areas of deprivation for its award-winning Junior Volunteer programme.

Hospitals have also created specialist volunteer roles. Kent and Medway NHS Trust partnered with a local college for students with special needs, who volunteered to plant trees in the gardens of its mental health units.

As money is a concern for many young volunteers, trusts have helped with costs. They pay travel expenses, give out lunch vouchers, and support Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks.

UCLH has offered volunteering information in accessible formats, including Easy Read and braille.

This proactive outreach work is starting to pay off. The new youth volunteer team at North West Anglia NHS Trust speaks 21 languages. As well as supporting patients whose first language isn’t English, volunteers collect patient feedback and stories, which the Trust uses to make its communications more culturally sensitive.

Volunteering has given me more confidence, better communication, and I have learnt about the hospital system. If anyone is thinking about getting involved, or has the opportunity, give it a go. Hospitals are truly a magical place.
Young volunteer

Good volunteer management

To do their roles well, volunteers need the right help, whether that’s practical training or opportunities to reflect on how things are going.

Imperial College NHS Trust offers training and one-to-one support to all new volunteers and has revamped its reward system: instead of just celebrating five years of voluntary service, which is hard for young volunteers to achieve, the new award scheme acknowledges 30- and 100-hour contributions and rewards one- and three-year service.

To recognise the right behaviours, they’ve developed additional awards based on values such as kindness and collaboration, and opened up the nomination process to staff, volunteers and patients. This is yielding results, with 93% of young volunteers feeling supported in their role.

Volunteers are supported in their roles

Space for reflection is important too - sessions where young people can discuss highs and lows, and share challenges, experiences and stories.

Chelsea and Westminster hospitals developed reflective learning logs for volunteers’ first few shifts, which also helped the staff team understand how best to support new volunteers.

Other trusts have more formal liaison groups, such as Birmingham’s Young Persons’ Advisory Group. In Nottingham hospitals, a new BAME shared-governance council offers specific help for young people from minoritised ethnic backgrounds.

Starting any new role can be nerve-wracking, so mentors typically accompany new starters on their first day, checking in to chat about any challenges and offer advice. This creates development opportunities for more experienced volunteers.

In many hospitals, volunteers work in pairs, matching someone more experienced with someone newer. Alicia, who volunteered with NHS Lothian, was paired with a retired nurse: “We were like bookends – she was at the end of her career and I was at the start of mine. I learnt so much from her.”

Alicia, who went on to a paid clinical support role, says volunteering helped her build skills and confidence that gave her the edge over other applicants.

Every day I came out happier than when I went in.
Young volunteer

Demonstrating the value of youth volunteering

The funding wasn't simply a catalyst for hospitals to establish new youth volunteering programmes. Equally important was the capacity it gave to embed young volunteers sustainably, with meaningful roles and ongoing management and support.

Sharing the tangible benefits of young volunteers to busy staff and managers was an important part of the success of the funding.

Understanding senior stakeholders' motivations enabled conversations about how volunteering contributed to meeting their ambitions. Sharing plans, having clear goals, reporting on progress and sharing successes were all essential parts of this process.

Staff information sessions and corporate inductions were great ways to highlight the value and contribution of volunteers, and sharing visible success stories led to interest from other hospitals and wards.

Having a volunteer champion on the board also made a real difference as it expressed “the organisation’s commitment to volunteering and embed[ed] it in your governance process”, creating a volunteering-friendly culture.

One trust developed a recognition programme to acknowledge staff who went above and beyond their day-to-day duties to support volunteers. Another established a volunteering award to recognise young people’s achievements and involved the hospital CEO and local mayor, which helped raise the profile of youth volunteering both inside and outside the organisation.

#iWill video explaining the benefits of young volunteers

Simple posters – “Top ten things young volunteers can do on the ward” – showed concrete tasks that staff could ask volunteers to help with.

Creating ways for staff to make suggestions and give feedback was also important. Weekly emails offered updates and opportunities to raise concerns or make suggestions about the departments and wards where volunteers could add the most value.

Some volunteer coordinators worked closely with patient experience teams – checking data for references to patient boredom to help identify wards where volunteer befrienders could help alleviate the problem.

Departments see young volunteers as a bright shining light in all this.
Hospital staff member

Filling volunteer gaps during the pandemic

Youth volunteers played a key role during COVID-19

The strength of the Network’s work became clear during the pandemic.

Many older hospital volunteers were extremely clinically vulnerable, so numbers fell; Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Trust lost 90% of its volunteering population overnight.

Young people stepped into the gap. UCLH’s 183 youth volunteers gave 25% of the total volunteer hours during the pandemic, while for the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, 18–25-year-olds made up 50% of the volunteer workforce.

During 2021–21, 150 young people gave West Hertfordshire teaching hospitals 6,000 hours of support.

Though some ward-based roles were paused, young people found other ways to help. One 16-year-old created a hospital pen pal system, with volunteers writing to patients, and at the Hampstead Gown Factory, over 100 young people helped make and pack 50,000 surgical gowns.

I wanted to do my bit to help in these uncertain times.
Young volunteer

Sustaining success

The Network’s success has enabled trusts to secure further funding to expand and develop their volunteering programmes. UCLH received £53,000 from NHS Charities Together (with funds from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)) to build on their work.

West Hertfordshire Teaching Hospitals Charity made a successful bid to The John Lewis Foundation for a two-year volunteer manager post to continue their work.

Staff have been won over by seeing the impact of young volunteers on patients, and on workloads. "They are keen, enthusiastic, motivated and eager to help [...] a credit and asset to the volunteer service within the Trust," said Alison Bawden, a Senior Sister at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. "We love having them and they definitely enrich the patient experience."

In Nottingham, 87% of staff said they would like more youth volunteers.

Volunteers offer the most valuable gift – their time. Their great generosity has had a profound and lasting impact on our patients and the community as a whole.
Hospital staff member

Key learning

  1. Work with a range of partners (such as schools, youth, and community groups) to reach young people who have been under-represented in volunteering.
  2. A successful youth volunteering programme thinks flexibly about opportunities, adapting adult roles to make them relevant and accessible for young people. Tailoring roles to young people’s skills and interests makes the experience meaningful and engaging. Focus on quality rather than quantity of hours, and remember that ward-based roles aren’t the only option.
  3. Support is key. Build up volunteering slowly, creating spaces and opportunities for young people to build confidence and ask questions. This might include peer support or mentoring, forums, reflective sessions/logs, and a drop-in space.
  4. Youth volunteering in hospitals can benefit everyone, including staff, patients and the wider community, as well as the young people themselves. It can also play an important part in challenging negative perceptions about young people.
  5. Flexibility and adjustments that support youth volunteering can also be applied more widely, making all volunteering more inclusive.

Want to learn more?

To find out more about the impact of #iwill, go to our Evidence Library. 

If you’d like to learn more about volunteering, you can read Power in purpose: The difference we make in mobilising volunteers, which offers examples from across the voluntary and community sector.

And for more information on the impact and difference National Lottery funding makes, please read our other impact features.

Useful links

Read more about the Pears NHS Network on IVAR’s website, or follow them on X/Twitter or LinkedIn.

This interview is based on evaluations and independent research. 

Last updated: Thursday 23 November, 2023