peers who volunteer
supporting peer volunteers
Support is perhaps the most important component of ensuring that peer volunteering is a positive and productive experience both for the peer volunteer themselves and the organisation for which they are volunteering.
Everyone needs support but people who have recent experience of drug and alcohol problems, homelessness or being involved in the criminal justice system are likely to need more support than most, particularly when they are just setting out on their recovery journeys. It is obvious these life experiences which are the reason that peer support is often so valued and effective.
Support can of course facilitate further positive progress for the peer volunteer and often prevent relapse into negative behaviours. The provision of support also confirms that a person is valued by the organisation and confers a feeling of belonging, both powerful protective factors in the process of recovery.
Experiences of support
The support experiences of the peer volunteers who took our survey varied. A majority (83%) described the support they received for their volunteering as “good” or “excellent”, while the other 17% rated it poor or minimal. However, even those with overall positive experiences, had felt let down at times.
The most common positive experiences of volunteer support are listed below.
The most highly valued approach was one in which the organisational culture or volunteering structures resulted in staff proactively reaching out to offer help rather than expecting peer volunteers to request it. Many people, particularly in the early weeks or months of volunteering, reported feeling anxious and unsure about whether they were doing a good job and said that offering support to others, although rewarding, also brought up powerful feelings relating to their own most difficult and painful experiences. When volunteer co-ordinators and staff made time to sit down with people and check out how they were faring and whether they had concerns about their volunteering, this made a big difference. In some organisations, peer volunteers were asked to identify a trusted professional as their key source of support.
People spoke about how being treated as an equal and getting support from the wider staff team, where and when needed, made them feel valued and gave them a range of places to ask advice and support from, often preventing minor concerns from escalating into serious anxieties.
Where organisations had an individual personal development plan for all volunteers, this was greatly appreciated and made it easier for peer volunteers to gain confidence and skills and set goals for themselves.
Another key element of support was when a volunteer co-ordinator continuously discussed a peer volunteer’s progress and asked their opinion around matching them with people who use services who were most likely to benefit from their support. People praised organisations where support for volunteers was integrated into the culture alongside an understanding that for most people recovery journeys take a zig-zag rather than straight line direction.
Negative support experiences
Again, some of the negative experiences were the opposite of the positive ones above, particularly where support was just not available or was hard to access. In some cases, support had been good but was interrupted by the turnover of volunteer co-ordinators, or, in recent times, by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
A common complaint was that people received good support from their volunteer co-ordinator but were ignored or regarded as unimportant by other members of paid staff.
One issue where peer volunteers felt that support was often missing was when they were encouraged to tell their personal stories at organisational meetings, conferences or funding bids. Many peer volunteers said that while they were typically offered support directly after telling their story, organisations often failed to realise that talking about their difficult times could be a re-traumatising experience which often emerged several hours or days after the event itself (see the example below).
Peers who had experienced good quality support in this area talked of how their supervisor regularly checked in with them about their feelings and did not assume that because telling their story publicly had been a positive experience in the past, it was guaranteed to be so in the future.
Several peer volunteers said that because they had become used to sharing their stories in group therapy situations with other people in treatment, they had been unprepared as to how different that experience felt in a public setting. As one of our co-production team said, when you’re talking about your struggles in life:
“You are in a way sharing a part of your own soul, you’ve bared something so close to you.”
I had a half-hour session talking to 40 or 50 people, telling them my story. Then there was another session, and we broke for lunch. I went into the kitchen area to get a cup of tea and I started shaking. I was shaking so much I spilled hot water all over my hands. Fortunately, someone came in and saw me and sat me down and listened to me and helped me talk it through which left me feeling better. But I think that the people like me who want to share their story probably don’t know that there will be an impact like that, or worse, afterwards. But the people who ask them to tell their story ought to have some idea that people will need some support either immediately afterwards or the next day or the next week and should make sure they contact that person the next day or a few days later. I think they have a duty of care and I’ve spoken to so many other peer volunteers who have had similar experiences.
Support Skills Checklist
For people with lived experience
If you are worried about any aspect of your volunteering, ask for support at the earliest opportunity.
If you are asked to share your experiences, especially in a public setting, take time to ask yourself whether you definitely want to do this. It is okay to want to share on some occasions and to NOT want to on others.
Offer support to peer volunteers on a proactive basis, having regular check-ins to discuss how volunteering is impacting on an individual’s recovery journey.
Having a formal development plan makes it easy for peer volunteers to gain confidence and skills and set goals for themselves – and become a more valuable volunteer at the same time.
Encourage all staff who work alongside peer volunteers to offer informal support and encouragement.
Discuss matching volunteers with people who use services most likely to benefit from their support.
When peer volunteers share their life stories, they may experience strong negative feelings, include being re-traumatised. These feelings can emerge several days later and can be unpredictable. Organisations should always follow-up after these events to check in on an individual and offer the space for support.
- If you are commissioning a service with peer volunteers, please ask for evidence on how providers intend to support their volunteers and assess the quality of that support based on the key points listed above.
Good practice guides
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.
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
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations: Supporting and managing volunteers
On Road Media is a charity supporting people and media to create content that changes the world. They support and train people with lived experience to communicate safely and effectively.
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.