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Senior Researcher and Departmental Lecturer, Dr Stephanie Tierney, explains how a best-fit framework synthesis was undertaken tor review papers on volunteering, as a way to support people's health and well-being.

qualitative analysis word in a dictionary. qualitative analysis concept. © Shutterstock

Dr Stephanie Tierney, Senior Researcher and Departmental Lecturer, Centre for Evidence Based Medicine.

Volunteering is proposed as one way of supporting health and well-being. Understanding how this happens is important if the benefits of volunteering are to be harnessed as part of public health interventions (such as social prescribing). To shed light on the potential of volunteering, we conducted a review of qualitative research that explored this topic. We found 2210 references from database searches, from which 335 were selected to be read in full. The final review drew on 54 papers. We wanted to complete the review within six months, so we could use its findings to inform a primary study we were going to conduct afterwards, using semi-structured interviews. To facilitate the process, we decided to undertake a best fit framework synthesis. This type of review can be produced in a relatively quick timeframe as it allows for the integration of ideas from a pre-existing model (a priori concepts) with those derived from reviewed literature (inductive concepts). We used the New Economics Foundation’s Five Ways to Well-Being to guide data extraction and synthesis. This framework acted as “a scaffold against which findings [from the reviewed literature were]…brought together and organised.” Findings from retrieved papers were explored using this framework; when they did not fit, a new concept was developed and the framework was amended. We undertook this process to highlight how the Five Ways to Well-Being relate to volunteering. We also produced a conceptual model to describe how the Five Ways to Well-Being, through volunteering, contribute to the development of a transformed identity, thereby improving people’s health and well-being. A copy of our conceptual model is included in the paper that reports on this review, which is published in the journal Health and Social Care in the Community.

There are a number of ways to undertake a synthesis of qualitative literature. These range from approaches that are aggregative, which summarise information, to ones that are configurative and strive to create a new understanding or interpretation from synthesising findings from several studies. Best fit framework synthesis is more towards the aggregative end of this continuum. Researchers need to be clear about which approach is best for the purpose of their particular review and its output, and the question(s) being addressed. This calls for an awareness of the range of options available and when they might be best applied. In June 2022, we are running a postgraduate module on qualitative synthesis. It will cover different approaches to synthesising qualitative studies and factors that may influence whether researchers use them for their own reviews. For further details on this module, please visit the following webpage or contact me ( as I will be leading it.


This project on volunteering was funded by the National Institute for Health Research School for Primary Care Research (NIHR SPCR) [Project Number 483]. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the funder or her host institution.