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The power of community volunteers

12 January 2015

In the second of our series of blogs on the Improving Futures programme, Abigail Ryan discusses how community volunteers have been building strong and effective relationships with the families they support.

Our Improving Futures programme is funding 26 projects across the UK to transform outcomes for children living in families with multiple and complex needs.

One of the emerging successes of the programme is around projects’ use of community volunteers to support families. Almost half of the Improving Futures projects are using this approach. Volunteers have varying levels of involvement, from overseeing support for families, to providing mentoring, and running peer-led groups.

Projects often found that the biggest success of using community volunteers was that they were able to relate to families.

Improving-Futures-Blog-Image“We employ people who have the same/similar experiences to those families we work with and who come from the same communities.  This enables trusting relationships to be formed between people who share a common language.” (Project manager)

For these reasons, some projects found community volunteers essential to engaging with certain groups and communities. At the Enfield Family Turnaround Project volunteers have been essential to work within the Turkish community, due to the specific cultural and language needs of families. They have also served as role models for families receiving support, because they had experienced similarly difficult circumstances themselves and successfully resolved them. Many projects also think that community volunteers have great potential to support families beyond their involvement in the programme.

The projects told us the key to the success of their volunteers:

  1. Effective matchmaking between families and volunteers – having a ‘pool’ of volunteers can help to ensure that there is a good match for individual families. Some projects noted the value of male volunteers in particular, for example to work with boys as male role models, or where single dads are the primary carer.
  2. Developing effective relationships between key workers and volunteers – a strong ‘co-working’ approach can help to ensure consistency in the approach for working with families, whilst recognising that this is an inevitably uneven relationship given key workers’ professional expertise and responsibilities.
  3. Creating opportunities for progression for volunteers – such as structured opportunities for personal and professional development. Projects have found that this is a good way to make volunteers and mentors feel valued, to build their confidence and maintain their motivation, which is important for their success. It also helps to address challenges around recruitment and retention of volunteers, which has been commonly noted by projects.

So the programme is really showcasing the strengths of community volunteers – engaging with families who might not have engaged with any other service, understanding their needs and building trusting, supportive relationships with them. You can read the executive summary for more information about the findings so far.

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