A community volunteering programme has been part of North London Hospice since they began delivering services in 1984.


How and why we began the community volunteering programme

A community volunteering programme has been part of North London Hospice since we started delivering services in 1984. In fact before we had a building volunteers supported our patients and their families by visiting patients in their own homes.

The nature of those visits has changed over the years, partly as a response to the needs of patients, but sometimes because of the demands of our funders.

For example, at one stage the community volunteering programme was funded by Macmillan and we had 3 very clearly delineated roles – sitter, befriender and respite volunteer, with very clear guidelines and restrictions around what the volunteers could and could not do.

In common with other hospices providing a programme of community support, we found that some of the volunteers were ‘breaking the rules’.

For example, we found that sometimes volunteers were:

  • taking patients out into the community and not just sitting at home with them;
  • calling in to visit patients outside of designated times;
  • undertaking practical or domestic tasks to support the patient;
  • doing some basic shopping – whether or not they were reimbursed for any expenditure.

On reflection we realised that the relationships needed to be more fluid, for example, someone who is a befriender may occasionally need to sit with someone who is not well enough to be as responsive and engaged as one would generally expect in a befriending relationship.

More recently we have become a Compassionate Neighbours adopter. North London Hospice has a strategic priority to become more accessible to minority groups.

We already had a community volunteering programme, accredited training in emotional resilience, a model of supporting volunteers in reflective practice and were also aiming to increase footfall into our Health and Wellbeing Service by connecting with people who traditionally did not meet our triage criteria.

However, again like many hospices, we are very protective of patients and volunteers, and to take a leap into a light-touch project such as compassionate Neighbours was easier for some people to accept knowing that it was in partnership with other hospices.

The challenges we faced

Some of the challenges we faced included the following.

  • Internally this demands a change of culture and attitude as does encouraging volunteers to be autonomous and act independently responding to the situations they find.
  • Adapting to the St Joseph’s Hospice model as we are different organisations with different priorities, strategic and charitable objectives. We also operate in different areas with different populations, and have different agencies surrounding us each offering different services.
  • Because Compassionate Neighbours is so new it is difficult to describe and difficult to bring people on board immediately.
  • Other organisations are wary of working in partnership, especially when what we are trying to achieve is less clear
  • We currently have a very different attitude to the Compassionate Neighbours to the rest of the volunteers within the organisation

How we have overcome these challenges

We have very clearly delineated the boundaries around the Compassionate Neighbours project, and have involved a number of people internally as well as externally in shaping and describing this project.

We ensure that we aren't treading on the toes of local organisations by providing anything that is remotely similar. When attending meetings to promote what we are doing we ensure that one of the Community Volunteers or Compassionate Neighbours accompanies us. We also publicise our successes.

The benefits we have seen

The Community Volunteers have enabled our patients to remain in their preferred place of care, and preferred place of death. This means that  the people around those patients know that they are being supported by their local community at a difficult time in their lives.

It is still early days for Compassionate Neighbours. However we currently have a couple of people who were previously very socially isolated who have received training and, although not yet matched to anyone, they are coming to our coffee meetings and get togethers.

Compassionate Neighbours has created a shift in thinking within the organisation, and the Board of Trustees has recently agreed to fund three community development roles to help improve  relationship with the local community, as well as an admin role to help with recording and reporting.

Our advice to others

  • Scoping is really important. Find out what is already happening locally and how to get on board with others.
  • It's a mistake to think that because something has worked well in one location that it can be easily transposed elsewhere.
  • Work with existing groups and projects. For example, we are training the volunteers at Healthwatch so that they will be more attuned to working in this way.
  • If you're starting from scratch, make sure that any targets which funders want you to meet measure impact rather than quantitative data.
  • It takes longer to grow this than you may think (or hope).

For more information please contact Debbie Usiskin, Volunteer Engagement Manager.