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Never underestimate young potential

West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHs Trust is part of a network of 30 NHS Trusts and their respective charities who have been welcoming young volunteers since early 2018. 


“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy … when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.”


In the world where you can be anything, be kind … It’s such a powerful sentence which we see around but do not think about more deeply. This is what I want you all to think about … be kind.


This year has been extremely difficult for everyone. The Covid-19 pandemic changed our world, our vision, our life and we’re still trying to get used to the new normal. We have faced an unprecedented situation which we need to deal with and quite often those working in the NHS are among the first people who need to adapt quickly and find solutions for swiftly changing demands.


The Voluntary Services Team at West Hertfordshire Hospital NHS Trust in Watford in a two week period, redeveloped services and created the Voluntary Response Hub, with most of the volunteers being aged 16 and over.


When the pandemic started, most of us adults believed that our children would be lying in bed until midday, spending their time on their phone, on social media or gaming, but not every teenager chose that route.




From the 30th March, a group of 30 volunteers (many of whom were youths) stood up in the line to face the challenge of the unknown and served our community for the next couple of months with a smile, positive attitude, engagement and the belief that only together can we survive this difficult time.


Day by day, new cases, new admissions, more and more requests and yet we had the same number of youth volunteers. They were tirelessly running up and down the stairs, delivering patients belongings from their loved one; distributing meals, snacks and water to staff in isolation areas; serving tea for patients; helping housekeepers to serve lunches and dinners; and lots more. Throughout all of this, the most valuable thing they brought with them was “normality”, a smile, a hot tea … patients who they visited have been so thankful, for their willing attitudes and positive approach, their willingness to help, to listen to them and to spend time with them.




These volunteers offered the most valuable gift – their time. Their great generosity has had a profound and lasting impact on our patients and the community as a whole.  They have started to forge a new path in patient experience, adding volunteers’ influence as a positive impact for the patient.


And so today, using this great opportunity, on behalf of all of the staff of West Hertfordshire Hospital NHS Trust, and any other NHS Trust where youths play key roles, I want to express how proud we are of all of you. We’re very thankful for your commitment to share your time, that most precious of resource, to make life better for those who are in need, to lend a helping hand and to show kindness and caring that makes the greatest difference in the lives of the individuals. We know that you choose to volunteer selflessly and without expectation of being recognised or rewarded, but today we wish to do just that. We want to let you know just how much your dedication was appreciated by us.          




Whether you are a long-time volunteer or if you got involved fairly recently, and regardless of how many hours you choose to give, it’s important for you to know that what you do makes a difference. Please never forget that “volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy … when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.”


So when you think about 16, 17, 18 year old students, what is your first thought about them?


Meet our young volunteers:


You can find resources for setting up youth volunteering in your hospital here

Rethinking accountability in philanthropy

How accountable are you to the individuals and groups that you are set up to support? Not very, according to Power and Trust, recently published by Grant Givers’ Movement, which found that ‘foundations are most accountable to their board, and least accountable to end beneficiaries’. And what does it mean to factor accountability into the way in which grants and grant programmes are designed and implemented? These are questions that are frequently asked of funders, and that funders are increasingly asking of themselves.


I spoke to Jo Wells, Director of The Blagrave Trust, to understand more about their approach to remaining responsive and accountable to the needs of those that they are set up to serve – in their case, young people between 14 and 25.  Jo described three key ways in which Blagrave have tried to shift accountability to young people, building on the approach described in Changing the Story, and ‘driven by the strong values we hold: inclusive, collaborative, progressive’. This evolution began with conversations with young people themselves, ‘who are challenging the very notion of charity as paternalistic and deficit based: that’s one reason we started to invest directly in young people themselves’. And, at its core, is a belief that accountability must cut across everything that you do – what you fund, your governance and the way in which you deliver your grant programmes: ‘it cannot be about just one of these things at one point in time. It’s about a different culture, and an intentional shift that acknowledges this is a different way of working and that means we have to be willing to go in new and different directions, with young people involved at every stage, in every process’.


  1. Through reforming Blagrave’s governance and leadership.


Specific reforms have included putting young people with lived experience of the issues Blagrave funds directly on the Board (‘we have four trustees under 25 now, plus a fairly young chair [34] and finance trustee [32]’). This inclusivity has supported a move away from having a more formal Board: ‘formality doesn’t always lend itself to an open and honest conversation’. Board members are not all experts in a given field, and five are first time trustees; rather, ‘they are coming to solve problems and learn together alongside the staff team’. Blagrave also uses its influence to encourage changes to Board composition in the wider sector through the Young Trustees Movement. Other practical steps to reform approaches to decision-making include setting up a new youth-led fund, ‘Challenge and Change’, and continuing to actively grow their own direct network of young people from whom they learn.


  1. Through what Blagrave funds


The Opportunity Fund, and Challenge and Change are both new initiatives to fund young people directly, ‘enabling them to lead change – surely the most direct way to express accountability for our mission’. This work builds on The Listening Fund, which supports the youth sector to listen and act upon what young people have to say about their own needs and ideas for support. And their focus and design ‘establishes a direct line of accountability between young people and ourselves as a funder, removing the role of charities as their gate keepers’. Blagrave’s blog series of provocations on power, voice and listening gives a flavour of some of the myriad of factors that relate to young people’s stake in decision making processes, including the need to really listen to the voices of different groups of young people with varied experiences, needs and interests: ‘young people are not a homogenous group’. In the words of Hot Chocolate Trust, a Listening Fund Scotland partner in Dundee, ‘listening is at the heart of what we do. “Who are you? What are your stories? What are your hopes? fears? needs? ambitions? What do you want to do? What can we build together?”  These questions continue to be the bedrock of the work we do. We firmly believe that the young people are the experts of their own experiences, and that their voices must be at the very heart of both our everyday, and strategic, practice.’


  1. Through how Blagrave works


Since 2015, Blagrave’s application process has been stripped back in order to not consume organisational time demonstrating accountability to Blagrave, but rather to focus on social mission.  Applicants are asked one question relating to how they involve young people in their work, and are accountable to them. Young people themselves are paid as ‘Young Advisors’ to shape the design of Challenge and Change, and are currently shortlisting and making the final funding decisions. The next phase of The Listening Fund will recruit 10-12 further Young Advisors to shape the work over three years and to help hold the funders to account.  Where necessary, Blagrave works with other organisations, like the Centre for Knowledge Equity, ‘to help facilitate our programmes so that we are one step further removed from power and influence and really embedding principles of equity and inclusivity in how we work’. And, at all stages of their process, there is a commitment to feedback – gathering it anonymously then publishing it on their website; as well as providing it to all applicants, including those organisations or individuals that they don’t fund. In the case of the Challenge and Change fund, those young people whose projects are not funded will still be invited to be part of the Challenge and Change network and provided with network development opportunities.


For Blagrave, ‘it’s important to stay humble, acknowledge that you won’t always get it right and that there is always more to do’. Jo and her team see their approach to accountability as akin to movement building – actively seeking out and collaborating with others who support their ethos, while at the same time recognising the scale of the task: ‘it requires an iterative process of trial and error. And you need to continue to sit, listen and learn’.