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How to give volunteer projects a better start

10 June 2016

""In 2015, we commissioned Parents 1st to carry out an evidence review of volunteer models and early childhood outcomes to support our strategic investment A Better Start.  A Better Start is a 10 year ‘test and learn’ investment totaling £215 million across five local area partnerships within BradfordBlackpoolLambethNottingham and Southend on Sea.

These geographical areas have a high level of need in terms of deprivation, educational achievement and child health.  A Better Start will facilitate a system change locally, which means:  a shift in culture and spending across children and families agencies towards prevention;  that local health and other public services,
VCSE and the wider community work together to co-produce and deliver less bureaucratic, more joined up services for all families living in the area; and that these services work with the whole family effectively to improve outcomes for children focusing on pregnancy and the first three years of life.

These new pathways of care aim to make better use of local resources and set out to improve outcomes for children in three key development areas of:

  • Social and emotional
     preventing harm before it happens (including abuse and/or safeguarding, neglect, perinatal mental health and domestic violence) as well as those that promote good attunement and attachment
  • Speech and language development: developing skills in parents to talk, read and sing to, and particularly to praise their babies and toddlers and to ensure local childcare services emphasise language development
  • Nutrition: starting out by encouraging breast-feeding and promoting good nutritional practices.

The five A Better Start partnerships have put local people in the lead and built on the strengths within their communities in a number of ways including supporting local services through volunteering, peer support and ‘community champions’ working alongside a professional workforce. To support the five partnerships to plan and implement these, the evidence review explores ‘what works, when, for whom and in what circumstances’ in contributing to the three child development outcomes with a particular focus on:

  • Availability of suitable models and programmes
  • Expectations regarding outcomes for children
  • System requirements
  • Governance and safeguarding
  • Collaboration with the professional workforce and statutory services.

The Big Lottery Fund recognised that one size doesn’t fit all and the evidence review has not sought to arrive at a set of recommendations, rather a framework for developing a range of approaches to volunteering in different contexts which is applicable in a number of different environments.

Key Findings from the Parents 1st Evidence Review

Volunteer projects can:

  • Contribute to A Better Start outcomes in ways that are distinct from, but complementary to, professional support.
  • Build relationships of trust and equality with parents; reach and be accepted by parents who do not engage with other services; and help to create the conditions that can lead to change.

No two volunteer projects will be the same, because it is essential to adapt the volunteer support to the local context, to its communities and parents. Nonetheless, we can identify some principles and features of volunteer projects that have successfully contributed to the child development outcomes of interest to the A Better Start partnerships and to others working in, or with an interest in, this field.

Six key principles on which to base volunteering projects

  • Strengths-based: with an emphasis on empowering parents to gain the information, confidence and skills they need to find solutions and become the best parents they can be.
  • Relationship-based: developing trust between everyone that is involved − parents, volunteers, coordinators and local professionals.
  • Reciprocal: ensuring that everyone affected by the project feels their voice is heard and that they contribute to and benefit from being a part of the project.
  • Evidence-based but adaptive: rooted in evidence of what works, based on a theory of change and constantly reflecting, and prepared to innovate and adapt to local context.
  • Collaborative: aware of the distinctive roles of professional and volunteer support and working cooperatively with local professionals.
  • Clear about parameters: the aims and the boundaries of the volunteer projects are clearly articulated and understood by parents, professionals and commissioners.

Six key features of successful projects

  • The key role of the project coordinator, understood as the lynchpin of a successful volunteer project. Skilled coordinators can:
    • Attract, engage, train, support, supervise and retain volunteers.
    • Facilitate processes that enable volunteers to engage with vulnerable parents.
    • Build relationships with and between professionals and other voluntary sector projects.
  • Fully costed to provide a proper operational base: staff to coordinate, train and supervise; marketing resources; volunteer expenses such as travel or phone; and data systems.
  • Strong organisational leadership with a core purpose of nurturing grass-roots community involvement.
  • Realistic timescales which account for long lead-in time, while a robust implementation design process is carried out with stakeholders, relationships are built with the local community and public sector professionals, and volunteers are recruited and trained. Initial funding should last for at least three years to allow for meaningful evaluation of impact.
  • ‘Just enough’ data collection. Tracking impact is important, but data collection can be intrusive and burdensome for volunteers and parents. Consider what impacts can be meaningfully measured and how this data can be collected with as light a touch as possible.
  • Leadership models the principles of the projects: Leaders in commissioning and provider organisations must model the strengths-based, relational and collaborative working required for successful volunteer projects.

To find out more about designing and delivering volunteer models please read the full report and framework.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 July 2017 5:25 pm

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  1. Designing volunteer models to succeed | The Big Lottery Fund Blog

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