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Although many positive outcomes were noted, the number of variables in operation is just one of numerous methodological and practical challenges in gathering robust data around impact. However Homestart, other VCS agencies and academics have begun gathering more rigourous, and longtitudinal, data and conducting randomised control trials (the research gold standard) to help address the evidence issue.
Although volunteering is widespread in the UK, there is limited robust evidence around its effectiveness, especially in supporting vulnerable families. This thorough literature review aimed to explore the available data around processes and outcomes for families. The evidence shows that these volunteers work in a range of roles, e.g. befriending, supporting, advising, mentoring and training. Models of support varied from informal peer- type support, to highly trained quasi-professional roles (such as ‘doulas’). Either way, volunteers require skills, training, often personal experience and especially, the ability to establish a trusting relationship. Families were found to value knowledge, reassurance, trust and accessibility. Interestingly, being local or from the same group was noted to have both pros and cons, for each side: including concerns around confidentiality and maintaining boundaries. Tensions were also evident between the volunteers behaving and looking more ‘professional’ on one hand, or more like the family on the other; and between being available as and when and providing support as directed by the family, or only at times and in ways prescribed by the project.
The coordinator (usually paid staff) emerged as vital to a project reliant on volunteers. Their skill-set and experience was critical when recruiting and training volunteers, matching them with families, and ensuring consistency, safety, quality, continuity, plugging gaps where needed.