The power of volunteerism

24th November 2023

Author: George Wright, The Big Life Group, Manchester, UK. 


The Big Life group began as a community-led organisation with volunteering at its heart, and that hasn’t changed, 30 years on.

We’re proud to have received Investing in Volunteers accreditation, and passionately believe in the power of volunteerism.

We know that volunteering has positive impacts for the individual, for the people and communities they dedicate their time to support, for the development of effective service provision and for society as a whole.

A 2019 survey by the National Council of Voluntary Organisations found that more than three-quarters of volunteers reported that volunteering improved their mental health and wellbeing. We see this data backed up by anecdotal evidence from volunteers across Big Life’s services. 

Janet, a volunteer at Big Life’s Energise Centre in Salford, told us that “volunteering makes me feel useful. It gave me the confidence to take part and give back”. She also acknowledges that connections made through volunteering played a huge part in maintaining her mental health throughout the pandemic, saying: “without that, I don’t know where I’d be now”.

A long-standing approach to volunteering in Big Life has centred on the provision of peer-support, where volunteer-led support has been provided via people with lived experience of a mental health issue.

In our ‘grow-your-own’ model, volunteers are supported through training to progress to paid employment, using their lived experience of a mental health difficulty to provide peer mentoring services, ranging from condition-specific support groups to working one-to-one with people living with common mental health problems.

The organisation’s former five-year, Big Lottery-funded, peer-mentoring support service demonstrated improvement in client wellbeing measured through the Warwick Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale, while successfully integrating the service with an NHS-commissioned Talking Therapies service (formerly known as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies, IAPT). 

However, what if the power of volunteering is not limited to affecting change on a one-to-one or small group scale? That’s the premise that underpins Big Life’s Community Voice service in Liverpool.

Community Voice works with experts by experience to influence and improve drug and alcohol service provision across the city. Volunteers with personal, lived experience input into how recovery services are delivered, affecting direct change to traditional service models.

In the summer of 2023, a group of volunteer experts by experience told their story in the form of ‘Lifelines’, illustrations of their life stories told from their perspectives. The trauma-informed process allowed this group of volunteers to share freely, and, when presented to commissioners in the city, provided eye-opening insight.

Reflecting on the Lifelines, the Merseyside Police Commissioner said: "we talk about working in a trauma-informed way in every service, but we very rarely know what people's trauma, this is the only way I've seen it done effectively like this, it's outstanding."

As a direct consequence of this piece of volunteering, trauma-informed, recovery-focused practice is now being built into future commissioning in Liverpool.

Our research and practice show the impact of volunteerism on services, individuals and volunteers themselves, and we’re proud to play our part in the positive social change that volunteering can effect.

our goals

Fairer society

We are passionate about working with researchers globally to deliver a fairer, more inclusive society. This perhaps has never been more important than in today’s divided world.