peers who volunteer

developing work skills

Developing work skills

Generally peers who volunteer have plenty of life experience and knowledge about the common problems facing the people they are supporting. However,  they often don’t have a set of work skills relevant to this role. While an initial training will help in this area, most people find they can only really develop skills when they try to apply them to the work they do (whether that work is paid or as a volunteer).

Where organisations are prepared to invest in supporting their peer volunteers to develop the key skills needed in their volunteering work, the benefits are clear to see. Peer volunteers who are learning new skills are better able to support the people they are working with. Learning new skills also boosts confidence and self-worth, consolidating recovery journeys. Finally, of course, new skills learnt are transferable and can be invaluable in helping peer volunteers who want to go on to paid employment.

I’m indebted to people who were prepared to take time out to invest in me, to show me how to do things – that’s worth more than any course.

Experiences of help developing skills

The experiences of the peer volunteers who took our survey varied. A majority (83%) described the help they received with developing work skills as “good” or “excellent”, while the other 17% rated it poor or minimal. However, even those with overall positive experiences, highlighted ways that things could be improved.


The most common positive experiences of volunteer support are listed below. People told us that they particularly valued tailored support and advice for developing skills relevant to the role they were filling. Just like new paid staff, some volunteers were naturally good at key skills such as listening, while others needed feedback and support to practice and develop these skills.

One very common issue raised by many peer volunteers was concern about how to use their lived experience. People who were peer supporters knew there was an expectation that they would draw on their lived experience to help others, but were unsure as to how and when it was appropriate to disclose their own experiences.

With help from my supervisor, I really learnt the value of lived experience. Having it is one thing, what you do with it is another.

Some worried that they were over-sharing, while others were concerned they weren’t sharing enough. While some people had good support from their peers and volunteer co-ordinators on finding the  right level of self-disclosure for them as individuals, others were left to work it out on their own to the detriment of both themselves and the people they were supporting.

I was very wary about disclosing personal issues, because I thought it would hurt my chances of getting a job with them.

Lots of people told us that they really appreciated getting the opportunity to develop new skills via training or attending conferences. In addition to the obvious benefits of developing new skills, peer volunteers said that  this investment in them really made them feel valued and a worthwhile member of the organisation. This was particularly true when mainstream training for paid staff was made available to volunteers.

With Peer Mentoring you start to realise the skills you have - most of us who have been through the criminal justice system feel we are worthless.

One-to-one mentoring from a member of staff was valued by many people. As trust within this mentoring relationship developed, many people were able to learn and develop personally. Several people told us that they had little or no previous experience of support and encouragement in this way and many said that the skills they learnt were invaluable not just in their volunteering role but to their continued recovery journey.

The co-ordinator didn’t judge me, she was just so supportive, she made me feel valued. Making mistakes was seen as a learning opportunity.

People also appreciated when staff took the time to ask what goals individuals had in terms of jobs and careers. This enabled people to work together to identify the key skills which would be needed and for the peer volunteer and peer co-ordinator to jointly make a personal development plan. When training was accredited and when there were clear pathways to paid employment within the organisation for which they were volunteering, this was very much appreciated,

I got great support from my line manager particularly in supporting me in decisions I have made about where I want to go in my role. Support and advice when I feel my knowledge is lacking has helped me grow in my role.


People who had not received help in this area highlighted two main issues. The first was a lack of investment in training or support with developing skills after the initial training course. Some said that organisations responded to requests for additional training but only if the peer volunteer themselves did the initial research and sought out relevant courses, usually on the recommendations of other volunteers.

The initial training was useful, but did not go into enough detail. A lot of what I learnt was picked up through my own research or from other peer mentors.

The second concern was that some individuals felt that as service user volunteers, they were not considered sufficiently valuable to have their skills developed. These people expressed the view that the organisations for which they were volunteering were mainly interested in getting unpaid help in delivering a service. This compounded existing feelings of lack of self-worth. Fortunately, several of these individuals had more positive experiences at other organisations to which they moved their volunteering efforts.

Developing Work SKills Checklist

For people with lived experience

  • If you feel you need training or more information to do your volunteering well, make sure you raise it with your volunteer co-ordinator.
  • Let people know your career goals and ask them to remember you when relevant training courses come up.

For providers

  • Treat new peer volunteers like new members of staff, identify their skills and areas in which they need training and support.

  • Many peer volunteers are initially concerned about how to use their lived experience – creating a safe space to discuss this, particularly with the input of more experienced peer volunteers can be invaluable.

  • Some peer volunteers may lack basic knowledge about IT (how to use a computer or use some software). Informal support can be very effective to help people get up to speed.

  • The opportunity to participate in training and briefings alongside paid staff often makes peer volunteers feel valued by the organisation and extends the number of roles they may be able to fulfil.

  • One-to-one mentoring from a member of staff is a very effective way of giving peer volunteers the confidence and a plan to develop their skills at work.

For commissioners

  • If you are commissioning a service with peer volunteers, please ask for evidence on how providers intend to help their volunteers develop their skills and assess the quality of that support based on the key points listed above.

Developing Work Skills Resources

Good practice guides


Clinks (2020) Managing volunteers: A guide for organisations working in the criminal justice system 

 Clinks (2016) Good practice in service user involvement from the voluntary sector working in criminal justice

Investing in Volunteers is the UK quality standard for good practice in volunteer management for those organisations who want to accredit their practice.

Justice Involving Volunteers in Europe (2016) Building successful partnerships involving volunteers in the criminal justice system: a good practice guide

National Voices Peer Support Hub is an online bank of high quality, curated resources for people looking to measure, evaluate, sustain and grow different types of peer support programmes.

Using this guide

You can either download the best practice document in full here or browse the different sections of the guide by following the links below.

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