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Volunteers are helping to support hospitals during this time of increased demand. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA
Last month the NHS crisis made headlines and it wasn’t a last-minute surprise to some of us in the charity sector. In December I received an email from the local clinical commissioning group, asking for urgent assistance to find volunteers to support the local hospital.
Among other things, they were looking for help to relieve pressure on the hospital being caused by increased demand for services and problems with the delayed discharging of patients. Volunteers were needed not just for “home from hospital” services and transport, but also for directly supporting nursing staff on the hospital’s wards.
Everyone knows that it’s a tough time for the voluntary and community sector. To be honest, it’s a pretty tough time for most people. By running a third-sector infrastructure support organisation, I see the issues every day and many smaller agencies are struggling to keep their show on the road. Although a great deal of important work is delivered across the public sector by volunteers, there are also many paid, highly-skilled specialists in the sector who provide the highest quality services, often in very specialised organisations. Even when volunteers are used to provide support there is still a cost for the organisations they work with.
Volunteers must be properly supported with supervision, management and training, not to mention other overheads such as insurance and safeguarding checks. All the things that go to make up a professional quality service that our communities deserve.
There continues to be a lack of understanding among those in government and service commissioning around the real cost of things when the voluntary sector comes to the rescue when things are difficult. It feels like some see it as a bit of a cut-price Black Friday approach to propping things up.
Four years of reduced funding have had a huge impact on everyone, but our sector has been hit particularly hard. Matters have been made worse by commissioners designing public service contracts in such a way which often prevent smaller, specialist organisations from being able to tender at all. There is now a very real danger that these same organisations that bring so much social value to the wider community may disappear altogether. Depressingly, it is often these same commissioners that are now requesting additional support from our sector to help stem the current NHS crisis.
Of course, the voluntary sector is always there to support the community – that’s the reason why we are so passionate about it and why we are working in it in the first place. But, it is long overdue for the sector to be taken more seriously. Rather than being seen as a merely supplementary amateur resource, there needs to be a recognition of the expert professionalism that exists, the level of activity that is delivered and a realistic understanding of how much it can cost to do what we do.