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The need for volunteers in the charity sector

by | Jul 27, 2021 | Emma Willder

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Volunteering isn’t just great for charities, it’s beneficial to the individual too. Research from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, shows that the main benefits are:

  • It provides a good balance with work and family life.
  • It helps develop new skills and hone leadership ability.
  • It enhances wellbeing and boosts self-confidence.

With such a positive impact, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the main reasons people choose to volunteer are selfless – according to The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, we volunteer because we want to improve things/help people, or the cause is important to us.

I can relate to this. In my personal time, I am a Trustee of Wood Street Mission, and also volunteer as the Treasurer of Bolton Cancer Voices and Howfen FC, a local grassroots football club. They’re all causes that are incredibly close to my heart and I feel like I have a responsibility to give back to my community and build a better future for my children. 

From being a Trustee to delivering services, fundraising and behind the scenes help, like marketing or finance, there are many important roles a volunteer can play. And over 9 in 10 charities rely solely on the work of volunteers to keep going.

Until very recently, one of these volunteer-led charities was Spoons, which exists to alleviate the stress and isolation that families feel when experiencing neonatal care. To highlight the importance of volunteers, we spoke to Kirsten Mitchell, Operations Manager at Spoons, to get her views:

Why do charities need volunteers? 

We genuinely couldn’t have got to this point without volunteers. Besides our Trustees, our volunteers provide incredible peer-support, offering their time to visit and talk to parents on the neonatal units.

During Covid, we’ve actually doubled our team, so we now have 20 active volunteers providing peer support, plus our Board and 6 Trustees. It’s enabled us to expand and deliver our services to another two neonatal units. Our governing document states we support families in the Greater Manchester area. There are currently 8 units within the community and we now serve 4. Part of our operational plan is to secure more volunteers so we can reach more families and give them the support they need.

We have some of the best volunteers, and while I think it’s important to acknowledge the work they do, I also want to highlight how hard it’s been for them recently. Because we work on the neonatal wards, restrictions meant we were initially unable to be in the hospital to support families during Covid. But even though that face-to-face role changed for a while, they’ve stayed motivated and focused on our mission, as well as create new ways to deliver the service online through private Facebook Groups.

There’s no question that our volunteers sit at the heart of the charity.

How do you find the best volunteers? 

When your child is on the neonatal unit, it helps to have someone to talk to who is impartial and actually ‘gets it’. It’s why I created Spoons. My son was born at 24-weeks, and it was a really traumatic time. And it didn’t end once he was out of hospital.

Being a parent it hard enough, and I don’t want to take away from the challenges other parents face. Babies that have been on the neonatal unit may have different challenges, which can be hard to relate to if you’ve not experienced them yourself. Some babies may be on home-oxygen, while others may be home tube-fed, some may have a syndrome or long-term additional needs, or be very small for their age. It can feel very awkward and it’s sometimes hard to fit in to the universal groups because there’s no common ground. 

Also, when you’ve spent time on the neonatal unit, everything is very clinical and you’re overly cautious about bugs. I remember with my son, if we were at a mum and baby group and someone coughed or sneezed near him, my heart stopped and I’d look for the closest exit. At Spoons we talk openly about those worries and at times poke fun at our irrational thoughts, which is really comforting.

Spoons is all about peer-support, and so all our volunteers need to have had their own neonatal experience, so they understand what our parents are going through. A lot of our current volunteers are families that have used our service previously, while some were cared for at other units – either because we can’t yet support those hospitals or because their experience pre-dates the charity.

What admin is there around your volunteers?

It’s really common for our parents to say they want to give something back because they need something good to come out of such a traumatic experience. However, our policy is that parents must be at least one-year post discharge before they’re allowed to volunteer. This is for several reasons:

  • We want people to enjoy their parental leave and spend time with their new baby.
  • They may need support to recover from the experience – returning to the unit as a volunteer could expose them to their personal trauma so they need to feel ready.
  • Although people may have the best of intentions, we know that life gets in the way. We prefer our parents to get back into a routine, so they know what time (if any) they have available.

We follow a rigid process to ensure all our volunteers are mentally, physically and emotionally ready to support our new families.

Initially, we ask for an expression of interest. We promote this through our private online communities and public social media channels.

Once someone has engaged, we’ll have an informal chat so they know what’s involved. It’s usually at this point that we can determine how suitable someone is for the role. And we have some parents who are very honest and say they’re not quite ready. In these instances, we signpost where they can go for support, including our own trauma therapy. 80% of parents on neonatal wards have metal heath issues, such as PTSD, anxiety and depression, so the EMDR therapy is a key service we offer.

The lengthy part is the onboarding process, which can take months. Because our volunteers are going into the hospitals, they must follow the NHS Trust’s induction process. This involves strict training around everything from confidentiality to conflict resolution, data protection to H&S, infection control to safeguarding.

It’s not easy to get through, but our existing volunteers are really good at supporting eachother so they don’t feel alone or overwhelmed when going through the process.

How do you encourage your volunteers?

While people are volunteering their time, we do ask that they commit at least 2-hours per week. With regular visits we know our volunteers are likely to create a bond with parents, which at times could be emotionally draining. But our volunteers offer great support to eachother, and we encourage them to debrief on their experiences so they don’t take them home.

As part of our onboarding process, we also talk about boundaries and moving on because we want to make it easy for our volunteers to walk away. We know that life moves on and we don’t want people to feel obliged to stay on the units if their home or work commitments make it difficult. We’ve only ever had one volunteer step down when their job circumstances changed during Covid, but he’s still involved with Spoons and his wife still volunteers at the units.

We also encourage our volunteers to take an active role in the community groups where they live. We find this to be really important to help new parents feel confident and supported once they’ve left the hospital, because they will have formed a relationship with our people on the unit.

Pre-Covid, we only hosted drop-in sessions where parents could come with their babies (and siblings) and enjoy a chat over tea and toast. With lockdown restrictions lifting, we’ve had to put a little more structure in place to watch the numbers, but it’s encouraged people to get more creative.

Because it seemed odd to get parents to book in for a cup of tea, we’re now hosting a range of fun sessions, like messy play, which our families can enjoy. It’s created a safe space where our parents feel they can enjoy the ‘normal’ activities they would in the universal groups, but without any of the awkwardness.

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