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An informal conversation and guide to the sometimes confusing world of volunteering.

Let’s postpone the national debate and start a little closer to home

Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of NCVO, recently called for a national debate about volunteering in public services, suggesting that at a time when our health and social care services are under great pressure, volunteering, both formal and informal, could be part of the solution. He said he doesn’t “…believe in putting limits on what volunteers can do, especially not based on ideological arguments about the role of the State…”

This received generally positive views across the sector, but at TimeBank we believe that the voluntary sector needs to address some rather more pragmatic issues that are closer to home before we embark on another national debate.

As a national volunteering charity we champion the role of volunteers – our own volunteers deliver some amazing projects. But when we look around, there is often too much lazy thinking around the engagement and deployment of volunteers. Dozens of “innovative and exciting” national volunteering initiatives and programmes have started over the last decade only to wind up after little or no interest. Many assumed that volunteers could be  the magic solution to many of society’s ills (with little or no evidence as to how they might be), and more tellingly that volunteers would want to participate. So how do we know that volunteers (or those yet to volunteer) want to be part of the solution to the challenges facing public services?

So our first suggestion would be to start by putting the volunteers first and listening to them rather than identifying a problem or challenge and saying “…let’s work out how volunteers can sort this out…”

Sir Stuart might not believe in the limits to what volunteers can and want to do, but our experience of delivering cutting-edge volunteering opportunities for the last 15 years, shows that our volunteers certainly do. If it looks and feels like they are being asked to do an unsuitable role – in public services or anywhere else - volunteers will vote with their feet. The freedom to choose to volunteer also carries with it the right not to. I was immediately reminded of a speech that Boris Johnson gave at a volunteering launch some years ago. The gist of it was that he had been invited to spend the day volunteering on a family farm. He arrived motivated and excited only to be handed a fork and told to spend the day mucking out the pig shed. He claimed he never volunteered again.

Furthermore, we can’t shy away from the impact on paid staff. While we are only too happy to say that volunteers should complement and supplement their work we need tried and tested mechanisms to ensure that volunteers are not used to displace paid staff or undercut their pay and conditions of service.

At TimeBank we feel strongly that volunteers should complement not replace paid staff but that they can be of immense help in areas where they can add value. Our volunteer mentors have supported young people moving from children’s to adult mental health services, for example. And we are now planning a new project which will provide mentoring support to young people with life-limiting or life-threatening illness, to help them make a successful transition from children’s hospices to greater independence and into adult care. This will be an extraordinarily challenging volunteering opportunity where young mentors will add support in a way that paid workers simply don’t have the capacity to do.

The voluntary sector also needs to examine its own approach to volunteering. This can be most evident in the commissioning process where voluntary sector organisations promote the added value of volunteers when in reality it can be little more than a poorly concealed attempt to reduce costs of delivery.

Perhaps most importantly, we would be concerned about those jobs, services or activities that the State has a statutory (or even moral) duty to provide. What protection is afforded to volunteers who do not enjoy the same protections under employment law as workers? Who will clarify and codify how, or even if, an employer and the volunteer can be held to account if the actions of volunteers in delivering  statutory services cause financial loss, inconvenience, pain or damage to reputation?

So please don't look at volunteers as the universal solution to all society’s problems. If your starting point is to identify the jobs no one else wants to do, as roles you can fob off on volunteers, they will simply ignore them. As part of your business planning cycle think strategically about why and where you want to involve volunteers. Then spend as much time considering operationally how volunteers are supported to deliver this. Create an infrastructure in which good volunteering can be supported and managed and create exciting, impactful opportunities. Then the volunteers will come.

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It was a tough start to the year - but we're thrilled with everything TimeBank has achieved

Every year I write a review of the year’s activity, but when I started looking at my diary this year I realised just what a tough start to 2016 we had here at TimeBank.  

I know looking across the sector that we weren’t alone – it’s been a challenging economic climate, a curious political time and frankly a year few of us will be sorry to see the back of.  

January saw a number of funders either delay funding bid decisions or reject them – this delaying of decisions seems to have become more and more prolific and I would make a plea for funders to realise just how tough this makes it for small organisations who rely on knowing what they have, not what they might have, in order to move forward, plan or make difficult decisions.  

The uncertainty of the funding climate made me take a new look at our structure – that review led to outsourcing some of our ‘core’ functions in line with finance and IT which we’ve done for some time. We felt it made sense for communications and fundraising to be on a ‘need’ basis so we can upsize and downsize more easily as new projects come on stream.  Fortunately we are lucky enough to be able to work with some of our former staff in a freelance capacity which works for them and for us so we moved forward into the spring with a slimmer structure and were able to downsize our office in London.  

In April we were approached by Feltham Young Offenders Institute to run a micro pilot mentoring project for young men leaving  prison and trying to make their way back in society. It’s a very challenging project which has taken much time to develop and test and we hope to be up and running in January. We were also approached to work as part of a partnership supporting refugees into employment in London, running the mentoring element. The bid was successful we hope this project will start in the spring.

Early summer brought confirmation of more English Language funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government, enabling us to expand our Birmingham office and recruit staff in London. Simultaneously the Henry Smith Charity agreed to fund our new version of Time Together, the mentoring project that defines TimeBank’s model when we started supporting refugees back in 2002. This time a small pilot in Birmingham designed to support refugees with contemporary issues hopes to show it is still a relevant intervention that can be rolled out nationally.

In spite of moving offices and focussing on a number of significant funding bids we still found time to host a 16 year old work experience intern, introducing her to the challenges of charity life! Soon afterwards we were welcoming a number of new staff to TimeBank, so we organised a summer volunteering day for us all, which found us in Chingford weeding and planting at a workers’ cooperative, so much better than your average employee induction!

Autumn saw the launch of the external evaluation of Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine – our mentoring project supporting veterans and their families -  which we launched in Edinburgh and Westminster. We were delighted with the very positive  findings of this evaluation. And  now we have  evidence to prove it works we are working hard to secure funding to keep the project going before our current grant ends in February. 

It was through the summer that our Employee Volunteering really started to pick up pace with events in parks, schools and community centres across London. We’ve worked with 350 employee volunteers equalling 1,827 hours of volunteering with  25 community partners benefitting  from our support. This enthusiasm for corporate volunteering spilt over to our Christmas Party volunteering with an unprecedented take up by companies wanting to make a real difference in their communities as part of their Christmas celebrations. Care homes, homeless shelters, community centres and schools were the focus, involving decorating Christmas trees, painting reading corners, spending time with older people with dementia or in one case entertaining them with belly dancing!!

Our own Christmas volunteering took place in Birmingham at the warehouse for the charity shops of our partner Acorns Children’s Hospice. We sorted through 139 bags of donated clothing and two  hours’ worth of jewellery, creating 70 bags of saleable goods worth £2,500 and £80 worth of recycling – a worthy achievement but one put into perspective when you realise it costs between £750 and £1,000 to look after one child for one day at the hospice.

As we came to the close of the year the long awaited Casey Review was launched and while some of its elements were controversial, the key for us was its recommendation for more grassroots English Language classes just like those we run, which are funded by DCLG. We  are hopeful that in the New Year the Government will see fit to put this recommendation into action so we can expand our current programme. We were also  funded to run a new volunteer-led hidden carers project in Birmingham which will start in January.

So after a shaky start we go into 2017 with great optimism and enthusiasm, in the belief that we will continue to deliver our projects on time, to target and on budget to those most in need, and that volunteering truly does make a contribution to our society beyond any other. Of course we couldn’t do any of this without our incredible volunteers, our resilient and committed staff and a Board willing to take calculated risks to enable us to be where we need to be when we need to be, so a massive thank you to each and every one of them.

I hope you all have a very Happy Christmas and join us in our excitement for the New Year.

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We created an environment where people from different cultures were happy to sit next to each other, chat, and share food

I can now officially say I'm a teacher! says Sarah who describes her first volunteer teaching experience with our Talking Together English language project.

A couple of months ago when I was partway through my TEFL certification, I decided it would be a good idea to get some local teaching experience as well, before moving abroad to teach. And luckily I came across the perfect opportunity: a volunteer teaching position through one of TimeBank’s mentoring programmes, Talking Together. 

TimeBank is a national volunteering charity, doing all sorts of great work throughout the UK. From mentoring programmes to youth projects, its work is invaluable to the community. Talking Together is a Government-funded volunteering project, taking place across London, Birmingham and Leicester. It offers language courses to long-term UK residents who have little or no English language skills. 

Within a week of applying, I had met with the project coordinator, been on a 3-day training course, and was teaching my first class! I must admit, I was scared at first! Prior to this, I had never stood up in front of a group of people to even give a presentation, let alone teach a room full of students! It’s something I had carefully avoided for the whole of my adult life, for valid reasons such as stage-fright, self-consciousness, and of course, sheer terror. But within 15 minutes of teaching, the nerves had gone and I was actually enjoying myself! 

Due to the number of people who had volunteered for the Talking Together project, we were paired up and then assigned to different schools/community centres. Most courses ran for six weeks, with classes being held twice a week, for two half-days. We were given a detailed curriculum so we knew what to teach, and this also included a lesson plan for each module. Whilst these lesson plans were useful, I decided to follow the lesson plan structures from my TEFL course (which were very similar anyway) and so this was actually a great way to put my TEFL studies into practice! 

Being paired up worked really well, as it not only provided some moral support, but also flexibility if one person wasn’t available to teach on a particular day. I believe most pairs organised it so that they each took the lead and taught alternate modules, while the other person could be utilised as a teaching assistant. 

Before starting the course, I didn’t really have any expectations as to how it would go, or how I would feel about it. But after the first few weeks I developed a real enthusiasm for teaching – I looked forward to preparing my lessons, and loved standing up in front of the class! And by the time our last lesson rolled round, I was quite upset that our course had finished. 

They say that teaching is rewarding but up until a few months ago, I didn’t really believe it. But to see your students’ confidence and ability grow each week is such a lovely feeling. We also passed quite a big milestone about halfway through the course – the students, who were from lots of different countries and cultural backgrounds, started to voluntarily integrate with each other, after keeping themselves relatively segregated initially. 

Now I know this might not sound like a big deal, but to have created an environment where these cultures that don’t normally mix are then happy to sit next to each other, chat, and share food was just amazing! 

Overall, my teaching experience with TimeBank and Talking Together couldn’t have gone any better. My confidence has improved massively, I’ve learnt a lot about other cultures, and I can now officially say that I’m a teacher!

If you'd like to volunteer on our Talking Together project in Birmingham, take a look here

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The Casey Review recommends more English classes for the most isolated

At TimeBank we are delighted that the Casey Review has finally been released and that it clearly and explicitly recognises the vital importance of learning English as a means of boosting community integration. Although we’ve been working in this field since 2013 some of the statistics and findings of the report remain depressing reading:

  • Poor English language skills have been shown to create a number of disadvantages, including a lower likelihood of participation in civic engagement or volunteering. As a national volunteering charity we take this very seriously – volunteering is often an entry point to paid employment, a way of decreasing social isolation, increasing skills, confidence and having fun!
  • English language is a common denominator and a strong enabler of integration. But Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic groups have the lowest levels of English language proficiency of any Black or Minority Ethnic group – and women in those communities are twice as likely as men to have poor English.
  • In relation to social and economic integration in particular, there is a strong correlation of increased segregation among Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic households in more deprived areas, with poorer English language and poorer labour market outcomes, suggesting a negative cycle that will not improve without a more concerted and targeted effort.
  • 95% of people living in this country think that to be considered “truly British” you must be able to speak English (up from 86% in 2003) and 87% of people with English as their main language felt they belonged strongly to Britain compared to 79% of people without.

It is heartening then that one of the key recommendations is to prioritise funding for English language provision particularly the area we work in, community-based functional English language classes.

Providing additional funding for area-based plans and projects that will address the key priorities identified in this review, including the promotion of English language skills, empowering marginalised women, promoting more social mixing, particularly among young people, and tackling barriers to employment for the most socially isolated groups ... Improving English language provision through funding for community-based classes and appropriate prioritisation of adult skills budgets.”

Over the last two and a half years 2,158 people – predominantly women from Bangladeshi, Somali and Pakistani communities - have completed TimeBank’s DCLG-funded English classes taught by more than 200 volunteers on our Talking Together project. It’s given them the confidence to talk to their children’s schools and their neighbours and, above all, to play a greater part in British life. Our volunteers too have increased their understanding of different cultures and the importance of communication across diverse communities.

One of the key areas for me is that integration can’t be one-way - so working with volunteers from a range of different communities and indeed different generations creates a shared understanding and a powerful set of stories across our communities. Talking Together has shown that volunteers can play an extremely effective role in supporting people to learn English, develop skills and build community integration. In addition there’s a very strong financial gain by empowering people towards employment, reducing the need for translations in our NHS or children’s schools. TimeBank’s Talking Together project delivered a Social Return on Investment of £9.31 for every £1 spent so it truly is value for money and we hope very much that the further investment will be forthcoming when the Secretary of State Sajid Javid reports back as he has promised to do in the New Year.

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Talking Together benefits both volunteers and beneficiaries

I had the pleasure of attending a celebration event at one of our delivery partners, Shama Women’s Centre in Leicester, to mark the completion of the Talking Together six-week English language programme, and to acknowledge the achievements of both the learners and volunteers.

The learners arrived at the event, many with home-made food for us all to share! They were invited up one by one to collect not one, but two certificates. Culturally, we are so used to receiving certificates from a young age – for swimming five metres, for competing but not always winning, and as we get older, we accumulate many certificates that we do not always appreciate or treasure.

Many of our learners have not been in education since primary age and some had received no education at all. Therefore, receiving a certificate from our Chief Executive, Helen Walker, and another from Shama Women’s Centre, was a huge achievement for them.

The women were clapping and cheering for each other, and many made sure to document the moment by taking photos.  My cheeks hurt by the end through smiling so much! I attend numerous lessons throughout the course, and it is amazing to see the increased confidence levels of the women in such a short amount of time.

It’s hard to put into words what this course provides to the women, but some of the learners, with help from family, tried to express their gratitude by writing small letters of thanks to the volunteers. Here are a few things they said:  “I met people from different parts of the world ... I can feel the growing confidence within me.” “I have learnt many things, but I would like to learn more. I enjoyed my time here ... the teachers are amazing.” And: “I enjoyed the class, the teachers were very good and we will be missing you.”

These comments came as no surprise to me, as watching the volunteers interact with each other and the learners it was clear that they had built strong working relationships, and that there is a genuine care and passion in them. I felt a true sense of pride as our volunteers were also presented with their certificates.  The volunteers have been an asset to TimeBank, and have exceeded expectations in terms of dedication and professionalism. As a Talking Together Project Co-ordinator, it is incredible to work on a project that equally benefits both the beneficiaries and the volunteers. As many other classes across Birmingham are drawing to an end in the next few weeks, I am looking forwards to attending more celebration events and witnessing even more achievements.

Want to learn more about Talking Together? Take a look here

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The vulnerability of those we work with - and the tragedy when things go wrong

I often write about the power of volunteering, the impact it can have and the difference people can make to one another’s lives. I don’t often write about the downside, the vulnerability of those we work with and the tragedy when something goes wrong.  

A few weeks ago I took a call from one of our co-ordinators first thing one morning.  She explained simply that one of the mentees on her project had died and she needed to tell his volunteer mentor. She wanted to make sure she was doing the right thing because of course we have a process for all eventualities – there has to be when you are dealing with the most vulnerable people in our society.

What had happened was that the mentor had called in to say he couldn’t contact his mentee and was worried about him. She then called his emergency contact - in this case the sheltered accommodation where he lived - and discovered that he had passed away that weekend.  We talked through how best to tell his mentor and decided it had to be face to face so a meeting was arranged that evening.

When you take on a volunteering opportunity it’s for lots of reasons but for a mentoring project it’s because you want to help people turn their life around, make a difference and empower them to move forward. The reality of working with vulnerable people is that they may have a range of issues including dependence on alcohol and drugs, homelessness and mental health issues that can affect their ability to take control of their lives.

I checked in with the co-ordinator the next day. She said our mentor had been shocked and upset; she comforted him and he left her as positively as he could given the circumstances. She said: “I’ll call him later and we’ll both go to the funeral together. It’s so sad because after everything the mentee had been through he was starting out on a positive pathway and he really enjoyed his mentoring.”

We are a small organisation and are all affected by good and bad news – this reminded us that we are working with those least able to help themselves. Mentoring can be transformational for individual lives and at our darkest moments as we think of this very special mentoring pair we must hold onto that.

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Twentieth Century Fox brings children's characters to life

We’d promised a primary school in Stratford that we’d brighten up their school and had a group of volunteers from Twentieth Century Fox lined up for the day.

The run up to the event didn’t start too well, with a mix up from the store delivering the paint and the prospect of having to create a mural without our main materials; however after a mad dash across town to pick up and deliver the paint, we were ready and set to go!

The day itself was cold but bright and I arrived at the school to find a group of volunteers huddled together at the entrance, apprehensively discussing the task ahead. They faced a big challenge - painting a school dining hall, corridor and classroom with recognisable characters from children’s fiction. No wonder they were nervous!

The volunteers began by tentatively using projectors to outline their pictures before mixing up different colours. Luckily they all worked well as a team from the go and their confidence grew quickly as they began to see their images take life in front of them. Before long, the halls of the dining room began to fill up with identifiable pictures from children’s stories - Winnie the Pooh, the BFG and Dumbledore among them.

They were making such good progress that we decided to move onto the other rooms earlier than intended. Some were so engrossed that a planned stop for lunch didn’t happen, even though they were actively encouraged to take a break!

Half-way through the day, the headteacher came to review the progress and to thank the volunteers. She was moved by the efforts they had made and felt that they surpassed anything that she’d expected.

The highlight, however, came towards the end of the event, when a group of children, having secretly witnessed the progress on the dining hall, came to thank the volunteers in person and present them with a card. Seeing the looks on the faces of the pupils as they viewed their new eating area was a moment that all the volunteers appreciated.

In all, it was a fabulous day for everyone involved. The volunteers loved being creative and doing something outside of their normal work-life, whilst the teachers and children alike were thrilled by the transformation of their school. A day that definitely confirms why this kind of event is so important and why I enjoy working in this sector so much!

Every year we help hundreds of companies to get involved in really rewarding employee volunteering like this. If you'd like to do something similar, take a look at www.timebank.org.uk/employee-volunteering

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Employee volunteering from the other side

Let’s be frank—as much as any of us love our jobs, we are always thrilled when an activity comes along that will take us out of our daily routines and away from our desks for a few hours.  Sometimes, even just the occasional fire drill is enough.  So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I got the opportunity to leave the office early to participate in an employee volunteering event at my previous job. “Wow,” I thought, “several hours outside of the office and away from my computer during the work day!”  Amazing.

My team and I spent a productive morning weeding and clearing rubbish from a park in New York City that was greatly in need of some TLC. However, while getting away from the emails piling up in our inboxes was great, in the end, it was the feeling of satisfaction at having spent our time doing something positive for the community, as well as the new people from the office we had a chance to meet (Steven from Finance! Jeffrey from IT—what a guy!) that made the day a huge success.

Since I’ve recently joined the staff here at TimeBank as Employee Volunteering Administrator, I’ve been excited to see employee volunteering from the inside.  From the initial inquiry we get from corporate clients, to tracking down the perfect opportunity that will make them feel useful and fulfilled, the process is far more nuanced than I had ever given it credit for as an employee volunteer.

Now that I can truly appreciate it from both sides, I’m eager to get as many Christmas volunteering events in the calendar as possible this holiday season. Christmas volunteering is a great way for employees to get to know their colleagues better in a relaxed, informal setting (in jeans and t-shirts!) whilst providing a great service to the community. Also, Christmas volunteering is a wonderfully inclusive activity for the whole team to participate in, and as such, it makes a great complement to a company Christmas party. While holiday parties can be a lot of fun, it’s easy to forget that not everyone is up for a boozy afternoon. Volunteering is a fun, productive activity that everyone can partake in as lead up to the remainder of the festivities. And for those of us going on to the holiday party afterwards, it provides good fodder for chatting over a pint.

As far as I can see, it’s a win-win for everyone!

On a final note, let’s keep in mind that volunteering isn’t just for Christmas and charities have year-round needs for volunteers. If you’d like to get your team volunteering now or at any other time during the year, take a look here and if you'd like any more information call me on 0203 111 0721 or email  judita@timebank.org.uk.

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