peers who volunteer
Training is a core element of any peer volunteer programme. People need training to understand and carry out their roles. In addition, a good quality training programme will make peer volunteers feel valued and help develop skills which will be critical not only to their volunteering but to their personal journeys of recovery.
Of course, the usual key principles of any effective training programme apply: training should be ongoing (rather than a one-off) and should use a variety of learning styles in recognition of the fact that people learn in different ways. Groups of peer volunteers are likely to include people who have had negative experiences of formal education. As a result, interactive teaching styles, rather than instructional ones are likely to be more effective and more appreciated.
The training experience can, of course, go beyond a formal training programme and pairing a peer volunteer with an experienced colleague is a common and much valued approach.
The co-production of peer volunteer training materials and their joint delivery with experienced peer volunteers are likely to make them more relevant and helpful.
We have not set out an ideal training programme because, of course, the role of peer volunteers varies considerably and the training needs to reflect this role.
Instead, we share a range of experiences of training (both positive and negative) and suggest a range of resources for further reading at the end of this section.
Experiences of training
The training experiences of the peer volunteers who took our survey varied considerably. While a sizeable majority (81%) described their training as “good” or “excellent”, almost one in ten (9%) had received no training at all. This is particularly concerning given the potential safeguarding and emotional challenges that can result from undertaking these roles.
The most common positive experiences of volunteer training are listed below.
The one thing that people appreciated most was training that was tailored to their volunteering role. For many people their main role was to support peers by drawing on their own lived experience. People valued training which included discussion about this approach, particularly on whether, how and in what circumstances they might choose to share their own experiences – in short how to use their lived experience in their volunteering role.
People also appreciated training which was flexible and adjusted to suit their individual needs and which included opportunities for people to reflect on the training and develop new skills and approaches. Training which included space and support for personal development was particularly valued. In many cases, highly rated training took place over several weekly sessions which allowed for people to feel that they were building a body of knowledge and developing new skills.
Peer volunteers particularly valued opportunities to do the same training programmes as paid staff. This was felt to be a clear indicator both of a high-quality training but also that their organisation valued them sufficiently to invest in them.
People also spoke about the importance of regular support and supervision (see next chapter) which allowed them to consolidate their learning from the training. Opportunities for ongoing training, and specific training courses relevant to their roles and responsibilities were also cited as important.
Many people start their journeys as peer volunteers with the dual motivation of giving something back and to build their experience and skills in the hope of finding paid employment in a helping role. For this reason, they particularly prized training which was accredited and led to qualifications and supported career progression.
Some of the negative experiences people shared about the training were simply the opposites of the positive attributes outlined above, for example that training did not take place or was not tailored to their volunteering role.
A common complaint was that although training had often been of good quality overall, it sometimes reflected the organisation’s agenda rather than the needs of new volunteers. In particular, these respondents felt that the training did not equip people on how best to use their lived experience in their volunteering as peer mentors or in other support roles.
Training for staff
We have discussed the importance of training directly addressing the role of being a peer volunteer, what that role entails in a specific organisation as well as its boundaries and issues to be aware of. A number of people said that training or other means of communicating to paid staff about the role of peer volunteers was also very important. Several people reported difficulties when they volunteered alongside staff who did not appear to understand their role. Involving people with lived experience and peer volunteers in staff induction programmes was suggested as a helpful way of building a culture in which peer volunteers are (seen to be) valued.
For people with lived experience
- Resist any pressure to start volunteering until you have been trained.
- If there are requirements to your volunteering which you don’t feel you have the knowledge or skills to perform, talk to your volunteer co-ordinator and ask for training.
- Discuss your career goals and training needs with your volunteer co-ordinator on a regular basis (at least twice per year).
Ensure your training is designed to match the role your peer volunteers will be undertaking.
Training should include a focus on how best peer volunteers can use their lived experience and include exploration of the risks of sharing experiences (including re-traumatisation).
Training which allows for space for reflection and support for personal development is particularly effective.
Ongoing training, including training alongside paid staff, helps peer volunteers to feel valued and be more effective in their roles.
Discuss career goals and associated training needs with individual volunteers regularly and plan jointly to meet these.
Accredited training is valuable and appreciated and can be the starting point for peer volunteers who want to find paid work.
Staff should also receive training or information about the roles of peer volunteers, and this should be included in induction programmes.
- If you are commissioning a service with peer volunteers, please ask for evidence on how providers intend to train their volunteers and assess the quality of that training based on the key points listed above.
Training Peer Volunteers
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.
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
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations: Training volunteers & Accrediting volunteer learning
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.