Podcast: how can volunteers support vulnerable families?

Last updated: 25 Jan 2021 Topics: Podcast Type: Podcast
Overview

We talk to the researchers who looked at the role of volunteers in delivering services to support families

Volunteers play an important role in helping to engage vulnerable families in a service and can provide ongoing peer support on a one-to-one basis. We commissioned a review that explores current research evidence on involving volunteers in delivering services to support families and examine the outcomes for parents, children and volunteers.

In this episode, we’re joined by the authors of the review, Dr. Louca-Mai Brady and Berni Graham, as well as Dr Georgia Hyde-Dryden, who is a part of the NSPCC’s Development and Impact Team. You’ll hear us discuss the key findings and best practices identified from the literature review, including:

  • how we undertook the research
  • the services volunteers provided to families and how this work was carried out
  • challenges that need to be considered when involving volunteers in service delivery
  • the evidence on volunteer support to families
  • how the NSPCC will use this research to inform future opportunities.

After the full literature review? Access Volunteering with vulnerable families: a rapid literature review.


About the speakers

Dr Louca-Mai Brady is a researcher, trainer and consultant who has worked in the voluntary and public sector and academia. She has particular interests and expertise in qualitative and participative research methods, research with children and young people, disability and health and social care. She also holds a part-time role as a Senior Research Fellow at NIHR Moorfields Biomedical Research Centre, UCL.

Berni Graham is an independent social researcher and evaluator. Most of her work relates to children, young people and families and services run for them by UK public sector and voluntary and community sector agencies. Her research and evaluation typically explores life challenges such as poverty, disability and access to support, and framing these in a policy or practice context to help improve services.

Dr Georgia Hyde-Dryden is a Development Researcher for the NSPCC’s Development and Impact team. She is involved in a range of research and insights projects to inform the organisation’s evidence-based service development. Prior to joining us three years ago, she was a Research Associate at the Centre for Child and Family Research at Loughborough University where she was involved in research and evaluation with a primary focus on looked after children, care leavers and children on the edge of care.

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Transcript

Podcast transcript

Introduction:
Welcome to NSPCC Learning, a series of podcasts that cover a range of child protection issues to inform, create debate, and tell you all about the work we do to keep children safe. At the heart of every podcast is the child's voice, and how what they tell us, informs the work we do.

Ali:
Hi. Happy New Year and welcome to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. Our first episode of 2021 focuses on a report we commissioned which looks at volunteers who support vulnerable families.

I had a chat with the authors of the report, Dr. Louca-Mai Brady and Berni Graham, about how they conducted the research. And with Georgia Hyde-Dryden from our Development and Impact team, who spoke about how this report could help develop future services. We also discussed what volunteering with vulnerable families looks like in practice, what worked and what some of the challenges were. And you can find a link to the report on this episode's webpage. I began by asking Georgia to give us an overview of the report.

Georgia:
This was a rapid literature review commissioned by the NSPCC's Development and Impact Team in 2020, and it was to explore the current research evidence on involving volunteers in delivering services to support families. And in particular for this review, we wanted to focus on the involvement of volunteers in services supporting families, children under the age of five. And so it forms part of a flow of learning, if you like, from scoping and from research and insights activities which informs the work of the Development and Impact team when we’re developing and scaling up our services.

Ali:
Great, thanks for that Georgia. Berni, could you give us a little bit of an overview about what you were aiming to find out?

Berni:
We aimed to find out what roles volunteers undertook and what helped or hindered this work and what the volunteers and the families and the organisations got from using volunteers.

Ali:
Great. Thank you, Berni. So I guess my next question is how you went about doing this review and how easy it was to find relevant literature. Louca-Mai, could you talk us through that please?

Louca-Mai:
Yes, of course. So although rapid, this review was designed to be as thorough, transparent and robust as possible. At the outset, we agreed the search terms and other parameters with Georgia and her colleagues at the NSPCC. And from there, we researched nationally and internationally for academic articles and research and evaluation reports on this topic. The details of how we did this are included in a protocol at the end of the report.

From our initial searches we found around three thousand potentially relevant documents. But these are sifted down to seventy-one which were judged to be of good enough quality and also where the research methods are set out clearly. These were then analysed to help answer the key questions around processes and outcomes and twelve of these academic papers included randomised control trials (RCT). These are often considered the gold standard for research evidence as they often generate robust quantitative data and comparisons between people who receive an intervention service and people who don't - so the control group or people who get treatment as usual.

Ali:
From that, can you guys give us an idea - maybe Berni if I could ask you - an idea about what volunteering with vulnerable families looks like in practice. So maybe we could talk about who volunteered for this work and something about the training that they might have got?

Berni:
Well, there's a range of criteria employed to select volunteers, and most of the volunteers working with families were recruited because they were themselves local parents and ideally had similar life experiences and often spoke a community language as well. It was less common for volunteers to be recruited from previous service users.

And the criteria they used were intended to help ensure volunteers knew the area and the likely challenges facing local families and have similar backgrounds and parenting experience including for example, perinatal mental health problems or having a disabled child. And the idea was that this would enhance their ability to empathise with the parents receiving the service.

The findings also suggested that this group of volunteers - those helping families - were more representative of their local communities. The review showed that recruiting enough suitable volunteers took a clear focus, a lot of local knowledge and perseverance. Often the volunteers could only commit for a limited period of time. And they were sometimes using the volunteering as a stepping stone, for example, to get relevant work experience and to help find a paid job. But more than likely, most were motivated by altruism and those who previously used the service just wanted to give something back.

The coordinating role was pretty crucial. Coordinating, training, supporting and supervising volunteers required a range of skills, expertise, knowledge and experience. For example, to coordinate how to be able to accurately assess family’s needs and then build up trust with professionals in health and social care services and help get referrals into the system.

Ali:
Do we have any evidence about the background of coordinators? Are they safeguarding professionals? So I guess for the volunteers, where were the routes that they had to get that kind of supervision type support?

Berni:
The problem is a little bit with the evidence and the focus of a lot of these reports was producing an evaluation report or maybe describing who participated and what the programme consisted of. The coordinator role was often, I think, highlighted because it emerged as being very important, but it didn't set out in the beginning to analyse coordinators and who they were and what they did. But it kind of just percolated up all the time. And I think maybe a way for an organisation to look at it as well is to see the coordinator as the representative of that organisation and holding all of this volunteer work.

So the volunteers might be out there and meeting families, but the coordinator tops, tails and fills in all the gaps in between. If the relationship breaks down or it has needs that the volunteer can't meet. Or they're finding it too traumatic, or too difficult, or unsure about what they should be doing. It was a coordinator that has to be able to step in there.

And then on the other hand I think as we did say, they needed to have enough knowledge of the local area because they were going out and trying to get these volunteers to step into the role. Then they had to recruit families as well. As part of that, they had to convince local professionals that it was a robust service. They were professional enough and had the right systems and processes and they were safe. So they had a very 'all around finger in every pie', really, really amorphous kind of role. So pretty critical. But who they were, bar saying they were experienced or knew the local area, that wasn't necessarily analysed in the reports. We analysed it but the reports we were reading didn't always analyse it.

Ali:
Sure.

Berni:
They just mentioned aspects because I think they were impressed by the coordinator.

Georgia:
I think certainly that the report has highlighted for us just the significance of the coordinator role and its complexity in terms of whether or not volunteering, involving volunteers in a service is effective or not. I think they are just pulling so many different cogs together and sort of working with them simultaneously. And again, I think for us it will be a case of taking that away and looking at what we already know. Again from things like Together for Childhood, where we do have volunteer coordinators, and trying to pull together all of the learning that we've got and then build on that with further research and evidence work.

Ali:
Brilliant. Thank you, Georgia. Louca-Mai, can you add to any of that?

Louca-Mai:
The review highlighted that there's a balance to be struck between providing families with support as quickly as possible and waiting until the right volunteers and somebody with the relevant skills and experience was found. In terms of training, we found very little evidence around training packages. So no standard training package was found in terms of either content or quantity. The length of training that volunteers received could vary from just a few days to a year, and this often mirrored the degree of specialism of the volunteer role. So the longest training was for volunteers providing mental health support to new mothers experiencing postnatal depression.

The evidence suggests that organisations tend to develop their own training courses, and the range of topics covered was diverse, but often included building a relationship with the family, assisting and supporting families, children's development, parenting skills and things like child safety and safeguarding. But there was no standard or recognised assessment level, benchmark or qualification. And also, a lot of studies only mention training very, very briefly in passing. It didn't go into any detail about what that involved or how long that training lasted for. And so for all of these reasons, it wasn't possible to judge from the available evidence, anything much about the quality of the training or what the volunteers learnt.

Ali:
Sure, thanks for that Louca-Mai. Berni, just moving on, can we come back to you? What kind of work did the volunteers carry out? What type of roles were they given?

Berni:
We found the role divided into two key areas. Volunteers were often employed because of a belief that families would relate more easily to people like them. So they improved families access to services which they might not otherwise use. And secondly, they could bridge the gap where no services existed or provide an alternative or a preventative or interim service, for example, when a parent doesn't meet the eligibility threshold for another service. Qualifying for professional mental health or psychological support or counselling is a good example there.

We found some evident trends in the roles volunteers were expected to fill. Most volunteers supported families directly and in a one-to-one and face-to-face capacity, usually within the home. And this could take the form of befriending, listening and emotional support, modelling or guiding the parents around parenting skills or practical help. To a lesser extent, volunteers were involved in group support - supporting people within groups.

There are some examples of volunteers co-developing and co-delivering group workshops and also training. A common part of volunteer support was to help overcome isolation. This includes encouraging and assisting mothers to access local services and build up networks with other parents.

The other interesting thing is that in reality, although the terms used such as families and parents, they were used interchangeably. In practice, what is usually meant was support to women and mothers. And that the volunteers were also mothers supporting mothers. Much of the emotional mental health support was for new mothers, and parents to be, and many projects focused on minimising perinatal mental health difficulties. And you should note there as well that very few studies mentioned fathers.

Ali:
If there were mentions of fathers, do we know in what capacity they were mentioned?

Berni:
I can think of two reports. And one was a support group initiative for young mothers in an urban setting and they included the father. So the fathers could come along to sessions as well. And the thing that stuck out for me - I'd have to look back and see if it was more than this - but what I can remember from the top of my head was the young mothers being appreciative of the fact that the fathers could come and learn some of the stuff that they were learning. And so there was a kind of a shared project because they were talking about - I can’t remember whether they were young mothers or some of them were pregnant as well - but they were the early steps of parenting.

Ali:
Georgia, I guess for us as an organisation, the lack of mentions of fathers in this study, is that something for us to take back and consider?

Georgia:
Definitely yes. And I think it mirrors as well, to an extent, what we see in some services where it is more difficult for us to engage with fathers for a number of reasons. And it's something that we are exploring and trying to address and make services more accessible and engaging for fathers. But I think we need to take that on when we're looking at volunteering as well, both in terms of having volunteers who are fathers or male, but also in terms of supporting potentially, male family members who may prefer to have a male volunteer working with them.

Ali:
Do you think we could talk through some of the facilitators and challenges involving volunteers in working with vulnerable families?

Louca-Mai:
So we found that it can take both time and local knowledge to find and engage the right people as volunteers and in particular to ensure diversity and that they reflect the community that they will be supporting. However, drawing volunteers from a target community may also trigger concerns amongst those families about confidentiality. So for example, if people are living in the same neighbourhood as the people they're supporting and this paradoxically can reduce their willingness to seek support. Volunteers can also face challenges, again particularly if they're living in the same community, in maintaining a boundary between their private and volunteer lives when they're off duty.

Another issue is that family’s needs aren't predictable and can wax and wane. And in many projects a volunteers' input was fixed to a certain time and period. So for example, somebody might be scheduled to volunteer every Tuesday morning for three months. Some families' needs were outside of volunteers’ scope or expertise, most typically severe mental health issues. Sometimes this could be clear early on, for example, as soon as a referral was received. But it might only become apparent later as a parent became more open. And either way, it required careful, clear and professional decision making and boundary setting usually by the volunteer coordinator. From a wider perspective, this indicates that what volunteers are expected to handle needs boundaries which are carefully mapped out and shared with referring agencies, and also that volunteers have adequate supervision and support.

Ali:
Did the review note any evidence of the volunteers affecting or bringing about any changes and improvements to the families they were working with?

Berni:
Yeah, there was some but the main issue here is the availability of evidence. It doesn't mean that there wasn't an impact, it's just that we don't know because that evidence wasn't gathered often.

Ali:
Sure.

Berni:
But in the review what we did find was some evidence of positive outcomes for parents. And this included improvements in mothers' mental health, their sense of wellbeing, confidence in their own parenting skills, relationships with their children, willingness to use local services and also reduce sense of social isolation. And then there was some evidence as well that volunteers could help stand in for the absence of support from other family or extended family members.

We didn't actively look for positive gains for children in the outset and that wasn't in our original search terms. This evidence review was focused on the processes and on the impact on parents. But also, the evidence around children are required to indicate any impact or lack of impact on children's outcomes over the long term and that would take many years to materialise and to be measured. However, there were some indications of improved relationships and communication between parents and children. And there was more evidence around the impact on volunteers. So the volunteers reported gaining confidence, satisfaction, improved physical and mental health, reduced isolation, greater understanding of their own communities and their needs and more insight, skills and motivations to help them in their future employment.

Ali:
So we talk about what the learning has come out from this report. From maybe a service development and delivery point of view?

Louca-Mai:
We found that when working with vulnerable families, volunteers have to straddle a difficult divide with at least two demanding and potentially conflicting sets of expectations. So on the one hand, they need to act professionally to gain the respect of other agencies and professionals. Plus indirectly, they are expected to observe, assess and report back on the parents’ parenting and ensure safeguarding, so kind of a quasi professional role if you like.

But at the same time, they are encouraged to be a friend, a confidante, a supporter to their fellow parent. And indeed, the whole concept of peer support is built on the notion of their shared commonality and of being just like them, albeit with a bit more knowledge and experience. And families trust in and openness with volunteers is often founded on a perceived distinction with professionals. Volunteers were not seen as people who could or would take their children away. But in reality the distinction was a bit more blurred. And the ambiguities of inherent conflicts emerging from these multiple expectations need to be acknowledged and clarified from the outset. And the volunteer’s role needs to be carefully planned and framed.

Initial assessments of family needs are often just the beginning or the tip of the iceberg. Generally more details emerged over time and crucially as trust grew between the family and the volunteer. And often the real needs are much greater than originally anticipated and more complex. For example, families often needed practical legal advice around things like benefit entitlement, disability, domestic abuse, childcare, housing, as well as the emotional support originally on offer. And volunteers’ roles were sometimes too prescribed to respond to families’ emerging real priorities or the ones they put first. They were not supposed to step beyond their job description or allotted roles and that also had pros and cons.

Ali:
Sure, I can imagine. Thanks Louca-Mai. Berni, could you add to that please?

Berni:
The other angle was how the relationship ends. And that merge has been just as important as the initial stages. There seemed to be a tendency to frontload. So in other words, to put more focus on recruiting and matching volunteers and getting the relationship off the ground. They were really, really important, but there's a clear message that endings needed to be managed very carefully, just to ensure that no sudden cliff edge, or the volunteer support suddenly stops without any warning or preparation.

And then related to that, another angle, the short-term nature of volunteer input or indeed whole projects. So family’s needs as Louca-Mai said earlier, they're not predictable and they would often persist beyond the end of the volunteers or their projects a lot of the time.

Ali:
Georgia, could you add to it maybe from an NSPCC perspective how we will be using this going forward?

Georgia:
So in terms of how we will use this going forward, as I mentioned earlier, it forms part of a flow of insights and research evidence into our service development process. And that also adds to what we already know as an organisation through our existing work with volunteers involved in delivering services to families. For instance, Blackpool Better Start or our Together for Childhood place-based partnership approach. And I think that this review will particularly help us to think about future opportunities for involving volunteers and also to consider the breadth of issues involved which Louca-Mai and Berni have already discussed. And so, this learning has the potential really to ultimately benefit children and families who work with us, the volunteers themselves and also the organisations who deliver our services.

Ali:
Berni, Louca-Mai, Georgia, thank you so much for talking to us about this report. It's fascinating and I hope all our listeners read it. Thank you very much.

(Outro)

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