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Volunteering & Early Childhood Outcomes: A review of the evidence

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Thank you

The team would like to thank all of the A Better Start partnerships in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend for their participation, contributions and insights into the evidence that we have collected.

Working in close collaboration with Parents 1st, this comprehensive evidence review funded by the Big Lottery Fund looks closely at the role of volunteering in supporting parents during pregnancy, birth and with young children.


There is valuable, practical learning for anyone that works with or funds volunteer projects in this field.

Parents 1st

In 2015 the Big Lottery Fund engaged Parents 1st to carry out an evidence review exploring if and how volunteering, peer support and ‘community champions’ can support child development outcomes. This review was commissioned as part of ‘A Better Start’ (ABS) and is intended to support five voluntary sector-led partnerships to design, develop and implement programmes of science and evidence-based services to improve outcomes in pregnancy and early life for children. 


Six features of successful volunteer projects


  1. Understand the key role of the project coordinator: The lynchpin of a successful volunteer project. Skilled coordinators can,
    • attract, engage, train, support, supervise and retain volunteers
    • facilitate processes that enable volunteers to engage with vulnerable parents, and,
    • build relationships with and between professionals and other voluntary sector projects.
  2. Fully cost projects so that they can provide a proper operational base: Include staff to coordinate, train and supervise, marketing resources, volunteer expenses such as travel or phone and data systems.
  3. Strong organisational leadership: Focus on nurturing grass-roots community involvement.
  4. Be realistic about timescales: Account for long lead-in time, while a robust implementation design process is carried out with stakeholders, relationships are built with the local community and public sector professionals, and volunteers are recruited and trained. Initial funding should last for at least three years to allow for meaningful evaluation of impact.
  5. ‘Just enough’ data collection: Tracking impact is important, but data collection can be intrusive and burdensome for volunteers and parents. Consider what impacts can be meaningfully measured and how this data can be collected with as light a touch as possible.
  6. Leadership models the principles of the projects: Leaders in commissioning and provider organisations must model strengths-based, relational and collaborative working.

Six principles that have made a difference to child development outcomes 


  1. Strengths-based: Emphasis on empowering parents to gain the information, confidence and skills they need to find solutions and become the best parents they can be.
  2. Relationship-based: Developing trust between everyone that is involved − parents, volunteers, coordinators and local professionals.
  3. Reciprocal: Ensuring that everyone affected by the project feels their voice is heard and that they contribute to and benefit from being part of the project.
  4. Evidence-based but adaptive: Rooted in evidence of what works, based on a theory of change and constantly reflecting, and prepared to innovate and adapt to local context.
  5. Collaborative: Aware of the distinctive roles of professional and volunteer support and work cooperatively with local professionals.
  6. Clear about parameters: The aims and boundaries of the volunteer projects are clearly articulated and understood by parents, professionals and commissioners.

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Further Reading

  • Relationships of mutual respect and trust are key: Cooperative relationships between volunteers, parents and professionals need to be managed, facilitated, and nurtured.
  • Work in a strengths-based way to empower volunteers to empower parents: An asset-based approach builds on families’ and volunteers’ existing strengths and focuses on developing resilience.
    • This means helping volunteers to establish a collaborative way of working with parents that is non-judgemental, avoids dependency and is solution-focused.
  • Invest time to plan the design and implementation of the volunteering project: This should involve all the key stakeholders, including local professionals, to build relationships and gain buy-in from the outset.
  • Be clear about roles: Ensure that specific volunteer roles on offer are made explicit and that recruitment processes and criteria reflect the skills and competencies needed.
  • Take time to review and reflect: Successful projects test ideas, learn from experience and adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Ongoing skilled supervision for volunteers is vital: this will help to maintain quality, monitor safeguarding issues, and enable reflective practice. Regular training and supervision helps volunteers to develop their skills and confidence.
  • Offer a range of volunteering opportunities and models if possible: be open to different pathways or routes into volunteering projects in the local area.
  • Volunteers are never a substitute for your professional support: they can, however, make a valuable and unique contribution to ABS outcomes for families through informal relationships of trust and equality that are built with local parents. Volunteers have the potential to:
    • Achieve intermediary outcomes by supporting parents to articulate their needs and improve their emotional wellbeing and confidence.
    • Reach and gain acceptance from parents who do not engage with services.
    • Create conditions for change through modelling, advocacy and encouraging positive approaches to parenting.
    • Enhance positive social connections with and between parents.
  • Volunteers can assist you to achieve your professional goals: they can complement your support for individual families and supporting vulnerable families to access your services.
  • Give your support and get involved: you could raise parents’ awareness of the volunteer offer, make referrals, or contribute your knowledge and skills to a volunteering initiative − for example, by participating in training or a steering group. These contributions are invaluable to the volunteer support staff, will help to build positive relationships, and enable you to gain insights into what volunteers can offer.
  • Volunteers make a valuable and unique contribution to supporting families and achieving ABS outcomes for children: Volunteers are often able to build trusting relationships and connect families to services they may not otherwise access. As a volunteer, your own life experiences may give parents the assurance that they will not be judged or patronised.
  • Volunteers need easily accessible and consistent support, training and supervision: This is important in order to feel confident, safe and effective in carrying out the role and to achieve the best possible outcomes for families.
  • Volunteering has lots of benefits for the volunteers: gaining knowledge, skills and confidence; the satisfaction of helping others; meeting new people and finding out about your community.
  • There are different roles for volunteers, needing different amounts of your time: Check out exactly what the role is and how much time you need to commit − for example, how many hours per week and for how many months.
  • Don’t be afraid to come forward to volunteer: You may not think you have much to offer, but you may be surprised!
  • If you can, make a contribution to the evaluation of your project: your involvement helps to give families the best possible support.

    Volunteer projects can make a unique and valuable contribution to parenting support for family and early years development through informal relationships of trust and equality that are built with local parents, some of whom may be reluctant to engage directly with support delivered by professionals. However, volunteers are never a substitute for professional support.

    What you can do as a commissioner or a funder

    • Bring professionals together: support them to work collaboratively with volunteers, for example, through pathways and referral processes or a community involvement strategy. Include in service specifications for statutory services.
    • Seek out the views of volunteers and the vulnerable parents they support: they have a valuable contribution to make to how services are designed and delivered.
    • Support success with sufficient time and funding: set up volunteering projects to succeed by:
      • Ensuring that they are fully costed (see ‘Six key features’ above).
      • Allowing at least a year for the set-up stage which should include: robust implementation design process, recruitment, training, and building a pool of volunteers.
      • Building relationships with professionals.
      • Providing at least three years of initial funding to achieve meaningful and measurable results.
    • Seek advice: a volunteering specialist can assist with developing a framework to inform the design, planning and implementation process.
    • Find the right type of lead organisation to operate the volunteering initiative: they should have a successful track record of implementing grass-roots community volunteering, and developing positive relationships and joint learning between volunteers and professionals.
    • Set realistic goals: some desired child development outcomes may not show up during the lifetime of a grants programme or contract and may not be evidenced in a short-term evaluation. Build in indicators that can show progress on intermediate steps in a theory of change towards the desired outcomes.
    • Use appropriate indicators and evaluation methods: use indicators to monitor progress which are appropriate to the stage of implementation. For the first two-three years build in indicators that can show progress on intermediate steps in a theory of change towards the desired outcomes. Developmental and formative evaluation is most appropriate for the first few years of implementation. Summative evaluation and outcome-based indicators are useful once the programme has been delivered consistently for at least two years. All monitoring and evaluation must ensure that data collection does not become burdensome for volunteers.
    • Establish and maintain good local partnerships with organisations that engage volunteers: keep abreast of working practices across the system and how they meet the relevant needs of communities and of the service.
    • Be an advocate for volunteering: generate interest and influence partner organisations to gain their support for new projects.
    • Consider the whole system: Volunteer projects can help achieve a number of outcomes which may be the responsibility of different commissioning and provider organisations. Systems which use joint commissioning arrangements, pooled budgets and new ways of integrating provider organisations are potentially the most useful and cost-effective when commissioning and providing volunteer projects as part of the whole system.

    The Big Lottery Fund posed 13 questions on behalf of practitioners working on ‘A Better Start’ (ABS)

    Volunteering & early childhood outcomes


    1. What evidence exists on the benefits of using volunteers, peer supporters and community champions to deliver ABS outcomes during pregnancy to age 3 (up to their 4th birthday). To include who benefits, in what way and under what circumstances?

    Volunteering & early childhood outcomes


    2. What is the learning from evaluations of different delivery programmes/models (successful and unsuccessful) and their effectiveness across different ethnic groups and with very deprived areas? How should these programmes/models be adapted within these areas?

    Volunteering & early childhood outcomes


    3. When is using volunteers, peer supporters and community champions a feasible, effective and acceptable option for achieving ABS outcomes – and when not?

    Volunteering & early childhood outcomes


    4. Are there universal or cross-cutting elements (including but not limited to engagement, selection, training and accreditation or integration within an existing workforce) which can be applied across different delivery models, which should be at the core of any strategy which uses volunteers, peer supporters and community champions? 

    Volunteering & early childhood outcomes


    5. What are effective strategies for the recruitment, training, accreditation and supervision of volunteers, peer supporters and community champions? What motivates volunteers, peer supporters and community champions and how best to connect with these? Are there any key barriers?

    Volunteering & early childhood outcomes


    6. What are effective strategies in the retention of volunteers, peer supporters and community champions? Are there any key barriers?

    Volunteering & early childhood outcomes


    7. What is effective in achieving positive impact and better outcomes for volunteers, peer supporters and community champions themselves?

    Volunteering & early childhood outcomes


    8. What evidence is there for how new emerging technologies might be used to support volunteers, peer supporters and community champions?

    Volunteering & early childhood outcomes


    9. What are effective strategies for engaging parents and aligning volunteer and parent goals and expectations?

    Volunteering & early childhood outcomes


    10. What systems (i.e. funding, accountability, governance, structures and communications) promote volunteering and early childhood outcomes good relationships, cooperation and trust between volunteers and professionals/paid staff?

    Volunteering & early childhood outcomes


    11. What governance arrangements are needed to ensure the safety of children, service users and volunteers and maintain high quality support?

    Volunteering & early childhood outcomes


    12. What conclusions on successful modes or core principles can be drawn from this evidence which can be applied for the replication by other organisations and partnerships delivering services for families during pregnancy and the first years? 

    Volunteering & early childhood outcomes


    13. In addition, and based on the findings, what considerations does the current and impending policy landscape create for organisations using volunteers, peer supporters and community champions in pregnancy and early years? What opportunities or challenges does this present? 

    Case studies

    Photo of Leila Baker

    09 January 2017

    Volunteering and early childhood outcomes: an evidence review

    Leila Baker

    Leila Baker, Head of research at IVAR shares the story behind the research. Bringing together the team, how the research questions were formed and discovering gaps in the evidence.

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    Read the report

    front cover image volunteering and early childhood outcomes

    Research reports:

    Volunteering and early childhood outcomes

    Jenny McLeish, Leila Baker, Helen Connolly, Houda Davis, Charlotte Pace, Celia Suppiah