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How do we treat our peer mentors?

Findings from a major survey of service user volunteers in the UK.

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Experiences of volunteering as a service user

Earlier this year (February and March), myself in partnership with the Revolving Doors Agency conducted a major survey of the experiences of people who had used helping services themselves before volunteering for them. The survey was targeted at people with lived experiences of criminal justice, drug and alcohol, homelessness and complex needs services who now volunteered for those services, often as peer mentors or recovery navigators and sometimes as experts by experience.

The purpose of the survey was to inform a new best practice guide to enable organisations to provide the best support to service users working as volunteers and for service users to know what they should expect from the services they volunteer for. This guide will be co-produced by people with lived experience and myself.

I’d like to say a very big thank you to the hundreds of organisations who publicised the survey and the 253 service user volunteers who took the time to complete the survey. This blog post summarises the main findings. People who would like more information can download either the full report or the Executive Summary for free. Survey participants were asked if they would like to follow the progress of the project and everyone who said they were interested has already received copies of the report.

Survey take-up and limitations

The survey was completed by 253 people; 70% of these individuals had used drug and alcohol services, 32% had lived experience of the criminal justice system, 23% had used homelessness services and 19% had used services for people with complex needs. This cohort also had very extensive experience of volunteering in this sector, with many people volunteering for more than one service. Seventy three percent of our survey respondents had experience of volunteering for drug and alcohol services, 38% volunteered in the criminal justice system, 31% had volunteered for homelessness services and 28% had volunteered services for people with complex needs. Many respondents volunteered in a more than one role; 58% were peer mentors, 25% were peer support workers, 21% experts by experience and 5% peer coaches.

It is clear that the survey succeeded in reaching out to people with substantial experience of volunteering who were also heavily committed to their volunteering. Survey respondents had been volunteering for between a few months and over 20 years with an average (median) volunteering history of two years. People volunteered for between three and more than 100 hours per month with an average (median) commitment of 25 hours per month. Our cohort estimated that between them they volunteered for over 9,000 hours in a typical month.

It is important to acknowledge the limitations of this survey. Although the sample size of 253 is reasonable, the cohort who answered our questions are more likely to be male (60% respondents), White British (80%), older (three quarters were aged over 40) live in the South of England (43%) and volunteer in the drug and alcohol treatment sector (55%). The survey consequently gives much less of a representative voice to younger people, those from BAME communities and those living in other parts of the UK.

Findings

We asked people to provide us with information about the quality of support they had received in a number of different areas (training, support, help in developing work skills and becoming more employable and financial support); for each area we asked them to rate the quality of service they had received on a four-point scale before asking them to provide additional information about any particularly positive or negative experiences in that area. We also asked how much control people felt they had over the AMOUNT and TYPE of voluntary work they did.

Overall people were pleased with the help they received although there were different levels of satisfaction with different areas of help. We calculated people’s level of satisfaction (defined as rating help excellent or good) as 88% for the support they received, 83% for training, 81% for help with work skills and 73% for help with getting more employable.

The main common themes across the survey were that service user volunteers flourished when they were treated with respect and valued not just by volunteer co-ordinators but the rest of staff teams. They respected a proactive approach which made support and training easy to access and which was personalised to individual needs and goals.

People who volunteered for drug and alcohol agencies generally felt these organisations did a better job of keeping a balance between a duty of care – ensuring that volunteers were not pressurised or tempted to take on too much work, especially in the early days of their recovery journeys – and encouraging and motivating them to have high aspirations for future study and work prospects.

The experiences shared via the survey will provide the basis for the best practice guide which will be co-produced over the Spring and Summer of 2021. The guide will provide practical advice, based on the lived experience of service user volunteers, for delivering an effective and supportive volunteering programme.

If you are someone who was a service user and now volunteers for a criminal justice, drug & alcohol, homelessness or complex needs service and you would like to be a member of the small group co-producing the best practice guide, please Get in touch with Russell.

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