Service user volunteers
Most organisations and charities in the criminal justice, drug and alcohol, homelessness and complex needs sectors involve current or former service users as volunteers who take on different roles (e.g. peer mentor/supporter or recovery navigator). Indeed, most organisations rely on service user volunteers to be able to deliver contracted services at the prices commissioners can pay since the reductions in public expenditure following the global financial crash in 2008 and the “austerity” years. Research shows that this volunteering is highly valuable:
- Service user volunteers benefit from opportunities to “give back” and learn new skills, and volunteering can also help with recovery journeys
- Organisations and charities are able to provide service users with more support, as service user volunteers are able to build trusting relationships based on shared experience
The combination of this opportunity to deliver a more relevant service enhanced by the expertise and empathy provided by people with lived experience with the fact that volunteers cost less than paid employees has resulted in a situation where service user volunteers are central to the delivery of almost all services in the social justice sector.
How are peer mentors and other service user volunteers treated?
In discussions with current peer mentors and recovery navigators in a number of forums run by the Revolving Doors Agency lived experience team, it transpired that people had very different experiences volunteering for organisations where they had previously (or were still) services users.
Whilst many received the training and on-going support they needed to succeed, including with opportunities to progress into paid employment, others got little or no training and ongoing support, and often had little choice about what role they take as volunteers. Indeed, some were not even recompensed for the financial costs of their volunteering.
A number of people talked about how valuable their peer mentoring experiences had been but how they had become “stuck”, still volunteering (often for many hours a week) after substantial periods of time when they had hoped to move on and find paid employment.
A best practice guide
To address these concerns, the Oak Foundation has funded myself and Revolving Doors Agency to co-produce a guide to enable organisations to provide the best support to service users working as volunteers. This guide will be shared widely so that organisations are aware of best practice and commissioners can award contracts to organisations who treat their service user volunteers well and with the support they need to succeed.
The format and the content of this guide will be led jointly by a group of people with lived experience of being service user volunteers and myself.
To ensure this guide locates examples of best practice and is informed by current evidence, we are undertaking what we hope will be the largest ever survey in the UK enquiring about people’s experiences as service user volunteers.
The survey, which should take less than 15 minutes to complete, asks people to share their experiences – good, bad and indifferent – on being a peer mentor. This will enable us to base our best practice guide on current experiences, highlighting best practice and identifying areas for improvement.
The survey asks for short feedback around a number of key issues:
- How many hours people spend volunteering
- The quality of training they receive
- The nature of the support they get
- Help in developing skills and finding paid work
- Whether people receive expenses or other forms of remuneration
- How much choice people have about the amount of voluntary work they do
- How much choice about they type of volunteering they perform
If you are a service user volunteer, working as a peer mentor or any other role, please take the survey: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/peer21
If service users volunteer for your organisation, please ask them to take the survey: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/peer21
For more information on the survey or the project, please email Russell Webster
You can also take the survey directly from this page below: