Demonstrating the impact of a volunteer family support program

Insights from an RCT

Content type
Event date

11 May 2022, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (AEST)


Jayne Meyer Tucker, Rebekah Grace, Angela Styman, Joanna Schwarzman




About this webinar

This webinar was held on Wednesday, 11 May 2022. 

Service providers dream of delivering programs responsive to community needs, having the resources to implement them properly, and then rigorously testing them to understand their impact on communities.

In this webinar, you will hear about such a program. Volunteer Family Connect (VFC) is a home visiting program for parents, delivered by trained volunteers. It was recently evaluated using a randomised control trial (RCT). This webinar will focus on:

  • Program innovation
  • Cross agency collaboration
  • Pragmatic RCT design
  • Managing a RCT in practice.

VFC was developed in collaboration between The Benevolent Society, Save the Children, Karitane and senior researchers from Western Sydney University.

Audio transcript (edited)

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Hi everyone. Welcome to today’s webinar, ‘Demonstrating the impact of a multi-agency family support program: Insights from a randomised control trial or an RCT’. My name is Doctor Jo Schwarzman. I’m a research fellow with the Child and Family Evidence Team here at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. I’d like to start by acknowledging the Bunurong and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to their Elders past, present, and emerging. And as well as any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people joining us today and those who might have taken part in the Volunteer Family Connect program, either as volunteers or on the program side or as participants.

Joining me in the discussion today we have people that made the Volunteer Family Connect program happen. Firstly, Doctor Jayne Meyer Tucker, who was the Volunteer Family Connect champion. Hello, Jayne.


JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: We also have Associate Professor Rebekah Grace, Lead Researcher of the RCT, the randomised control trial. Hi, Rebekah.

REBEKAH GRACE: Hi, Joanna. Lovely to be with you.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: And we have Angela Styman, who is the Program Coordinator and Volunteer Coordinator. Are you there, Angela? Hello.


JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Lovely to have everyone with us today. So Volunteer Family Connect, or people might refer to it as VFC, is a volunteer home visiting program for families with young children, so that zero to five years old, who are vulnerable due to social isolation and/or lack of parenting skills and confidence. Families are matched with trained community volunteers who serve as support and social bridge to the local community. Volunteers visit families for two hours a week, for around 3 to 12 months. And during the home visits, volunteers establish trusting, respectful, and meaningful relationship with families. And this helps to provide families with flexible, practical, and social support as well as information about appropriate community services to facilitate parent engagement in connection with these services, and other services as well.

So for more information about the program itself or about Volunteer Family Connect, look for The program was recently evaluated using a randomised control trial. And this is what we want to dig into in today’s webinar. So, I think we’re ready to start with some discussion. My first question, I wanted to start with knowing a little bit more about how the program itself came about. From what I’ve heard, this is the work of multiple agencies. How did you get these agencies to come together to deliver this? Maybe Jayne, should we start with you?

JAYNE MEYER TUCKER: And look, thank you, Joanna. I’m really pleased to be here to have this conversation. And how do I talk about how those organisations came together – which is ten years now. And how do I summarise that very quickly? Well, I’m going to try to do that in three words. And the three words that I’ll use will be contribution, connection, and equity. And what I mean by that, by contribution, basically all committed to the volunteer. The organisations were very committed to volunteering, but all from different ways. So they were either service delivery agencies, or they were from academic interest, or even from social impact as to the benefits that volunteers have in the community.

And the actual program or concept of volunteering had been delivered in different ways. But as usual, everyone listening to this seminar will have had experience with this, programs sometimes exist and then when funding’s not there, they don’t exist. So there was a shared contribution from all that they wanted to somehow have a way of ensuring that we wouldn’t be in that position again. But the connection – and this is the bit that I find quite interesting when I’m asking, how did we actually get the group together. Everyone came with their own insights. So we were very fortunate, and Rebekah will talk about this later on in this seminar, that we actually had interest from volunteering from the academic side of it. But that was not just nationally in Australia. It was also international.

We also had interest in the service delivery agencies where some of them had not necessarily worked together closely, but they were aligned in wanting to be brave enough to work to get a volunteer program and even work from one manual, which that in itself was a major achievement. And then the other part of it in the social impact, it was putting together a randomised control trial with a social impact evaluation was very bold. And so I think the key theme that I’m wanting to explain here when I do get asked that question, how did we make it happen, it wasn’t to actually resolve or to set up a group to do a particular action. It was more to really be committed to solve what we thought was a gap. And that was having the evidence around volunteering and home visiting.

And so the only other part I wanted to explain in the equity bit is that when you have a collaboration like that that has worked together for over a decades, each one has to come into the space with their area of leadership. And so there is this servant or humble servant leader kind of phrasing where at times it was right for the academic group to be leading us around the RCT. And then of course when it comes to the program delivery as the grassroots level, it was the service delivery agencies. And then when we needed to do the social impact evaluation, we had help from agencies who are tending to be from the big fours, but who bought that wisdom into play.

So it was a group sitting around the table, having the conversation, being very focused on let’s understand how volunteering works and here we are ten years on having learnt a lot, and we’ll endeavour to share as much as we can with that today. So that’s my very short answer of ten years.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Thanks so much, Jayne. I don’t think I’d realised it had been ten years, because when we had our preliminary discussions, we talked a lot about those foundations. The really important contribution, connection, and equity things that brought people together, but I think you’re also highlighting that it does take time and ongoing commitment from everyone as well. So that’s really interesting to hear.

I was wondering, Rebekah, if you wanted to add anything about – maybe from your perspective, how did this program come together? What kind of things did you see as getting from this program to – or getting from agencies coming together to where we’re heading, towards the RCT evaluation?

REBEKAH GRACE: Yeah. So I would like to expand a little on some of the issues Jayne mentioned. And particularly the amount of work and goodwill and trust that went into the development of the shared program. As a researcher, it was actually a really extraordinary experience to see such generosity and willingness on the part of three different organisations, so three different NGOs, who were all independently delivering their own volunteer program, who came together in one space, and developed – I mean, we’ve called it a best practise volunteer home visiting program.

So essentially what we mean when we say that is that we work together to look at every element of the program. From how many visits happen, what training happens, what sort of process tools and procedures and policies – you know, every aspect of this program was considered together. And we worked together on determining what we felt were the strongest practices in each of the different organisations and to bring those together into one program.

So I just think that was an extraordinary experience. There was such an openness in terms of sharing of information and resource. And then a willingness – it was always a collective decision that this was the best way to go, we’ll all adopt that practise. So what started as three similar but different programs, became one exceptional program. And there was a massive codesign process as part of that, not only with leaders and representatives from the different organisations, but with other stakeholders. So we spoke to volunteers, for example, and we developed quite a sophisticated theory of change as part of that work. So it was a huge amount of work that happened in that early establishment phase.

And I really think it’s a credit to the partner organisations in this work. So Benevolent Society, Save the Children, and Karitane, who were willing to come together. And of course, you can’t do a randomised control trial really, or it’s hard to do a randomised control trial unless you know exactly what the intervention is and how it’s being delivered. So that was essential in terms of leading to the randomised control trial that we were all with fidelity delivering the same program, staying true to the core components of that program, and knew what we were evaluating. So quite an achievement to establish that, to manualise it, and to implement it with fidelity across seven sites in three different states of Australia. It was quite a significant piece of work.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Yeah. I’m a little bit blown away trying to think about how that would happen in many different situations. It sounds like an ideal that we often aim for. And I think that’s why we’re so excited to hear from you today. It happened, and it happened over a period of time.

REBEKAH GRACE: It makes this work very unique. Yes. And I haven’t had that experience in my career in quite the same way. People are often quite protective of their IP, and not wanting to give away too much. Certainly wanting to feel a sense of ownership of what they’ve developed. But the fact that we were willing to co-own – to own together a program that we delivered. Also amazing – I don’t know if there are researchers listening, but amazing as a researcher to be so involved in the implementation phase. We did not, in the project, have an experience where the research team sat over here and the implementation people, the service providers sat over here. We were absolutely embedded in supporting implementation in – and I can talk about that more. I won’t take up too much more time now. But certainly an extensive foundational stage.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Yeah. And I think that –

JAYNE MEYER TUCKER: Can I just quickly add, Joanna.


JAYNE MEYER TUCKER: Sorry, can I just quickly add that as Rebekah has explained that so well, the other part of that equality was a lot of that work was done before there was any funding allocation for the randomised control trial or even the program. So it just shows you the absolute commitment to the purpose. And that’s how you get trust. Rebekah used that wonderful phrase ‘trust’. That is how you get trust. Absolute commitment to the purpose. Yes, we needed to add the funding on in due course, but a lot of that work was done beforehand.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: I think that’s a really interesting point. And as someone who’s taught mostly in health promotion space and health promotion program planning and evaluation, I think we teach that having the program documented and defined and really well developed is a really solid foundation. It becomes this foundation for any evaluation. And I think, Rebekah, what you’ve highlighted there is the work that went into developing – and you used the term ‘manualised program’ – but documenting the best practise and having people agree on the approach is a really great foundation, as you’ve talked about. But it sounds like a lot of effort went into that stage. How did you move from the collaboration on the program implementation to doing the RCT? And I think that’s another step.

REBEKAH GRACE: It is. But you know, the idea of the randomised control trial was present from the beginning. So even when we were doing that early establishment work, everybody knew that it was in preparation for a randomised control trial. So we actually decided on that method quite early. We basically decided to go for gold. I know that the organisations were worried about the sustainability of the program and the importance of very high quality, rigorous research to be able to demonstrate it’s effectiveness. But with the hope that that would then help them to be able to sustain the program and attract interest and funding as part of that program. So the idea of the RCT was present from the beginning.

What all of that lovely establishment work did was give us a chance to really build trust and relationship, because quite a lot of trust is needed when you’re going to launch into something like a randomised control trial. So I think by the end of that establishment phase, we knew everybody so well. And not just the leading representatives from organisations. We as a research team had already been to all the sites many times, spoken to their volunteers. Lots of work and investment in building relationships across the organisation. So that helped pave the way.

We felt very strongly that there was a need for highly rigorous research. What was happening at that point in time was that there’d been quite a growth in the strength of the research around sustained nursing home visiting in particular. The professional home visiting. And the evidence for the effectiveness of nurse home visiting is very strong. And so there was a tendency in the field to compare volunteer home visiting with nurse home visiting. And to say, well, why would we support a volunteer home visiting program? We know that all the evidence is pointing to the effective of a professional home visiting program. So let’s head in that direction and invest there.

And the argument we really wanted to put forward was that these are not approaches that are in competition with each other. That there’s room for them on a service landscape. And that volunteer home visiting is specifically targeting families who need some support, who need some additional support. But they’re not yet requiring a professional level of support. And of course, when there is a need for professional support, then they’re referred on or that’s when those professional home visiting programs come into play. So we were batting in the research space a conception that these were approached that were in competition.

So what we wanted to be able to do was demonstrate that they’re serving different populations. And this was also potentially an effective way to support families. And a different set of families who are also in need of support. So that was a really important part of the thinking behind the randomised control trial. Also, we were very aware that there had been a randomised control trial of volunteer home visiting conducted in the UK, and it was Jacqueline Barnes that led that study. And they weren’t able to demonstrate effectiveness or significant results. And so we met with Jacqueline and spoke to her about her study. And she expressed concern. She felt that the reason that they didn’t achieve significant results was because they weren’t successful in implementing the program with fidelity. It was being implemented in all sorts of random ways that were hard to measure in lots of different spaces.

So she said to us that she didn’t think that the findings necessarily reflected the ineffectiveness of volunteer home visiting, but potentially the ineffectiveness of the implementation of that particular program. So Jacqueline Barnes came on as a chief investigator on our project and was really keen to be involved. And that part of that manualisation, that’s part of why we made sure that we had a really strong program that was being delivered with fidelity. So I guess that’s the journey in some ways. That early establishment phase, some piloting work that we did, and then launching with great courage into the randomised control trial.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: With great courage. I like that. I will just briefly pick up – so you really – I mean, I probably didn’t need convincing, but the establishment phase and setting up the partnership as well as the manualised program sound like really key aspects of the early phases there.

REBEKAH GRACE: Yeah. Look, ultimately even research is about relationships, right? Like service is about relationships. Research is about relationships. And so it was absolutely about all of those processes. But the relationships that were built between us as part of those – because it’s a very big deal to decide to do a randomised control trial. And I’m not sure whether we’ll come back and talk about that some more, but for service organisations it’s very uncomfortable methodology. So having that trust there. And investment for them to be able to see that we were willing – that we were as invested as they were in doing this work and in doing high quality work. That was really important to be able to take that step.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: I think you’ve pre-empted my next question.

REBEKAH GRACE: Oh, I’m sorry.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Because – no, that’s okay. That’s perfect. So we do know that there can be many challenges to conducting an RCT in community settings. And that’s because it’s not like doing it in a hospital with medications. You’re not just giving someone this pill or that pill. There’s a lot of moving parts. And I’m sure a lot of our audience would understand that and the work that they do. And so randomised control trials are not necessarily a design that lends itself easily to real world settings. How did you – and I think this is probably a question mostly for Rebekah. How did you set up the trial and how did you I guess make it work in this case?

REBEKAH GRACE: Okay. So we did what’s called a pragmatic randomised control trial. So when we speak about pragmatic, so people think about RCTs in a very pure sense that you refer to drug trials and such, where there’s a lot of ability – it’s quite a lab setting in a way. And a lot of ability to control lots of variables. So a pragmatic randomised control trial essentially accepts that there are going to be lots of moving parts and different variables. So the three things that made it a pragmatic randomised control trial is that we left open the recruiting of the full range of families who would normally be offered a place in this program. So we didn’t restrict the eligibility or the exclusion criteria in terms of families. We just let that happen the way that it would normally happen.

We also didn’t have a true control group. What we had is the services as usual group. So in a pure – in a drug trial, for example, the control group is given a placebo. So they’re given no treatment, in terms of a potent ingredient in the drug that they receive. So in a pure randomised control trial, the intervention group receives an intervention, and the control groups receives nothing. Well, that is not how this was ever going to work in the real world. So what we have is a services as usual group. So a group of families who receive and can access all the usual supports and services within the community that they need. And then, we had services as usual plus VFC group. So that was the intervention group. So really, we were looking at how VFC improved outcomes or contributed to positive outcomes for families on top of all of the different services and supports that they would usually receive. So that that’s also something that characterises a pragmatic randomised control trial, that there’s an acceptance that all of the families will be receiving some form of support in different ways.

And the third characteristic of a randomised control trial is around accepting that it’s real-world implementation and there may be some adaptation of the program. So we were looking to ensure that the core elements of the program were being delivered in exactly the same way in all of our different sites. But we knew that there would be some adaption from one site to the next, depending on environmental, cultural, local contexts. And we were very careful to track that. To understand that and to track that.

So that’s one really important part of the answer to your question, which is around how to do an RCT in this space. The other is the level of investment that needed to be made in a whole lot of different ways. So we had to bring these organisations along with us. And that we had to bring the whole organisation along with us. So we went and started delivering research training to all of the volunteers, to all of the program managers, to all of the middle managers, to boards, to senior managers within organisations. We needed everybody. We couldn’t just negotiate this in a boardroom with the senior representatives. We needed everybody to come on this journey with us. So the research team travelled across all the sites, we delivered multiple trainings multiple times a year, to keep everybody with us and to bring us along.

We also engaged in interagency network meetings. So this program depends on referral from other programs. So we also invested as a research team quite a lot of time in going to those interagency meetings in all of the different sites and locations to help everybody else connected to the program also understand what we were doing and to keep those referrals coming. And to understand the importance of doing this kind of research. Because you can understand we actually did have some referral networks dry up, and that was part of the struggle of the study. Because other organisations didn’t want to refer a family who could potentially be randomised into the services as usual. The control. And so we needed to bring a lot of people on this journey.

So I would say that a huge percentage of the research time went to building those relationships, bringing everybody on the journey. We called it research-mindedness. So we were looking to build a culture of research-mindedness in understanding research, how it happens, why it’s important. And feeling invested and supported and supportive of the research process. So it was much, much bigger than going in and collecting data. It was really about bringing everybody on a journey with us.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Yeah. I think – I will ask a little bit more about challenges, but I think you’ve touched on some really important things about if getting people involved in the RCT means having people referred to the program, then of course you need to talk to the other agencies about what’s going on. And build that relationship there as well.

REBEKAH GRACE: Yeah, that’s right.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: I’ve got another couple of challenges listed here that we might go into, but I think you’ve started talking about them. I just wondered, Jayne, if there’s anything else you wanted to add about some of those challenges? Because I’d really like to talk to Angela about those too. But did you want to add anything now about challenges from the research perspective?

JAYNE MEYER TUCKER: What I can point to, there is a slide that will be available, and it actually resembles highs and lows, basically. And over the ten years it actually has the windows of almost like date times, where we actually confronted some things such as the referrals not being as we thought they were going to be. Or we actually had to have a timeline of where as a result of those referrals drying up, we therefore were hitting a timeline of – an RCT or any trial, you have a window of when you can recruit. And then obviously serviced applied. And we were starting to hit timelines of where we were going to have a negative result from the referrals.

So I think what I’d point out in the highs and lows is at those crunch times – and we actually used to use the word ‘prickly’. And those prickly times, the key way of smoothing them and getting over them is communication. And you cannot say things enough. You cannot talk to people enough about the same thing, repetitively, to try and ease yourself around what I call the prickly times. So it’s not always relative to – funding can sometimes be part of it, but it’s not always that. It can simply be in the window of this program, we had three changes of CEOs, we had to changes in universities. And this is due to people moving their positions. We had two changes in the actual corporate that was assisting with the social return on impact.

So there was change, change, change, change. And communication was absolutely key. So that slide will be very useful for people to look at, because you can see over the ten years what those prickly times have been. But if I summarise it, communication is the way that you smooth them out.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Jayne, I think a lot of those challenges would be very familiar to our audience. The prickly times. I’m sure people could name a lot more of their own prickly times as well. Angela, I would love to hear a bit more about your perspective on this now, because I understand that your program or your area of volunteers, your group of volunteers, managed to do quite successful recruitment to this program. But it wasn’t always easy. You must have seen a lot of this firsthand as a volunteer coordinator. We’ve heard from Rebekah and we’ve heard from Jayne, but I’d love to hear your perspective. What was your experience? How did you get your practitioners and your volunteers on board for this?

ANGELA STYMAN: Okay, so to be honest, my initial response was definitely concern, as I had never participated in an RCT before. But along with that, I definitely did have some ethical concerns. I have a duty of care to provide families with a holistic model to make sure that they receive all the resources that I have at hand. Participating in the RCT did mean that some of the families would not receive the support of a volunteer. So that was quite a concern for me, definitely at the beginning.

However, I was really hopeful that we would be able to show what we already believe, and that is a volunteer family support program has a huge impact, not only on the families but also on the volunteers. So I actually came into the participation of the RCT a little bit later on, towards the end. So during that time I was actually already working in an established organisation. And that organisation was already delivering a volunteer family support program in the community for over 30 years. And what we found is that there was already an embedded expectation from service providers that all families that they would refer to us would receive face to face emotional or practical support from a trained volunteer.

And because we were working to a strict deadline to recruit families into the RCT – as I said, I came on a little bit later on down the track – I believe that the service providers that we were working with did not receive enough education about the research. How that was going to be implemented, and what it meant for the families that they were referring. And I think because of that lack of education and also a bit of confusion, as the families started to get allocated into the control group, the referrers found out and they didn’t like it. And they stopped referring. So that was definitely a huge challenge that we faced.

We did overcome that by tapping into another organisation called the IPC program. So that’s Integrated Perinatal Care. And that is a program that was run from our local hospital. So that program referred families that were in need of additional supports, but there was not that expectation that they would receive the volunteer. So by utilising the referrals, it made it possible for us to be able to meet our target numbers. So that was definitely a positive outcome.

For me personally, the greatest hurdle that I faced, and I know that the team faced, was the caseload ratio. Due to accepting all the hospital referrals so we would make sure that we had the numbers for the RCT, we were also accepting referrals from the service providers that continued to refer. But with the expectation that we would not put the families through into the study. But to keep the relationships, we didn’t want to knock back the referrals. So we were taking referrals through the IPC program, we were taking referrals from service providers and not putting them through to the study. And my caseload personally exceeded 106 families. So that was definitely a challenge.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: It sounds like you’re echoing some of the things that Jayne and Rebekah have already said about how the importance of educating the networks are really critical to getting them on board. But it sounds like the different groups you had involved, one was the longstanding referring partner who found it really difficult to consider this idea of usual care or you don’t get the volunteers maybe. Compared to your new partners, who was like, “Oh, this is a bonus.” Even if they don’t get it.

ANGELA STYMAN: Absolutely.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: So that was really interesting. And then of course the day to day practical challenges of managing that. Yeah, I can see that. Sorry, you were going to say something else?

ANGELA STYMAN: No, that’s okay. My train of thought just left me then, sorry.


JAYNE MEYER TUCKER: Joanna, can I just add – because one of the things is, as I hear Angela speak, she reminds me that we could not have planned that this was going to happen. And if I think back to that ten years ago where you do your best to sort of think of all the possibles – know possibles – you can’t think of everything. And it comes back to the ability for the group to be ever so focused on the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing. And then think creatively. And thank goodness, people like Angela, who were part of those conversations and were willing to take the steps that needed to be done. So no-one kind of – and this is the unique part of it I think. No single organisation made it just theirs. All of the organisations made it ours.

And it might be that Angela and co were the ones that were going to be stepping up and doing the action for that particular window, but that happened all over the place. And so there were different points and times where different groups had to take those steps. So I think that that’s another fundamental part of thinking innovatively and you can’t plan for it all. So don’t expect.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Yeah, definitely. And that resonates with the idea of a pragmatic RCT where you document and you list everything that you hadn’t expected. Angela, I think one of the other questions I’d like to just check in about, because when you started describing your passion for the work and how important your accountability to families are, I wanted to see if you noticed any particular outcomes for families from being involved in the trial?

ANGELA STYMAN: Absolutely. So some of the outcomes for families that did receive the support of the volunteer was quite evident. So just a reduce in social isolation as they felt connected and supported by the volunteer that they were linked with. So that volunteer would provide the emotional and practical support to that family. They would also connect them to the community by making sure that they were aware and also going with them to local playgroups. Going to visit their local child and family health nurse. Library for story time. So they were really connecting the family also to the community.

We also feel that we witnessed just an increase in the child safety and the developmental outcomes as the volunteer would role model positive parenting. Whether it be through play, safe sleeping in the cot, just safety around the home in general. And also just noticing the attachment between mum and child, or children, just having that attachment evident there. And especially as well because the volunteers are also role modelling, as I said, the positive parenting. So definitely a lot of positive outcomes for the families that we witnessed.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Fantastic. That’s really great to hear. And it leads nicely into my next question, because I think – I mean, I’m sure everyone in the audience is really interested to know what the outcomes of the RCT were and what impacts were found. What the impact of the program was. I haven't discussed this with the presenters, but one of the questions we’ve been getting quite a few times is about what measures you used to demonstrate those outcomes? So I wonder if anyone can touch on that? I was going to see maybe – Jayne, if you wanted to start maybe? Do you want to describe some of the impacts? I think everyone might have something to contribute to this one.

JAYNE MEYER TUCKER: Yeah. And look, I’m going to talk about the social impact evaluation. And Rebekah can do the RCT, because there were some significant findings there which were incredibly exciting. But I even think this social impact evaluation is exciting itself. For every dollar invested, a $5.42 return for those families who are vulnerable. Now, that is just such great news. Because obviously if you are doing such a trial and you want to ensure that things are worthy – you know, we were able to demonstrate that it wasn’t just anecdotally a nice feel. It actually was something that could contribute further into society and communities.

And it’s so good – and Angela will probably explain this further as well about reducing social isolation. That was such a wonderful gift, I suppose, we felt that we gained rolling out this program. Because when you see a community member, particularly parents, being more confident around their parenting, become more engaged in their communities, and less socially isolated, well, we all know – and I’m making assumptions here, but I’m pretty confident that many people who are listening in – then that makes a change – a massive change. So not only that investment, but also the social isolation. But I would love Rebekah to share the significant findings because that’s exciting.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Yeah, sure. Is that all right, Rebekah? Do you have some things on hand?

REBEKAH GRACE: Of course. Absolutely, of course. So we measured outcomes for both the families and for the volunteers. Because of course another thing that’s really unique about a program like this is there are actually two groups within the community who benefit. There are the families who receive the program, but also the volunteers who have the opportunity to deliver the program. So we were looking at outcomes across both groups. So in terms of the families, you asked a question about the outcomes that we examined. And for anyone who’s interested, I can obviously provide the details of the instruments that we used.

But just to give a general overview, our two primary outcome variables with families were around community connectedness and parenting confidence. So they were our two primary outcome variables. But we had secondary outcome variables as well. So we looked at physical and mental health. We looked at general parent wellbeing, a sense of parent empowerment. We looked at the relationship between parents and children. And we also looked at the sustainability of family routines. And we saw that for all of our families, for both the control or the services and usual group, and the intervention group, there was actually improvement over time on all of those variables. That’s a really great thing. The comparison group also – control group also improved across all of those variables over time.

But for the Volunteer Family Connect group, where we reached statistical significance in terms of even more significant improvement over time, was specifically around parenting sense of confidence, social support – so those are out two primary outcome variables. Around a sense of optimism. So feeling that their life was improving and will continue to improve over time. And also in terms of wellbeing. So across those four outcomes, we saw statistically significant findings. And in this space, statistical significance is so exciting because this is services as usual comparison. So it’s about showing the added benefit of Volunteer Family Connect on top of the existing range of services. So some really strong and interesting findings.

We also had a fantastic range of qualitative findings. We had quite an in-depth qualitative piece of work as part of this study. And that’s where we learnt a lot about the importance of this program. Especially for families who have children with disabilities. So for example, we learnt anecdotally through the qualitative data – we didn’t test this with quantitative data – the children, where there were some development concerns, were being seen earlier by early intervention professionals and such. So there’s some lovely findings as part of our qualitative data that we will pursue and look at moving forward and as this program scales up and is delivered in different contexts.

In terms of the volunteers, we looked at a similar range of outcomes. So we looked at connectedness to community, we looked at sense of social support, mental and physical health, wellbeing, looked at their motivations for volunteering. So, we had a range of outcome variables there. And we also had statistically significant findings for the volunteers. So the volunteers were compared to a comparison group of matched peers who were not volunteering anywhere. So not a control. It wasn’t an RCT for the volunteers. It was a comparison group study. And there we also found significant results as that related to wellbeing and to community connectedness and to mental health, and also a sense of purpose in their life. So some statistically significant findings also for that group of participants. So we’re feeling very confident and happy with some fantastic findings from the RCT.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: That’s really exciting. I have one quick question about this. We’re getting some questions through about where this work is published. We might be able to share links afterwards, but is there –

REBEKAH GRACE: Yeah, we can. So we’ve published a couple of papers, but we need to publish a lot more. We need to get on with that. But we certainly have published our key findings. So we’ve published the RCT findings from the families. So I’ll make sure I have that linked to you, and people can have a look at that paper.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Yeah, great. Thank you. I did want to touch on some of the impacts maybe for the team and the volunteers. Or not the – we talked about the volunteers. Some of the ones that weren’t measured. What were some of the things that came out of participating in the trial itself rather than the program? Maybe Angela, is there anything that – whether there’s some opportunities that came out of it, or – you can choose which one here – opportunities that came out of it, or what was it like to deliver the program after the end of the trial?

ANGELA STYMAN: Absolutely. So I think when we’re talking about actual volunteers, for me personally I did not have any problems actually recruiting volunteers to participate in the study. A lot of volunteers are quite willing to support and help in any way that they can possible. Some of the benefits that we did see for the volunteers, due to participating in the Volunteer Family Connect program, before being linked with a family, they actually undergo quite intensive training that is delivered to them so they have the skills necessary and the confidence to be able to go out and support a family.

And we have found that a lot of our volunteers have really – it’s sparked that interest and they’ve gone on to do further studies, especially in the community sector, which has been wonderful. And also just by volunteering, it gives them some experience back in the workforce, and they’ve gained employment. So they are some amazing positives that have definitely come out from the volunteers.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: They sound like really great examples of those. Maybe not ones that we’ve chosen to measure this time, but some really nice outcomes for the volunteers. Thank you. And I wonder if Jayne or Rebekah wanted to comment on maybe the implementation now? If there’s anything from the trial phase that you’re learning to implement now? Just briefly, because I’ve got some other questions as well.

JAYNE MEYER TUCKER: I’m just going to say, loads. Okay, there’s the answer to that. Loads. And again, could we have predicted that? No. I’m going to do a little quick summary that of course COVID came into the window just as we had completed. So obviously with an RCT you have a year really of the writing up of the understanding the findings, that immediate sort of learning. But we hit COVID almost immediately as part of our implementation period. Now, I’m actually going to flip that into a positive, because I believe – and this is me only two years in, I know, but I believe that if we hadn’t had the rigor of the information and data that we had and that great connection of the group, we possibly wouldn’t have been able to have sprung so swiftly into the online – and of course, there’s kudos to the service organisations who were turning many of their services online. But there was a very swift ability to turn that online for volunteers.

And of course, the university – and Rebekah can speak more to this – developed an even next level of the learnings through an online training called Foundations for Connection. So none of this was really part of our implementation plan. But when you’ve got solid data, and you are yet again confronted with another – I often use the word plot twist. You know, it’s like you’re heading down a certain direction and then, whoops, there’s the plot twist. Collectively how do we move around this? So we’ve had in the very early stages of our implementation period a pretty big plot twist. So how we’re landing with that now, we’re currently answering some of the challenges as to how you do implement post the randomised control trial, in a period where there’s been a global pandemic.

Well, I’ve looked in lots of textbooks, and I wasn’t around in the Spanish Flu period, so I actually can’t find the answer to that. But I know collectively we’re going to write some of that story. So I don’t know if, Rebekah, if you want to add any more to that?

REBEKAH GRACE: No. Well, I suppose I can add just a little, but what we do have now obviously is such a well manualised program. So we have now an opportunity to scale up and make that available in other communities, where obviously you’re looking to always embed research in some form. And we’ve certainly got collected data and been looking at the impact of COVID and the impact of an online form of delivery for Volunteer Family Connect. And we don’t have those findings to share with you just yet, but we will always embed research as part of this work. And looking at it in diverse communities, we’re implementing it in Aboriginal community now, very specifically within an Aboriginal context. And with other population groups as well. So really exciting days forward in terms of continuing to grow the program as it is. But also to look at its appropriateness and what would be required for it to be adapted to different contexts.

So hopefully – I mean, this is not a program of work that came to the end with the RCT. Still lots of partnership between researchers and the implementation specialist.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: I love that there are more things coming out of this that – I mean, of course there always will be, but I love that it’s still going and the partnerships are still going to look at different aspects now of the program. We’ve got just over 10 minutes before we’ll end the main part of this webinar. I mean, I’ve got quite a few questions coming through that I will ask. But I think it would be nice to ask what advice would you give others wanting to do an RCT? This could be one word, it could be three words, it could be a little bit longer. And I’ve left this one open. Who wants to start with that one?

JAYNE MEYER TUCKER: I’ll start the ball rolling. From the point of view that yes, your methodology is important. And Rebekah made it very clear that we built that into our conversations right from the very word go. But I actually think there’s a stage before it. And I think it’s that commitment and that focus on what is the problem you’re trying to solve? What is the reason? I used those three words before, your contribution, the connection, and the equity. What makes that come alive? So if you are going to step into this space, make sure you get those things very, very clear with the group.

And you cannot do this on your own, by they way. You can’t do it on your own. So don’t go in with that attitude that you can do it on your own. And definitely don’t go into the attitude of, oh well, we’ll run the show and the others can come and play. Everyone has to step into this space collectively together. And then of course, don’t be frightened of the RCT pathway. But obviously make your decisions on your methodology, what best fits the scenario. So I hope what we have done has been able to demonstrate that you can have the gold standards. It’s tough, but you make your decision on what do you need to really provide that evidence. So that’s my beginning. I don’t know who would like to pick up next?

REBEKAH GRACE: I guess my tip would be the importance of networks and relationships and bringing everybody on the journey. So investing the time as [inaudible] there’s a whole lot of researchers, not just my team, but a new wave of researchers who are working very differently to that traditional model where researchers stay very separate and come in and collect the data and leave. And analyse it somewhere hiding in an office. I mean, we certainly don’t work in that way. And I know that there are other research teams as well. And it’s about finding those research teams that are willing to run training, to talk to your partners, to worth with you across the organisation to help everybody to understand the importance of the method like this. And it really does take the commitment at every level of an organisation.

And I think that takes quite a bit of researcher investment at times as well, which is a really lovely – it’s a good thing. It’s not a bad thing. But that would be my primary tip, as an important thing to know.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Thanks, Rebekah. Angela, did you want to add anything about your advice, to others wanting to get involved?

ANGELA STYMAN: I think Jayna and Rebekah have definitely covered it. However, I would just like to add as well, for me personally, I know that prior to engaging in the RCT, and referring families into the RCT, I definitely – if I had my chance to do it again, I definitely would have gone around and personally spoken to service providers, just to make sure that they’re educated and they have a clear understanding exactly what this is going to mean and the reasons why we’re doing it. So that’s definitely something that I would take on board for next time.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Great. And it sounds like – I mean, you’d be a great person to convince them of wanting to have a go as well.


JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: We’ve had a couple of questions from registration and also the live questions. There’s some similar ones coming through. I think this is an important one, just to check, to cover and just see, because I haven’t actually discussed this with you. Were first nations volunteers involved in the trial? And were there any finding specific to working with Aboriginal families? Because Rebekah, you mentioned you’re working on that next stage of implementation with Aboriginal community members. So just wondering from the volunteer perspective?

REBEKAH GRACE: So I don’t have it in front of me. I know that we had about 15 Indigenous families who were part of the trial. So I mean, a fairly small amount really. And I know that there were at least two or three volunteers. But the reason I know that is because I’m picturing them, not because I have in front of me the actual [inaudible]. I need to check – so it was actually quite a small number of Indigenous volunteers and a small number of Indigenous families. And so we weren’t able to run analysis or look specifically at that – Indigenous people as a sub-group of the larger study. But that’s a big part of the reason.

So anecdotally, I mean, they were very positive experiences and our qualitative data is really lovely around that work and around that engagement. But that’s part of why we’re doing a study that’s running currently that is being run entirely within an Indigenous community with Indigenous volunteers and Indigenous families. So we will have some more detailed findings. But in terms of our original RCT, what we know is that Indigenous families equally, in the same way as the rest of the group equally showed positive outcomes. There wasn’t anything that was distinct about that group in terms of outcomes.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Yeah, but small numbers. So exciting to hear about the next phase too.

REBEKAH GRACE: That’s right.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: And I think we can fit in another question. I think, Angela, you touched on this one a little bit. We’ve got a question about how difficult was training and vetting of volunteers. And was it hard to ensure support was aligned with the service ethos? So how did you get everyone on the same page and how did the recruitment process go?

ANGELA STYMAN: Yep. I think as well, we had a benefit because we were already an established business, already running a volunteer – or sorry, a Volunteer Family Connect program. So we already had approximately 60 volunteers participating in the program prior to the RCT. So we did find that the majority of the volunteers, as I said earlier, were more than happy to participate in the RCT. We made sure that our volunteers – we were engaged with them on a regular basis. We also did what we called a coffee chat. So we got all the volunteers to come in once a month just so they feel part of the team, part of the group. Answer any questions that they may have. And also just engage with them on how they’re coping with supporting a family. And the volunteers just share stories amongst themselves.

So I think just that connected feeling, that they belong to the team, really helped us retain the volunteer numbers throughout the RCT as well.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: That’s fantastic. Yeah, thanks for describing that. I think there was quite a few people online who maybe work in or alongside volunteer programs who are really interested in some of those aspects too. Thank you. I’m going to throw in one that I think we could do quite quickly, and then I think I’ll wrap up after that. How did you manage – probably a Rebekah question. Let’s see. How did you manage attribution – so this is deciding if the program had an affect for the participants, especially given the presence of confounding factors. So things going on for families outside in the environment or the social factors. The different conditions for the families. So how did you know that it was due to the volunteer program rather than just the different families?

REBEKAH GRACE: Well, so what we did is – well, we did our best to track as much of that as we could, and then we ran an analysis to compare the attributes or the characteristics of the different groups to look at the different services that the comparison group were accessing compared to the intervention. And we weren’t able to find statistically significant differences. So that’s a good thing. So that means that we weren’t – so that those groups statistically were similar. So it was really just that analysis that left us confident. But of course, there are always limitations in terms of research. It’s certainly a limitation in terms of a pragmatic randomised control trial, but we have to operate in the real world. So all we can do is measure it and analyse it the best that we can. And we were really confident that there were, those groups were statistically similar in as many ways as we could measure.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: I was going to say, do you know off the top of your head what kind of factors you could account for? Or is that a long –

REBEKAH GRACE: I do have that detail, but I feel like I’d have to pull my statistician in here.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Sure. Sorry. On the spot. All right.

REBEKAH GRACE: But I could provide that for you. And some of that detail is in that paper that I’ve referred to as well.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Yeah, great. I think we’re getting a bit of a list. We’ll make sure we put the resources together to be available afterwards.

JAYNE MEYER TUCKER: Can I just sneak in there, Joanna, and just say that at that beginning stages, when we were talking about the RCT, we actually went into it all accepting that we may actually do this research and be shown that volunteering doesn’t work. That you can’t step into this space with the anecdotal heart that you’re going to prove that this will – and have some evidence that informs that it works. So that’s actually I think – the attribution sort of question, we had to accept that we may learn that what we think is the best thing actually isn’t. And so you have to be willing for that as well. As you step into these spaces.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: I think it is one of the big challenges to evaluation for a lot of these programs. So well done, and thanks for acknowledging that, that fear of what it might find was acknowledged and discussed early on too. So I might just follow up on one of those questions we had earlier about the measurement or measuring outcomes. The kind of outcomes. Rebekah, this might be one for you. So people have asked more specifically about outcome measures, particular tools that you might have used. Is that something you can answer now? Or is that written down somewhere that we can send people to?

REBEKAH GRACE: Absolutely. I could answer that now, but I won’t bore you with a long list of measure. But what I will do is point you towards some of the papers that we’ve written. So we’ve published a protocol for this study, JMIR research protocols. Protocols journal. And the findings are in the JMIR Paediatrics and Parenting journal. So in both of those articles there’s a full list of all of the outcome measures that we used. So probably the easiest thing is to refer you to those articles and you’ll find them all.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Fantastic. I think we’ll be able to make sure there’s links available by the time we upload the webinar as well. So hopefully we can do that.

REBEKAH GRACE: That’s be great. Thank you.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: No problems. I think this one is a little bit more for – maybe for Angela and Jayne. How did you manage child safeguarding issues and privacy of families through the RCT and in the program? Who wants to have a go?

JAYNE MEYER TUCKER: I’ll just start by setting the scene that none of – the program can’t be static. And therefore this is a great example, because child safe organisation language wasn’t even around at that point in time when the trial began. But of course when we got to our implementation period, it became very much the expectation for any organisation to have a child safe – or be a child safe organisation. So therefore that whole framing is not only an expectation, but that dialogue is actually currently being put into what I would term now as our version 3 of the manual. So there’s going to be other things that will come along like that. But we will continue to have that updating – a continuous improvement approach. Or continuous quality improvement approach. But Angela can probably give a really good example of what that looks like on the ground, particularly around the training with the volunteers.

ANGELA STYMAN: Yep. Thanks, Jayne. So prior to linking our volunteers with families, all of our volunteers go through an intense training program. And part of that training program, we make mandatory that they must complete all the child protection training modules. All of our volunteers, again, before entering the home, they have all their police clearances done. And as well as their police clearance, they also have to do their working with children check. All the volunteers come in and have interviews with us as well, prior to the training. So we make sure that they’re equipped with all of that, to keep all the children in the home safe.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Fantastic. And I think you raised important points. There’s a lot of stuff already in place for training. But also with the program, it’s evolving in the context as well, and making sure it keeps up to date with a lot of those policies. Thank you. This is another one about the program itself, I think. So it might be one for you again, Angela. How do volunteers manage when they’re engaging with a family and that you find the client needs fall outside of the boundaries of the program? Does that happen and how do you manage that?

ANGELA STYMAN: It has happened in the past. I mean, obviously when we get a referral sent through to us, we make sure that the family fits quite a strict criteria. We also speak to the family on the phone. We go out and do home visit assessments with that family. We have paperwork as well that we need to fill out with that family. We establish some goals and talk about the family’s needs and how we can best support them. We then link our volunteer. So our volunteer visits for two hours once a week. At the end of every single visit, the volunteer does fill out a home visit report. That report then gets sent back to us in the office. We view that report. It gets filed into the family file.

So really, that report will outline to us how that visit went, what actually happened during that visit, and it can also highlight to us whether there are any concerns or any needs or any changes within the family dynamics. If we felt that there was any changes, we would definitely make contact with that family straight away. I also wanted to add, during the volunteer training, we also let our volunteers know that if there are any concerns, don’t wait until you fill out that paperwork and send it to us. Make sure you give us a call straight away so that can be addressed immediately.

If there was an instance where the family needs did change, we would then withdraw the volunteer for a period of time and refer the family on to a more intense service to make sure that their needs were met. And then the volunteer can always go back in and continue to support the family later on down the track.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Fantastic. Did anyone else want to add anything? There’s a lot of good information there.

JAYNE MEYER TUCKER: Just a phrase that we tend to use – and this is a common phrase that others will know as well, but it’s that step up, step down. So Volunteer Family Connect plays a role in that space. It helps families who are just not yet in that acute window. Or those families who are stepping down from being in the acute window. But those boundaries are incredibly important. And Angela just summarised there what I would call some integral work that happens by the program coordinator. And that’s the essence of what Volunteer Family Connect is, because there has been I suppose challenges in the world of volunteering, that those boundaries can be blurred. Well, that’s one of the key things that this program does not do. It’s very clear on those steps of what to take.

And again, families don’t come with that package of what their issues are. Sometimes you can’t plan for it, but we know what to do in case it arrives.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Thanks, Jayne. Thanks, Angela, for that. I’m going to pick one last question here. This is an interesting one. I hadn’t thought about it, but I’m going to see how you go with this one. So the age group for the Volunteer Family Connect is children from zero to five years. So the question is, have you considered expanding and working with older children? I mean, this comment is particularly about teenagers as a particular target group. But have you thought about different age groups for this type of program?

REBEKAH GRACE: That’s such a great question. I’m happy to answer that one, Joanna, is that okay?


REBEKAH GRACE: So we have done some of that thinking, because it’s such a lovely model, we have started doing some thinking about the application of that model with different groups within the community. So for example, we’ve been in discussions with people who have an interest in providing volunteering visiting to people in aged care, or to people who have children older than five. We have done a little bit of thinking about adolescents and just a little thinking about how interesting that could be and what it might look like. But what I do have to say is that we haven't done any research or codesign work or we haven’t actually put any figure around the design or looking at the program and how it would be implemented and how we would look at the effectiveness of its implementation for other population groups.

So that’s all work to happen as we both – right now the evidence is just around that early childhood group. But as part of our preparation for [inaudible] work, we have at the university developed what we call the Foundations for Connection program. I think Jayne mentioned it earlier in the webinar. And I know that Angela’s spoken quite a bit about the importance of really good and high quality training for volunteers. So we have put together an online volunteer training program that could be used by volunteers working within any aged group. So any volunteer really who’s working with vulnerable people could benefit or could potentially tap into this training.

It covers a range of issues from employing a strengths based approach, understanding disadvantage, boundaries and personal care. All of those kinds of topics that are really important for volunteers to have a grounding in. And that work is part of our preparation for potentially looking at this model in other contexts and for other population groups. But yeah, just to reiterate, the research evidence right now sits around the early childhood space.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Yeah, really interesting. Thanks, Rebekah. Good to know that thought is happening in these other spaces. Did anyone want to add anything to Rebekah’s response there?

JAYNE MEYER TUCKER: The only thing I would say from a practical implementation – and this is where we’re travelling at the moment with Volunteer Family Connect, that the online version of Foundations for Connection gives – let’s call it the basics of what a volunteer would need. But if you wanted to be a Volunteer Family Connect volunteer, there are some additional modules that you would need to do. Now, that can or may be delivered online, or it may be delivered face to face. And I have to admit that this is where it’s an organisational decision, and it tends to sit around the child safe or the child protection particular module that sometimes there is a choice to do that face to face. But it can be done online as well.

And I think that these are the implementation windows that we’re currently opening. But it’s been very, very useful to have had the Foundation for Connection to be almost part of that modulised approach. Because it helps with scaling up. And enabling this program to be available in locations around Australian and broader.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: Okay. Thank you very much, Jayne. Any last words there, Angela? Otherwise I’m almost ready to wrap up.

ANGELA STYMAN: No, I think we can wrap it up, thank you.

JOANNA SCHWARZMAN: No problems. Thanks, everyone. Particularly thanks to our presenters for taking the time to join us and share their insights, and to our audience for sharing their questions to guide this discussion. It’s been a fabulous learning experience for me. I’ve really looked forward to delving into different aspects of the program and the trial. And yeah, thank you so much, Jayne, Rebekah, and Angela. We look forward to seeing you, our audience, at the next webinar. Until then, stay safe and have a good week. And we’ll let everyone say goodbye. Thank you.

REBEKAH GRACE: Thank you so much.



ANGELA STYMAN: Thank you. Bye.




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Jayne Meyer Tucker

VFC Champion and Founder JMTinc 

My passion for volunteering and strong commitment for evidence informed practice comes from many decades of working in community/human services in both the northern and southern hemispheres. 

I am looking forward to sharing the experiences gained over the past decade of how to enable translational research at RCT level, maintain a long term constantly changing collaboration across many partners and implement these learnings during a global pandemic.

Rebekah Grace

Associate Professor Western Sydney University and Director of the Transforming early Education and Child Health (TeEACH) Research Centre at Western Sydney University and lead researcher on the ‘Volunteer Family Connect’ project.

My research is focused on the service and support needs of children and their families who experience adversity. I employ a cross-disciplinary, mixed-methods approach to research, and seek to move beyond the bounds of disciplinary silos to address complex challenges.

I am looking forward to sharing my experiences and insights into the conduct of a pragmatic RCT. The VFC project provides a great example of partnership, and the ways in which researchers and service organisations can work together to ensure impactful program delivery for families who experience adversity.

Angela Styman

Family Support Worker, Karitane

I am really looking forward to sharing my experience as a practitioner being involved in the RCT. It was not something I ever thought I would do and to be honest I was nervous about it. But it was well worth it. I have learned a lot and I feel more confident knowing the program we are delivering is really working for both volunteers and clients.


Joanna Schwarzman | Research Fellow, Child and Family Evidence

Research Fellow, Child and Family Evidence team, AIFS

My career interests have focused on generating and using evidence in practice to more effectively address population health challenges. Over recent years, I have worked in government, non-government and research roles to help identify and overcome the challenges to evaluation and using evidence to inform program planning, decision making and organisational learning.

I am looking forward to hearing examples of how different practitioners and organisations are overcoming the challenges of embedding research evidence into their work.


Featured image: GettyImages/Nikola Stojadinovic