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A thematic synthesis of Volunteering through social prescribing and the affects it has adults.

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Stephanie Tierney, Amadea Turk, Geoff Wong, Helen Chatterjee, Nia Roberts, Joy Todd, Kamal Mahtani. What impact does volunteering have on personal well-being from the perspective of adults undertaking it? A thematic synthesis. PROSPERO 2020 CRD42020190574 Available from:

Review question

What impact does volunteering have on personal well-being from the perspective of adults undertaking it?


We will search the following databases:

• PsycINFO
Search terms will relate to key components of our research question. Based on the SPICE framework these can be distinguished as:
SETTING: Formal volunteering
PERSPECTIVE: Adult (18 years +) volunteers
Phenomenon of INTEREST: Personal well-being
COMPARISON (if applicable): N/A
EVALUATION: Experiences, attitudes, perspectives, views
We will check references of papers read in full for additional studies. We will conduct a Google search, looking at the first 10 pages of references, using terms related to volunteering AND well-being AND qualitative research. We will also set up a Google alert to keep abreast of studies completed/published whilst the review is being conducted. All references will be entered into a Mendeley file.
We will not explore physical health as there may be different processes at play in producing positive outcomes. We will focus on formal volunteering because when compared to informal volunteering there may be different “meanings and significance to the roles and identities of the individuals concerned” (Nazroo and Matthews, 2012: 13). For this review we will use the following definition of volunteering:
“The giving of time and energy through a third party, which can bring measurable benefits to the volunteer, individual beneficiaries, groups and organisations, communities, environment and society at large. It is a choice undertaken of one’s own free will and is not motivated primarily for financial gain or for a wage or salary” (Scottish Executive, 2004: 6).
We are interested in any type of formal volunteering (including in a school, religious organisation, community group, charity, political group, hospital or health setting, cultural, heritage or arts sector). However, we will not be including studies on Patient and Public Involvement in research as there are several reviews already on this topic.

Types of study to be included

Qualitative studies (that have used a qualitative approach to data collection and analysis) or mixed methods research when findings from the qualitative component can be distinguished easily from the quantitative part. We will not be including quantitative research or questionnaire studies with open-ended questions.

Condition or domain being studied

Our review will explore how volunteers perceive formal volunteering affect their personal well-being. By personal well-being, we mean “how satisfied we are with our lives, our sense that what we do in life is worthwhile, our day-to-day emotional experiences…” (Linning and Jackson, 2018: 10). Well-being from this perspective could include depression, distress, anxiety, life satisfaction, family functioning, social support, social connections or isolation, self-efficacy, self-esteem, self-worth and status, feeling useful and as if one belongs, confidence, having autonomy or agency.

A review of evidence on volunteering (Rutherford et al., 2019) highlighted that researchers have focused on benefits rather than potentially negative impacts on personal well-being. Negative impacts need to be considered so that steps to mitigate them can be established when developing programmes and policy. Undesirable outcomes might include role strain (juggling too many social positions), burnout (when volunteering hours are excessive), or feeling emotional overload or too much responsibility (Linning and Jackson, 2018).


Adult volunteers.

Intervention(s), exposure(s)

There have been various definitions of volunteering (e.g. Linning and Jackson, 2018; Nazroo and Matthews, 2012; Thoits and Hewitt, 2001). Within these, a distinction is made between 'formal' and 'informal'. Formal volunteering refers to participation in activities for or in the community that takes place within the context of an organisation or group (Rutherford et al., 2019). Within this, there may be organisation-related activities (e.g. raising money, campaigning, sitting on a committee, carrying out administrative tasks, working in a charity shop) and person-centred work (e.g. befriending, educating, advising) (Nazroo and Matthews, 2012). Informal volunteering, on the other hand, might entail caring for or supporting a family member/neighbour, or “isolated altruistic acts such as intervening in emergencies” (Thoits and Hewitt, 2001: 116). This review will centre on the former, as this is where research has focused; there is very limited existing evidence on informal volunteering, which has been depicted as distinct from formal in activities offered, motivations for doing it and benefits it brings (Rutherford et al., 2019).


Not applicable.

Main outcome(s)

Experiences, views, attitudes, perceptions of volunteers.

* Measures of effect

Not applicable.

Additional outcome(s)


* Measures of effect

Not applicable.

Data extraction (selection and coding)

Initially, we will screen references based on their title/abstract. One reviewer will screen all references and 20% will be independently reviewed by a second member of the team. References that are judged to be relevant, or when the title/abstract provides insufficient information to make this decision, will be read as full text. Two reviewers will independently read all full text documents and make decisions together about their inclusion.

Papers will be included or not based on the following criteria:

Inclusion criteria
• Adults (aged 18 years and older)
• Engaged in some form of formal volunteering
• Written in English
• Data about personal well-being forms a theme or part of a theme
• Qualitative studies (that have used a qualitative approach to data collection and analysis) or mixed methods research when findings from the qualitative component can be distinguished easily from the quantitative part
• Published and grey literature
Exclusion criteria
• Data focusing on the views/experiences of voluntary organisations or staff rather than volunteers themselves
• Papers on patient/public involvement in research design/delivery
• Do not contain data related to personal well-being
• Unpaid intern appointments
• Informal volunteering (e.g. giving advice to a family member, transport to a neighbour, looking after a friend’s child)
• Belonging to a religious group and attending services or meetings, as this is not sufficient to indicate voluntary work
• Overseas volunteering
• Theses and conference abstracts, although we will explore whether these have been published as papers (e.g. by contacting the authors)
• Questionnaire studies (even if reporting responses from open-ended questions)
Decisions made about whether to include papers at each stage will be recorded using Rayyan. A PRISMA flow diagram will be produced to illustrate the process of searching.

Risk of bias (quality) assessment

We will use the criteria outlined by Carroll et al. (2012) to appraise the reporting of papers. This will mean focusing on a) the question and study design, b) selection of participants/cases, c) methods of data collection, d) methods of analysis. One reviewer will appraise all papers and 20% will be independently assessed by a second reviewer. Any disagreements will be addressed through discussion. A third reviewer will be brought in if a consensus cannot be reached.

Strategy for data synthesis

For included studies, the following information will be recorded in an Excel file: Author(s), year of publication, country in which it was conducted, study aim(s), methodology, sample, data collection, analysis, type of volunteering and a brief summary of findings. A copy of each included study will be downloaded into NVIVO. For analytical purposes, we will focus the analysis on data from the results and discussion sections. One researcher will extract data; data extracted for 20% of papers will be reviewed by a second member of the team.

We will follow the three broad stages associated with thematic synthesis outlined by Harden and Thomas (2008). After reading a paper as a whole, one member of the research team will then code, on a line-by-line basis, each segment of its results and discussion sections that are meaningful to our research question. We will use these codes to produce descriptive themes, by clustering those that are on a similar topic under a broad heading. This process of developing descriptive codes will be undertaken by two members of the research team. We will then create analytical themes, which move away from simply describing the data; they will bring together data from different studies to produce something that is more than the sum of their individual parts (producing new conceptualisations and explanations). Hence, we plan to ‘go beyond’ content in the original papers to develop analytical themes, which will be informed by what is contained within the included studies. This will enable us to present, in the end, a model, framework or set of findings with explanatory power. All members of the team will be involved in discussing analytical themes. We will use an inductive (rather than deductive) approach to produce higher-level, abstract concepts that have practice and/or policy implications.

Analysis of subgroups or subsets

We will use information from the quality appraisal to undertake a sensitivity analysis, exploring whether key themes are lost when lower quality reported studies are removed, or if doing so affects the richness of information underpinning a theme (Carroll et al., 2012).

Contact details for further information

Stephanie Tierney,

Organisational affiliation of the review

University of Oxford


Synthesis of qualitative studies, Systematic review

Funding sources/sponsors

NIHR School for Primary Care Research

Grant number(s)

Project reference 483

Stage of review

Review Ongoing

Subject index terms status

Subject indexing assigned by CRD

Subject index terms

Adult; Humans; Personal Satisfaction; Volunteers

Date of registration in PROSPERO

11 June 2020

Date of first submission

05 June 2020

Stage of review at time of this submission

Preliminary searches Yes No
Piloting of the study selection process No No
Formal screening of search results against eligibility criteria No No
Data extraction No No
Risk of bias (quality) assessment No No
Data analysis No No

The record owner confirms that the information they have supplied for this submission is accurate and complete and they understand that deliberate provision of inaccurate information or omission of data may be construed as scientific misconduct.

The record owner confirms that they will update the status of the review when it is completed and will add publication details in due course.


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