Building volunteering from the ground up

Milestones Trust is a Bristol-based health and social care charity set up in 1986 to support people with learning disabilities and mental health needs, including dementia, to lead fulfilling and empowered lives in the community. We support around 1,000 people in residential and nursing care homes, supported living and community-based day services.

Why we wanted volunteers

In the past, day centres provided a place for people with disabilities to socialise and participate in different activities. Funding cuts have meant the closure of many of these services in recent years, leaving people with less to do, and with the potential to become more isolated.

Our trustees decided to invest in a specific post to encourage volunteering. In a nutshell, volunteers allow us to do more for the people we support. Service users are "befriended" by people with a wide range of perspectives and interests, and are supported to access their local communities and try new things.

Getting started

The first step was to understand the needs and perceptions of staff regarding the use of volunteers. This allowed me to start building a picture of their experiences of volunteering (both negative and positive) so that I could address both in my plans. It was evident early on that it would be crucial to have home managers on board.

The next step was to engage with the Volunteer Centres in the areas we serve, to get the benefit of their advice and hopefully referrals of potential volunteers. They introduced me to local volunteer recruitment fairs which proved very valuable for speaking to people interested in volunteering.

Working with Jenny Idle from Volunteer Bristol, we also designed a half day "Volunteer Awareness Workshop" which we delivered to home managers. The aim of this was to promote awareness on how to create roles for volunteers, how to get the best from them and how to retain their services. We ran three workshops in the first year and gradually reaped the benefits as managers started to identify opportunities for volunteers within their homes. Then with each success, word began to spread amongst managers that this was worth doing and more came forward with new possibilities.

Finding the right volunteers

As well as finding people through the volunteer centres and recruitment fairs, we have had a number of referrals from existing volunteers who promote the idea to friends and family.

We try to speak to volunteers before sending out application forms as it allows us to explain more about our service users, to get an idea of what the volunteer hopes to get from the experience and to gently suggest that we are seeking people who can volunteer for months rather than weeks. This helps to set expectations at an early stage and improves retention.

Keeping the right volunteers

It is essential for people with learning disabilities and mental health needs to have continuity in their lives, so wherever possible we try to develop longer term relationships with volunteers. We currently have over 50 regular volunteers of which half have been with us for over six months and a dozen for over a year.

Our approach to placing people is to match the potential volunteer’s interests with those of an individual, or a group, within one of our homes. An interview with the home manager is an opportunity for the volunteer to meet service users and staff, and to see what kind of environment they’ll be working in. Some people feel daunted meeting individuals with learning disabilities or mental health needs for the first time, so we do everything we can to make them feel comfortable and prepared.

Integrating the volunteers

Following DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks, volunteers are given a start date and assigned to a staff member who will be their supervisor/coach. The supervisor will ensure that over their first six visits they complete an induction programme, and will supervise their initial visits. This helps the volunteer to integrate gradually into the wider staff team.

The induction period allows the volunteer to gain confidence with service users and to develop at their own pace rather than being "thrown in at the deep end". Feedback indicates that volunteers appreciate this. It also grows the confidence they need to be able to take the service user out to shops, parks, local cafes or pubs, depending on their interests.

Home managers or supervisors are encouraged to meet regularly with their volunteers to ask if they are happy with what they are doing and find out if they have ideas they would like to develop. Every three months or so we get in touch to check everyone is still happy with the arrangement.

Perhaps the most important element of retaining volunteers is to show them they are valued. We ran a "Celebration of Volunteering" event in May last year as a forerunner to Volunteer Week when we invited past, present and potential future volunteers to meet each other as well as service users and managers. Our CEO, John Hoskinson, presented Certificates of Appreciation and added his personal thanks for the valuable contributions they make to the trust.

The extra volunteers give

Volunteers come from very diverse and varied backgrounds, and it is great for our service users to have access to their experiences and skills. It might be sharing an interest in baking, music, theatre, gardening, day trips, or anything that could be a new experience for the service user. Our younger volunteers have proved invaluable in getting residents onto the internet, downloading music for them or finding photographs of wildlife or aeroplanes or trains.

Benefits to the charity

Some of the benefits that the volunteering programme has brought are:

• Partnerships with volunteer centres, universities, companies and organisations which have been receptive and supportive of joint working ventures that we hope will continue to develop.

• Relationships with a number of high profile companies who have provided teams for a community "Day to Make a Difference".

• An increased awareness within our own workforce of the benefits volunteers bring.

• A bank of individuals who are comfortable with our service users and who act as informal ambassadors for the trust, but more importantly for people with disabilities, having seen what they can do and have to offer.

In the last year we have engaged a rolling average of 50 volunteers. Corporate partners have also sent teams to homes to undertake projects such gardening, decorating or similar practical tasks that can be completed in a day. This has proved a real asset to community relations as well as financial savings.

Future plans

We have recently signed a Community Partnership Agreement with the University of the West of England and look forward to planning student-led projects that will benefit service users in the coming year.

As well as continuing to develop corporate volunteering with new organisations, we will actively seek out new opportunities for joint working with other organisations.

Providing a fulfilling life

Volunteering is at the heart of what makes Milestones Trust a charity. Our aim is not just to provide care, but to provide a fulfilling life in the community for service users, many of whom have lived in institutions their whole lives. Volunteers provide an essential buffer against ever-tightening council budgets for care, enabling us to keep people’s quality of life high even in times of austerity. The reality is that no price can be put on the value they provide for people in our services, nor can the trust really express how grateful we are for their time and dedication.


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