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

Could volunteering help close the gender gap?

The last couple of weeks have seen a lot written about women’s right to equal pay or how the ‘old boys network’ is still stymieing women in the top companies in our country.

And then we read that in our own sector, the charity world, where 73% of employees are women, only 32% are chief executives.

It makes you wonder what we can do to give women the confidence and self-belief to put themselves forward for senior management roles. Last week I read that men will go for a job even if they feel only 60% qualified to do it whereas women will only go for it if they think they are 100% qualified and how many of us ever feel 100% qualified for our next role? By definition it’s going to involve things you haven’t done before in ways you haven’t done them with people you’ve never worked with – taking the next step up the ladder is always scary but I ask myself why we, as a sex, are less able or willing to take those risks?

I’ve thought long and hard about this and I’ve been wondering if volunteering might just be the answer to giving us the confidence to take that next step into senior management or the chief executive role of a larger organisation. Allow me to explain:  employee volunteering has also been much in the news with the Prime Minister’s pledge to give all public sector workers three days volunteering each year. Now the pros and cons of that announcement can be debated elsewhere (my synopsis:  great idea but where’s the money to make it happen? Volunteering isn’t free!) But if companies and our public sector are to take volunteering seriously and have the budget to make sure they do so, then surely we can use it as a tool to support women as they develop in their careers.

The benefits of employee volunteering are much documented:  team building, morale and confidence boosting, leadership skills, time management and much more. So just for a moment suspend your belief that it’s all about environmental opportunities, getting down and dirty and clearing out a bog, and think about mentoring - think about using your skills to support someone else in their career journey by mentoring a leader in the third sector where your business skills or mind-set might just make a difference to the way they approach the challenges facing charities right now.

Our Leaders Together programme, which recruits volunteer mentors to offer their business skills to small charities and social enterprises, could be adapted to suit companies’ needs. Who and what do you want to develop? Could  the women in your middle management benefit from the confidence that mentoring someone in a different sector can give them? I know I come away from sessions with people I mentor having learnt as much as I have given, feeling happy and confident that I had skills I had forgotten or didn’t know I had that were useful to someone climbing up the ladder behind me.

So here’s my call to action this Spring as you look at new budgets and new training needs and the desire to support people in your company– think about a bespoke mentoring programme. By supporting charities with mentoring  you could have  a phenomenal effect not only on that charity and its beneficiaries but throughout the voluntary sector at a time when it is facing cuts in funding and increased demand for its services. You could help us to do more with less while developing your staff team with new skills, new confidence and self-belief.  And maybe have the added bonus of encouraging more women to take a punt on that next role that’s just a little bit outside their own perceived skill set … it’s a win-win for everyone.

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Volunteering helped Ben find a career he loves

Ben took part in our Engage project last month.  He had sessions in project planning and budgeting to give him the skills, confidence and experience to be able to design and deliver his own social action project in Chelmsley Wood in Birmingham.

Ben was with Engage for two weeks and was one of the quiet ones in the class in the first few sessions. He appeared to lack the confidence to speak up in a large group, but was always very polite, always ready with an answer if asked and managed his time really well. 

During the first week I took the group to Gro-Organic, one of our community partners, as Engage had a volunteer day set up for them. Gro-Organic is an award winning social enterprise specialising in design and construction landscaping, outdoor education and community land based projects. They provide a comprehensive range of services to schools, businesses and third sector organisations that are looking to improve their outdoor space or utilise local land for skill development, training or community cohesion.

361 Gro-Organic asked the team to help clear a space in their new community garden. The team were given the tools to complete the job and were supported by the site co-ordinator Lee. The team worked really well together, but Ben really came into his own and got stuck in. He also supported other members of the team and gave them clear instructions on what to do.

Ben spent the second week designing a social action project which aimed to give Gro-Organic’s team of volunteers suitable workwear. He used Gro-Organic and the Dig It Crew  logos to design some polo shirts which will hopefully make the volunteers feel like a team.  The T-shirts were a huge success and will be delivered this month.

Ben asked if there was any way for him to carry on volunteering with Gro-Organic as he had really enjoyed the experience and felt  he had found a possible career, so we are working with him. to sort out a suitable schedule.  We’ve also provided Ben with a volunteer mentor to help him access local apprenticeships in horticulture so that he can pursue his new found passion. He has already been supported in applying for one apprenticeship.

Ben says: “Volunteering has helped me determine what sort of career I want to do and to gain the necessary experience. It has also helped me boost my confidence and gain better social skills.”

Ben is a classic example of a young man who had gone through the education system and got ok results, but had no clear idea of what he wanted to do. We’re thrilled that volunteer experience through our Engage project provided  him with such inspiration.  

Engage is our exciting new project that matches volunteer mentors with young people living in Birmingham who are seeking employment under the 'Destination Work' programme. If you’d like to know more, or could volunteer a few hours to help these young people develop business skills, take a look at

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Free workshops for carers in Dudley

An estimated one in eight adults across the UK acts in some kind of carer role or capacity. In other words, at least six and a half million people as well as an estimated 700,000 young carers are devoting their time and energy, and putting their own needs on hold, to support the people they care about. Given our ageing population this figure is expected to swell to nine million over the next two decades.

Yet not only is there an army of carers but many are hidden, whether as a result of the stigmatic nature of their loved ones’ illness/condition or because they do not consider themselves to be carers.

Unconditional love is often used in the context of caring for the people we cherish in our lives. However we are only human. When family and friends start to need more and more help to maintain their quality of life, the reality of providing support day in, day out, can take a very heavy toll.

Carers UK say that over 60% of carers have faced depression as they find themselves unable to maintain a life of their own, while 49% of carers find they struggle financially, only adding to their general stress and anxiety. At the same time, 45% have found themselves having to give up their jobs after being unable to juggle the competing demands of work and caring.

Carers are undeniably the unsung heroes of our health and care system, which is why TimeBank is rolling out a series of volunteer led events for carers across the borough of Dudley in March through its Be Well project.

These free workshops are designed to help carers be more aware of their rights, to explore ways to improve their own wellbeing and to provide information about the support available through local networks.

We are working with partner organisations to deliver Be Well and we warmly welcome anyone who is a carer or cares for others, to attend. We’d also be grateful if you could spread the word as widely as you can, to your friends, networks or through social media.

For more information contact Nick Roslund at, or 07751 636 674.

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The bravest decision - to start talking

Author Andy Owen describes the challenges that veterans face when they come home and have to deal with memories that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

When I look back to my time in the military the first thing I remember is the people. Of course I remember the places and the experiences, but it is the people I always think of first. The big characters, the good friends and those who you were just glad they were on your side.

Many years before I had even considered joining the army, I remember walking through the empty corridors of my school in the early dark of a winter evening after a parents’ evening – the same bricks and mortar that I would see every day seemed completely alien. 

Walking back into the Mess now would seem a bit like that after hours school visit, as although the physical building would be the same, the faces and voices would be different. When you leave both school and the army, you cannot just walk back in; you need to be invited. You don’t just leave; you become excluded. You become excluded from a family that shaped your sense of identity and gave you purpose. You can lose touch with the only people you know who have shared the same experiences as you – experiences you are struggling to come to terms with.

While some leaving the Armed Forces rarely pause for breath while spinning tales of their heroism, others find it difficult to share their stories. It may be because they feel others either won’t understand, will judge them harshly, or it may be they just cannot find the words. This can lead some to stop interacting with those closest to them, leading them to finding themselves sitting alone in the twilight of a familiar, yet alien empty building.

In 2014, 22,530 personnel left the regular Armed Forces. Some estimates predict that of these over 27% will have a mental health disorder. The Ashcroft Review (The Veterans Transition Review, February 2014) found that for Early Service Leavers the struggle after service life can be even more difficult – only 50% were in employment after six months. For some this can lead to offending, dependence on alcohol and drugs, homelessness and mental health problems. This is where TimeBank’s Shoulder to Shoulder project steps in.

Since leaving the military I have written two novels. The first looks at why people go off and fight by re-interpreting Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The second, East of Coker, looks at what happens when those who have been involved in conflict come home, as it moves through a London and an Iraq that shadow TS Eliot’s Waste Land.

After looking at a number of charities, I decided to donate all the proceeds of East of Coker to TimeBank’s Shoulder to Shoulder project. Amongst others, one of the themes East of Coker looks at is what makes us the people we are through the interactions we have with those closest to us. In East of Coker the main character, Arthur, a veteran of The Second World War, moves to a point where he sees he has the power to change how he feels about the past and realises that because he has walled himself off from the world, in an attempt to preserve the memories of those he has lost, he has denied himself one of the key things that makes him a person - interactions with others. He becomes determined to be brave enough to share his story and determined to convince a new friend who has fought in a more recent campaign to do the same and avoid the mistakes he has made. When we do nothing and do not interact, we cannot become all that we can become.

TimeBank recruits and trains volunteer mentors to befriend and support veterans and their families. They try to help veterans lead independent lives, with the confidence to identify goals and lead their own recovery plans. They help them to try and take control of their lives, lives that may have felt out of control since leaving an environment that provided a time and a place to be for much of their adult life. The volunteers can also help family members identify isolation, signpost them to services to help and aid them in building supportive social networks.

The first step on this journey can be making the bravest decision some will ever have to make; the decision to start talking. As one of the characters in the book resolves: to ‘try to use those late night whisky soaked words I don’t usually use in the sober daylight hours, and be better than the man I once hoped to be’. Shoulder to Shoulder ensures that when someone makes that brave choice there is someone there to listen, someone there to interact with, someone who can help them to start becoming the person they once were again.

Both Invective and East of Coker by Andy Owen are currently available on Amazon as e-books. East of Coker will be published by the War Writers’ Campaign (a non-profit independent publisher in the U.S. supporting Veterans) in March 2016.

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Helping Birmingham's young people into work

Our Engage project has now started in Chelmsley Wood, where we are working in partnership with Standguide and Gro-Organic and hope to make positive changes in the local community.

Thirteen people aged 18–25 spent the day with us learning how to plan a social action project to help their local community. The participants got tips on how to plan their projects including managing budgets, working to time lines, managing stakeholder expectations and marketing.

Each brought different strengths to the day and we got a huge amount done. They have already begun to look at improving the health of the local community by building a sensory garden, herb garden and vegetable plot. Some of the young men designed a project which would allow the local football pitch to be used at night and they went a step further to see if this could be built with as little environmental impact as possible.

Some of the group looked into designing and hosting a website while others spent the afternoon developing marketing items like T-shirts and caps. Each member of the group contributed to the development of around five basic projects and we hope to build on these as the weeks progress. The rest of this week is already planned and I am excited about what else we are going to achieve. We’ll be looking at in-depth budgeting for their projects, developing resources, managing volunteers and managing risk, as well as spending time with Gro-Organic at one of their sites where we’ll put some of the ideas into action.

Engage is our exciting new project that matches volunteer mentors with young people living in Birmingham who are seeking employment under the 'Destination Work' programme. If you’d like to know more, or could volunteer a few hours to help these young people develop business skills, take a look at

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Inspiring unemployed youngsters to gain work skills and confidence

Engage Birmingham has launched this week and I am really excited about this new volunteering project from TimeBank. I feel we are going to be making a real difference to Birmingham and offer a unique opportunity that is different to any other local initiative.

Engage Birmingham is working with Destination Work providers to support people aged 18-25 into employment, but we are going a step further by recruiting volunteer mentors to help the participants to find work or set up their own businesses. 

The project won’t patronise the participants or offer day long PowerPoint presentations, team building exercises and “motivational speakers”.  We want to find out what is important to the young people and give them the skills and confidence to carry out their own social action project. We are offering them the chance to create something meaningful in their communities while enhancing their employability.

TimeBank has already run successful Engage projects in London, Sunderland and Merthyr Tydfil where young people delivered exciting projects, from children’s sports activities to a clothes-swap, that inspired them to return to education or start their own small businesses.

To achieve success in Birmingham we are creating partnerships with relevant charities in the local areas, for example: Gro-Organic in Chelmsley Wood. Gro-Organic is committed to improving the places where people live and work. They empower communities to be strong, resilient and proud of where they live. I hope that our partnership with Gro-Organic will allow us to make a difference to Birmingham and give the young people the chance to try something different.

I am really thrilled to be working with Gro-Organic and look forward to empowering the local communities, supporting local 18-25 years olds and developing some unique social action projects. 

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We need to break the silence around mental health and show that talking about it needn't be difficult

It’s Time to Talk Day and we’re joining the campaign to get people talking about mental health. One in four of us will be affected at some point in our lives, so being able to talk about mental health is important for us all. Talking is also the first step towards building greater awareness and acceptance.

Here at TimeBank we are specialists in providing mentoring support to young people with mental health issues. We started our ground-breaking project Back to Life back in 2008, offering emotional support to young men and women recovering from mental health issues.

The results were overwhelming – the young people who took part said they built confidence, improved their quality of life and felt more ready to engage with society after taking part. They told us that having a volunteer mentor made them feel less isolated and brought new hope for the future.

One said: “Before, I’d be in agony, I’d be in bed, and that is what my mentor helped me with. She got me out of the house, talking about it and it helped me get some ideas of what I wanted to do and put them in place.”


We built on that experience with further projects - The Switch, which supports young people making the transition from children’s to adult mental health services, and Shoulder to Shoulder, the first peer mentoring project in the UK to support ex-service men and women recovering from mental health issues. We’ve recruited and trained volunteer mentors to help carers improve their emotional well-being and cope with the stresses and strains of caring. And we’ve recently worked with the Institute of Psychiatry to assess the effectiveness of volunteer mentoring as a preventative measure to support young women leaving care who are at higher risk of developing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.  

Our volunteer mentors spend a few hours each month with their mentees in a range of social activities, but crucially they listen and talk.  Not everyone feels comfortable talking about their mental health problems, but over time trusting relationships develop with the ability to confide about various issues, including mental health diagnoses, relationship problems, or general feelings of anxiety or insecurity.  

It is important to remember that mentoring is not right for everyone, or a panacea to all mental health problems – it is a complementary intervention alongside professional services which can be transformational if done well, with skilfully matched volunteers and expert training.

The results have been overwhelming, showing that support from a mentor can make a huge difference to emotional well-being and building confidence. The young people who took part in The Switch said they felt more able to face challenges, try something new and make friends.  A quarter were able to make the move into education or employment.

“When I saw her last she was just an entirely different person. She was so painfully shy to start off with and now she’s so much more confident. If I’ve achieved anything for her it’s really helping her with her confidence,” said one of our volunteers.

Volunteers are uniquely placed to support people recovering from mental illness; they are not professionals or from social services and can therefore provide a complementary, unique and fresh perspective.  The very fact that they are volunteers has a tremendous impact – it sends a powerful message that they are choosing to be there, not because they have to, but because they want to.

We’ve been delighted that our volunteers felt they had benefited from taking part in the project too.  More than half reported an increase in their understanding of mental health issues. They also said their communication skills had improved, particularly in terms of communicating with vulnerable or unresponsive people.

So let’s carry on talking about mental illness. We need to realise that it is much more common than most people think, break the silence and show that talking about this once-taboo issue doesn’t need to be difficult.  

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English language is the glue that holds society together

David Cameron’s announcement this morning that the Government is to allocate £20m to English language classes for Muslim women was welcomed here at TimeBank, as it followed on the back of our hugely successful Talking Together project teaching functional English language to this exact cohort in a hugely innovative volunteer-led way. It is perhaps unfortunate that this fantastic news has been linked to the Prevent and Extremism agenda and that it pre-empts the much anticipated ‘Casey report’ on segregation.

Our experience of working with this group of women and the grassroots community organisations with which we partnered was that there was huge enthusiasm for free, functional English Language classes, which were  often oversubscribed. The most common feedback, and greatest compliment, was what next? Where can we carry on learning in classes like this?

These aren’t the women that the press have labelled as disinterested in learning English and being part of the community. They have been excluded from doing so only by lack of money or opportunity. The volunteers who taught them also gained enormously from the project. The tangible changes for them came from being able to connect across communities for the first time, learning as much from the learners as they were offering. This is key to breaking down barriers and myths about different communities in our society. TimeBank’s, Government funded, programme provided value to volunteer and beneficiary and with a social return on investment of £9.31 for every £1 spent it was real value for money.

The classes took place in ‘safe’ environments that the women used anyhow which, importantly, provided crèche facilities. Crucially it wasn’t about learning grammar or reciting complex language, it was about being able to go to the doctor, talk to their child’s school, buy a ticket and get on a train for the very first time or what to do in an emergency – all key elements to empowering them to be more involved in their local community.

Perhaps a by-product is that these women will now have a better understanding of what their children are doing online and prevent them being influenced by extremism but combatting extremism wasn’t the reason they joined the course – and indeed,  labelling it as such may sadly put them off. Our learners joined Talking Together because they wanted to be able to talk to their neighbours, go alone to a hospital appointment, learn to drive and get a job – it’s because they want to be part of British society and English language is the glue that holds that society together.

To learn more about our Talking Together project watch our video or read our evaluation here.

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