Volunteers – making dreams happen

Categories: Community Engagement.

“Once, volunteering was a power. We didn’t react to trends, we caused them. We didn’t supplement staff, we created them. Politicians didn’t use us; we used them. And we made dreams happen…” Ivan Scheier

For me, this quote sums up volunteering in hospice and palliative care. If you think about it, volunteers in so many countries ‘caused’ hospices and ‘created’ the professional roles as fledgling organisations grew. And many individual and community ‘dreams’ have been realised through volunteers.

Once again in Volunteers’ Week we have a great opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the inspiring work of volunteers in hospice and palliative care.

In reflecting also on the history and evolution of the sector, throughout all the debates – volunteers have been a constant.

And yet, after all this time, and with voluntary boards leading the strategic direction of hospice organisations, the question remains: do we really understand the significance of volunteering to hospice and palliative care?

Despite many innovative volunteering projects today, there are still mixed messages about the role of volunteers with many past debates still rehearsed today.

So what do we know about volunteering in hospice and palliative care?

Research suggests volunteers improve the quality of care (1), improve access to care (1,2), play a key role in the psychological and emotional wellbeing of patients (3), and that volunteer support can extend the lives of patients (4).

We also know that volunteers experience many benefits. They tell us that they acquire new skills, develop confidence and self-esteem; that volunteering can give meaning and purpose to, and perspective on, life. For some, volunteering has enabled them to make life-changing transformations including moving from unemployment into employment or changing their career direction.

Volunteers also bring many benefits to professionals, helping to free up staff time, bringing additional expertise to the team and a different approach. It has been suggested that working with volunteers gives staff opportunities for professional development.

We also know from research that that hospices are not sustainable without volunteers, that volunteers play a key role in embedding our organisations within their local communities, make a significant contribution to educating the public about hospices and that they are vital to the hospice economy in terms of income generation and cost effectiveness (2).

More widely, the Commission into the Future of Hospice Care identified volunteering as important to the future development of hospices in enabling them to fully meet the needs of those who need their care. (5)

Given this very significant impact, why are volunteers apparently invisible to palliative care policy and decision makers? Indeed, what is the profile of volunteering within our own organisations? Why do we not make more celebration of this aspect of our service that is so central to the principles, values and ethos of hospice and palliative care?

As hospice and palliative care evolves there will continue to be tremendous opportunities for us to enable volunteers to use their skills fully for the benefit of all those we support.

Why can it not be a volunteer who helps the family to cope during their loved one’s journey at the end of life or who sits with a patient at the end of life?  Why not a community volunteer who alerts professionals to patient and family needs?

It happens successfully in other countries – and is beginning to happen here too.

So as we celebrate the amazing work of volunteers this week, lets make a commitment now to fully empower volunteering in the future to “make dreams happen”.

“Once, volunteering was for dreamers. May it soon be so again.” (6)


  1. Draper J, Kernohan G, MacNamara A. The role of volunteers in community settings. Knowledge Exchange Seminar Series. Northern Ireland Assembly; 2014. Available from: http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/globalassets/documents/raise/knowledge_exchange/briefing_papers/series3/draper060214.pdf
  2. Scott R. “We cannot do it without you” – the impact of volunteers on UK hospices. European Journal of Palliative Care. 2015; 22(2):80-83.
  3. Watts J.H. The place of volunteering in palliative care. In: Chang, E. and Johnson, A. eds. Contemporary and Innovative Practice in Palliative Care. InTech; 2012. Available from: http://www.intechopen.com/books/contemporary-and-innovative-practice-in-palliative-care
  4. Herbst-Damm K.L. and Kulik J.A. Volunteer support, marital status, and the survival times of terminally ill patients. Health Psychology. 2005; 24(2):225–229.
  5. Help the Hospices (now Hospice UK). Volunteers: vital to the future of hospice care. London: Help the Hospices; 2012. Available from: http://www.hospiceuk.org/what-we-offer/commission-into-the-future-of-hospice-care/commission-resources
  6. Scheier I. “Once volunteering was for dreamers” a poem. 1988

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