Working with service users, patients and their carers and local community groups as volunteers is an effective way of getting your information into the hands of people who need it and an important part of a consumer health information strategy for many organisations. Volunteers can help you in many ways, from packaging up and sending information out to enquirers, to sourcing and giving information in information centres, to manning telephone helplines and raising the profile of your organisation at events with specific communities.
Volunteers often have many and varied local contacts which can present opportunities to reach deep into the community. They can help raise awareness of both hard copy and online information through the placing of information/literature, or hosting local events at places such as at supermarkets, shopping centres, hospital clinics, churches and religious places, or exhibitions and shows. Some information centres, GP surgeries, outpatient clinics and libraries work with volunteers, training them to support people to find the information they need and then to use it effectively. They can have an important part to play in helping people with low health literacy, enabling them to find the right services, navigate their local NHS and get help with benefits and support.
However, just because people work for no pay does not mean that you do not need to invest in them. Volunteers should be trained, supported and enabled to help deliver on your organisation’s strategic aims.
Strong links with relevant community groups can be a very helpful way of distributing information to people who are not already directly connected to you, as well as a useful way of recruiting people to be involved in your resource development process. How you approach this will depend on whether you want to cover a geographic area (e.g. information on primary care in one London borough) or a wide area but on a particular topic (e.g. information on diabetes for Asian people living in the UK).
Start by researching relevant groups – which could include self-help and support groups relevant to the condition you are writing about, and also groups which are not specifically health related but would attract an audience you want to reach. Examples could be parent and toddler groups, groups bringing a particular nationality together, LGBT groups, groups for older adults, or church groups.
Once you’ve identified key groups, open up lines of communication appropriate to the group. This could be joining an online forum, attending a group meeting in person or, after some initial contact, adding a group leader to your mailing list. Face-to-face meetings and presentations are a time-consuming but effective way of building links with community groups.
- Decide who will be supporting and managing the volunteers – would it be someone based centrally or perhaps staff working locally are best placed.
- Make sure your volunteers are clear on what it is you want to achieve – if you are pushing specific information at key times, make sure they have sufficient time to plan their activity.
- Make sure you have sufficient budget to cover volunteer expenses – they should not be out of pocket for supporting charitable activity. Agree budgets beforehand to make sure their activity fits with that of your charity.
- Make sure volunteers keep agreed records of where they are active.
- Make sure you are clear about any restrictions on stocks of hard copy– put in place structures to manage ordering to make sure you have sufficient supplies of hard copies to support your activity across the UK/nation you operate in.
- If you are having to cut back on printed booklets, try to provide your volunteers with other tools to help promote your charity or organisation such as signposting leaflets or posters.
- Make sure your volunteers are aware of any boundaries set by the charity – eg self-disclosure of their condition/disability, provision of advice etc.
- If they are working with vulnerable groups or children, they might need to be CRB checked.
- Make sure your volunteers are informed of any key messages and campaigns coming from the charity. They can be wonderful ambassadors – as long as they know what’s happening!
- Encourage feedback from your volunteers – they often give information face to face so can gather valuable information about what the public want and what they think of the information you produce.
- When recruiting volunteers, make sure they are suited to the tasks you need them to fulfil. Ask them about their skills, their availability, ability to travel across an agreed area etc. You might want to develop a role description so that volunteers are clear about what is expected of them.
- Volunteering can affect people’s benefits. Make sure people check on their personal circumstances so they can make an informed decision.
- Remember to make your volunteers feel valued. Don’t take their work for granted. They do this because they are passionate about your organisation/charity and want to help people who often might live with the same condition as them. Thank you goes a long way!
- Consider identifying and approaching relevant community groups, which can be effective allies in distributing and contributing to health information.
- For the most effective relationship with community groups, invest time in introducing yourself, your service and your resources, and maintain open lines of communication.