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

Saying thank you is the simplest thing in the world but it makes all the difference

At the Board away day a couple of months ago I mentioned that I was coming up to my 10th anniversary at TimeBank - it was during a regular and responsible governance conversation about succession planning both for the Board and CEO role. It was in my diary and I’m rather conscious of it because devoting a decade of your life to an organisation is a big commitment.  

But TimeBank has sucked me in and because of the rollercoaster that is the funding climate, Government decisions and the need for charities to adapt and change, it has never quite seemed the right time to go – plus of course with change comes interest and enthusiasm to survive, to thrive, to grow in a new way to try new things – in essence it’s not been a dull 10 years!

The TimeBank I inherited 10 years ago was a very different organisation to the one I now run – the political and economic climate was very, very different in the balmy days of New Labour, Government grants, being able to try new things and change lives without really worrying. But it was also an organisation that had evolved from its inception in 2000 and the time was right to hone down our eclectic portfolio of activity and diversify our fundraising.  

And then came the announcement of the Big Society and all the volunteering charities rubbed their hands in glee – surely in order to deliver that, we would be safe from cuts.  How wrong we were, how ironic it was and how angry I remain today – not that cuts happened, because everyone suffered, but that Government doesn’t see the impact of its decision making. Telling a charity that is 95% Government-funded that its funding will end is devastating. Doing it three weeks before the new financial year is crippling and it ripped the heart out of our organisation.

That is when you truly strategise of course - are we doing something differently to others, are we doing it better, should we close, should we merge? We decided we were doing two things better and differently – volunteer mentoring tackling a variety of complex social issues and employee volunteering.

2013 saw our next big change as we bid for and won a £1.12m contract from Government to deliver volunteer led English language classes. It enabled us to regrow and plan – until in 2015 delays in decision making by funders and Government wavering left TimeBank once again on the brink. But we powered through and that is a reflection on the incredibly dedicated and passionate staff we have and our Board’s willingness to take significant but calculated risks – all of which I believe was possible because of open, honest dialogue and trust.

And so to today – we are in a real position of strength and if I look around me there are few volunteering charities that can say that what a difference a decade makes! We have rebuilt our reserves; invested in new posts to aid our fundraising and business development; we are looking at innovative and creative new projects and we are still delivering our now highly regarded English language classes – what next I wonder every day as I walk to the tube?!

So back to the Board - our meeting was a week before ‘the day’ and if I’m honest I was trying to power through it because it had inconveniently fallen on the day of an England match in the World Cup and anyone who has read my blogs over the last decade will know I’m a massive football fan! So when my Chair announced he had something to bring up under AOB my heart sank! And then he started talking about me – my dedication, my drive, my decade and produced gifts that the Board had bought me –incredibly thoughtful and beautiful gifts. A brooch with the famous quote from Millicent Fawcett, who tirelessly campaigned for women’s right to vote: ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere’ and a stunning Paul Smith scarf as well as a bespoke card made up of TimeBank photos and signed by everyone. I momentarily forgot all about football and was absolutely overwhelmed by their thoughtfulness, kindness and generosity.

This is the kind of thing that happens when you leave an organisation when you realise how much people thought of you and it makes you sad to be leaving, but this, this came whilst I was here. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a fellow CEO a few weeks ago who’s moving on to a different role. She said: ‘Everyone is saying such amazing things about me – I just wish they’d said it three years ago!’

And I guess that’s my point. Saying thank you, making people feel good, driving the organisation in good times and bad is the CEO’s role but very rarely does anyone recognise that or make you feel valued and special at the time. I am extraordinarily lucky to have a Board that did just that – so it doesn’t matter whether I stay for another 10 years or another 10 days, I will be walking just a little bit taller and if it is possible feeling even more passionate about TimeBank and the work that we do. Saying thank you is the simplest thing in the world but it makes an immeasurable difference. 

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Team volunteering - a brilliant opportunity for me to get to know my work colleagues

I joined TimeBank two months ago as the Fundraising and Business Development Coordinator. With my Business Development hat on I have been promoting our Employee Volunteering days to companies. These are a fantastic way for organisations to give back to their local community whilst bringing staff together to take part in a team activity. More than anything else though, its good fun! As I found out last week.

As well as designing employee volunteering days for other companies, TimeBank staff also participate in one every six months and last Friday we all met up at Balsall Heath City Farm in Birmingham for this summer’s event.

Balsall Heath City Farm was formed in 1980 on an old housing estate to provide local inner-city families with access to animals they would otherwise not get to see. Originally just housing a few chickens, the farm is now also home to sheep, goats, rabbits, guinea pigs, ducks, geese, turkeys and cats.

Having been given our introduction to the farm we split into three teams: one team went about mending the children’s sand pit whilst the other two were responsible for digging holes for fence posts - two of the sheep on the farm have recently had lambs and need a new enclosure fenced off for them. 

This hole digging quickly became competitive with people regularly walking to the other end of the field to check on their rivals’ progress. Although my team were beaten to the required 50cm by a minute or two our hole was neater, so we claimed a moral victory.

One of the more adventurous lambs provided a distraction from all this digging by doing its best Harry Houdini impression and squeezing between the bars on its temporary enclosure - emphasising the need for the work we were doing. However, this escape act still required some work as the lamb got stuck half way. Instead of panicking though it decided to carry on grazing until we managed to pull the bars apart, allowing the lamb out in to its desired pasture. This is one lamb who definitely believes in the saying ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’!

Following our lamb saving heroics we had enough time left in the day to help the sand pit team with their task by shovelling out the sand into the chicken, duck and turkey enclosures. The birds apparently enjoy the texture and root around in it for insects to snack on. While we were doing this, children started arriving having finished their day at school. It was great to see so many young inner-city children taking such an interest in the animals and asking so many questions about the them and the farm in general.

For somebody so new to this organisation this volunteering day provided a brilliant opportunity for me to get to know my colleagues better in a more informal setting than usual. I was also able to see for myself the good that TimeBank’s Employee Volunteering days do for local communities which has motivated me even more to get more companies involved in them.

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We're connecting businesses to communities to experience the joy of volunteering!

In February I started as Employee Volunteering Project Co-ordinator with TimeBank and what a few months it’s been. I moved to London from Northern Ireland four years ago, yet I’ve probably seen more of London during my time in this post than ever before.

When I moved people told me ‘Cara-Jan, you’re mad, no one has time for each other in London’. While it’s safe to say people at the bus stop here aren’t often up for a chat, when you look close enough there are so many bubbling, diverse networks and communities within London, it’s just about making that connection.

When you’re wrapped up in work you don’t always find the time to immerse yourself in the community where you live or work. My favourite part of my role at TimeBank is connecting people to their communities and seeing volunteers come to life when they realise the difference they’ve made. In the past three months I’ve seen a group of ten men with very little decorating experience paint the most beautiful landscape in a school (to which the Ofsted inspector later gave his sign of approval).

We’ve had a group tidy up a children’s playground followed by a very intense football game with the kids. Another team painted a mural full of inspirational figures including Malala Yousafzai, Marie Curie and William Shakespeare. And we built a community garden in the torrential rain at the back of a housing estate – the director of the company’s son even got involved in this one!

My favourite employee volunteering day so far has to be working with a team of volunteers from Fidelity Investments when 17 members of their team came to support a local foodbank.  We set the team a supermarket challenge, seeing who could be at the till first with all the items on their shopping list. The team were so enthusiastic and delegated roles, making it super clear and easy. Then when we returned to the foodbank to weigh, sort and date the items, they turned it into a game! The volunteers lined up and were each assigned a date and they would throw the pasta to the appropriate person according to the sell-by-date.

While this may sound like fun and games, it makes such a difference to a small foodbank which operates nearly entirely through the support of volunteers. Many hands make light work, so by taking part in a foodbank stocktake you can help to ensure food is sorted appropriately so nothing goes to waste.

The best part of the day was when Fidelity Investments announced that the rest of the team in the office had joined together to raise some money for the foodbank. In total, they raised an incredibly £4,350. Funmi Ikele who works for the foodbank told the team ‘I struggle for words to express our thanks and appreciation …your generous fundraising and subsequent donation of £4,350 to a charity that you’ve probably never heard of until now is unprecedented…indeed Fidelity Investments have set the bar for going above and beyond the call of duty in CSR!’

With limited funding and staff, small community organisations couldn’t cope without the support of volunteers. A day of your team’s time can be the equivalent of weeks of work for their team. And the result? Your staff get to spend a fun day together and they leave the day feeling positive and connected as a team having made a real difference.

I’d be the first person to put my hand up and say that arranging employee volunteering isn’t always easy. Finding a date that works for everyone, taking time out of the office, getting everyone there, there’s a lot to consider. That’s why we want to make it simple by doing  all of the leg work for you. We work with community groups all over London and the UK and would love to help your team connect to your local community and experience the joy of volunteering!

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Does volunteering hold the secret to eternal youth?

Volunteering runs in my family. I’ve always been encouraged to give something back wherever I could – whether that’s giving an hour to help at an event, or more long term commitments, like being on the board of TimeBank. 

It’s tempting just to think about volunteering being something you give – after all, you’re donating your time, your skills and your knowledge. And of course, it’s a great chance to learn new skills too – I’ve learned a huge amount about management and the voluntary sector during my time on the TimeBank board. 

But what about the less tangible things? Let’s take a look at the other volunteers in my family. There’s my Gran – she’s 94 and would pass for 20 years younger. Despite ‘retiring’ at 59, she gives her time for free most weeks, volunteering for a local cancer charity for over 30 years. And she’s got no plan to retire from this – the company, sense of purpose and friendship she gains from this her volunteering are the things that keeps her young. 

My Dad, coming up to 70, is much the same. He’s volunteered at the Paralympics, the Commonwealth Games, the World Athletics Championships and is currently gearing up for the Cricket World Cup. Having worked all his life, you’d think he’d be ready for a break – but no, adventures such as these give him energy, endless enjoyment and the chance to meet new people and be part of a new team, again years after he’s formally retired. 

Undeniably, volunteering has played a key part in keeping both of them younger than their years. I’m not sure it’s quite working for me yet – though I’d welcome looking 20 – but I’d say being part of the TimeBank board has challenged me, inspired me, and introduced me to some really fantastic people I’d otherwise never have met. It may not quite be the secret to eternal youth, but it’s certainly one of the secrets to getting the most out of life!

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Put your hand up!

It is Volunteers’ Week and not surprisingly Helen, our CEO, asked our Board if anyone would like to contribute a blog in support of this. I’m always nervous about putting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, as that blank sheet of paper fills me with nerves and apprehension. I don't believe writing is one of my strengths.

And that made me think about the trepidation you can feel when considering volunteering.  There are many who don’t and just throw themselves into volunteering opportunities with relish, but there are many more who are on the cusp, thinking about it, unsure.

This led me to recall a conversation I had last week, at the Charity Governance Awards, about volunteering and joining a Board. The person I spoke to was thinking about becoming a trustee, but had several different reasons why they didn’t think they could do it. Of course I spent most of the conversation advocating why they could, they can.

I would encourage anyone thinking about volunteering to just do it – you really don’t have anything to lose and so much to gain. I have actively volunteered for over 10 years now, and still have some nerves going into any new volunteering venture – which I think is healthy. But without doubt all my volunteering experiences have been positive and impactful,for me personally and I hope for the people and causes I have supported.

The elements that stop us doing something are usually because of confidence, fear of the unknown or doing or saying something wrong.  Reasons why I was nervous about writing this piece. Which compelled me to write in the hope that I can make you reconsider why you should make that leap of faith and volunteer. Channel the reason you considered volunteering in the first place, that cause, campaign, that passion to support others – hold on to that and throw yourself in. You will learn new skills, share your experience, make friends, change someone’s life.

So if you are thinking about volunteering just do it – block out those reasons why you can’t and listen to the reasons why you want to do it, can do it. That desire and passion will always help you break through the nerves and trust me, you will always find others on hand to help and support you. Take that step forward, push that hand up high, bake that cake, share your digital skills, mentor a young person, learn to teach English, join that Board. For those fabulous people who do volunteer, put your hand out, share your story and encourage others to put theirs up.

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What could you gain from volunteering?

I’m often asked if it’s hard to find volunteers to teach our Talking Together English classes, particularly as they are held during working hours and require a commitment of 2-4 hours per week. The truth is that volunteer recruitment is one of the easier parts of my role. In fact, we usually have a waiting list of volunteers!

Whilst it can be difficult to match volunteers with classes that are close to them and fit in around their other commitments, there are always plenty of people interested in volunteering, and I think this is because of the many benefits our volunteers gain from the experience.

Most of those who express interest in Talking Together want to volunteer to make a difference to the lives of the thousands of people who live in the UK but speak little or no English. Some have been through the daunting experience of moving to a country where they don’t speak the language and wish to support other people in the same circumstances. Others have parents or relatives who speak no English and have seen the difficulties of accessing everyday services such as the doctor or bank. Many others have seen stories in the media about the challenges faced by those without language skills and want to make a difference in their free time.

The sense of satisfaction gained by giving back to the community is certainly one of many rewards of volunteering. When asked what their favourite part of teaching is, most volunteers say it is seeing the progression of the learners and in particular their growth in confidence. In just 24 hours of classes, learners can go from needing their family and friends to book appointments for them to having the confidence to call the dentist themselves.  Seeing this kind of impact in such a short time is a great feeling for our volunteers.

Although we don’t require volunteers to have any specific qualifications, we’re often contacted by those who have completed TEFL or CELTA qualifications but haven’t had a chance to put these skills into practice. Volunteering allows them to get that crucial real life experience, particularly important for those who are unsure whether teaching is for them. In the last year, three of our volunteers have moved abroad to teach English, and more have taken on teaching roles within the UK. So volunteering even opens doors to a new career!

There are other things you might gain from volunteering for Talking Together that you might not expect. Organisational skills, improved time management, stronger communication skills and much more! It’s also important to note that it’s not only our learners who gain confidence as the course goes on. Many of our volunteer teachers have never stood in front of a classroom before and are nervous, even visibly shaking, at the first class. The next time I visit, I see they are relaxed and have built a strong rapport with their class. Volunteers have often remarked that they never thought they would have the confidence to do something like this.

Finally, another perhaps unexpected benefit of volunteering is getting to know those who attend our Talking Together classes. Often volunteers develop an excellent relationship with their students despite the language barrier and find themselves learning from those they are teaching! Our learners range in age from 19 to almost 100 and come from 57 different countries including Somalia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and many more, so there’s a lot to be learnt from them. Meeting our learners is certainly one of my favourite parts of my role as Project Co-ordinator. Through them I have acquired recipes, natural cold remedies and so many facts about life in countries across the world. These interactions not only improve the English skills of our learners but are also hugely important in creating a more integrated country.

We’re currently looking for volunteers to teach classes starting in September across London, and will be holding volunteer training sessions in July and August. If you’d like to get involved, we’re primarily looking for volunteers in Camden, Ealing, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, Tower Hamlets, and Waltham Forest. For more information about Talking Together London, take a here or contact me at calley@timebank.org.uk,  0203 111 0700.

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What can a volunteering charity like TimeBank learn from football?

A couple of weeks ago much to my surprise, as a lifelong Liverpool fan, I found myself retweeting a blog about fundraising and what we could learn from outgoing Arsenal boss, Arsene Wenger! It set me thinking about the broader issue of leadership and how it crosses boundaries of every area of our lives and spectrum of professions.

A few years ago I went on the Windsor leadership course. Its power was less in what we learnt from those speaking, as from one another and the fact that all of us came from different backgrounds and very different professions and sectors, but all of us had the same basic leadership challenges.

It struck me as we come to the end of the football season but march almost seamlessly into the World Cup that we should, wherever our loyalties lie, be able to respect the fact that a legend of the game has retired and ask what we can glean from the many column inches written about what a trail blazer he was.  What can football management teach us about our teams, creating team spirit across the variety of roles, togetherness, managing (as football managers do) young people who are inexperienced in life and in challenging jobs.  

I watched one of the tributes and saw Thierry Henry admit that looking back he was a total pain as a player and only finally realised that when he started into management. How many of us have had that epiphany as we struggle up the greasy pole? The sudden realisation that when the buck stops with you it’s not always that easy or black and white.  “No one ever asks the boss, (the manager, the CEO) - how are you?” he said.

It’s here that I think that football, perhaps old school football before money won over everything else, has something to teach us. How can we best build a successful team, how do we motivate a team week in week out to succeed, to be unselfish and work together, to ensure everyone gets their chance to input into moving forward and that the unsung defenders whose mistakes are pilloried (Loris Karius – exhibit A!) – get the same rewards and plaudits as the golden booted striker when the team wins.

Back in my day the fundraisers, of whom I was one, were a necessary evil sitting in their dark corner – having to beg the service directors for case studies and support to ply their terribly un-British trade of asking for money. I rather like the analogy that fundraisers are the football defenders of charities, constantly defending their role, constantly being rejected by funders, and just occasionally able to make it up front for a set piece corner which results in the winning goal (let’s call it a successful lottery bid!).

In these days where charities are on the front page for all the wrong reasons we should ask ourselves whether we celebrate success enough? How many open top bus tours do we do in the sector – what indeed is the equivalent? As leaders we should be leading those celebrations; we should be championing the fundraisers who do a difficult job in an extraordinary climate and are no less important than those at the coalface delivering the ‘real’ work of the charity – as I always used to say without funding we can’t deliver our objectives so we must value the team as a whole not only the famous faces up front.

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Leaving your comfort zone

What makes a person step outside their comfort zone and do something which surprises even them?  Had you bumped into me on Saturday May 5, you would have been able to ask me this very question.  On that beautiful spring morning, I found myself standing, quaking with fear, in the reception of the BBC building on Portland Place. 

I have often passed this famous landmark.  However, I never thought for one moment that I would ever go through its doors, let alone be invited on ‘The Robert Elms Show’ on BBC Radio London to talk about my volunteering experience. 

As I stood there waiting to be collected, one thought kept running through my mind – “why on earth did I agree to this?!”  Although of course the wording was a great deal stronger!  The truth is that I have never been good at public speaking and have had a lifetime battle with shyness, so agreeing to do the interview was a big deal.  As it happened, there was no need to be anxious because Robert Elms was the perfect interviewer – professional, friendly, interesting and funny.  He very quickly put me at ease and the interview proceeded smoothly and was tremendous fun.  I walked out of the studio, went for coffee and had a good laugh about how nervous I had been.  

In my volunteering for TimeBank’s project, Talking Together, I regularly come across people making this same giant leap out of their own comfort zone.  Let me give you some background in case you haven’t heard about Talking Together.  Talking Together is a really exciting initiative that trains volunteers to teach English to women who are marginalised because they don't speak the language.  Many are unable to do everyday things we take very much for granted: describe their symptoms to a doctor, use public transport, or speak to their children’s school teachers. 

The project is based on a simple concept: if you train a volunteer to teach informal, basic, spoken English, you can then place that volunteer with a class of non-English speakers.  Each volunteer has the potential to offer teaching support to many women and to make a big difference to their lives by helping them to integrate more fully into the community.  I am one of Talking Together’s team of committed English language teachers and I love working on this project because it is so much fun.  I am given tremendous support by the TimeBank Project Co-ordinator, Calley, and by other volunteers who come to assist with the larger classes.  Therefore, I would like to mention Kelly, Hannah, Ade and Caroline, who have all been central to making the classes a great success.

As Talking Together is all about empowering women, I want to tell you a bit about the women themselves.  In my two years of volunteering, I have had the chance to meet and teach so many friendly and interesting women from all over the world.  Classes have the most wonderfully diverse mix of cultures, personalities and ages (18 to 86 plus several babies!), which makes teaching so interesting and exciting. 

However, there is one thing that nearly all the women have in common: an acute shyness about speaking English, often due to a fear of making mistakes and looking foolish.  I have watched so many women walk in to their first lesson and they nearly always have the same fixed, tense expression on their faces.  Therefore, my aim from the very beginning is to make every woman feel valued and supported.  I hope that by creating a safe space, they will feel confident enough to practice their English with me, and will then, as they progress, feel confident enough to go out and speak at the shops, at the Health or Job Centre – or even make that all-important call to the emergency services.

I really admire them for making the decision to start learning English and for being courageous enough to walk through the classroom door.  I have been so impressed by how committed the women are to learning to speak English, how seriously they take the lessons and how pleased they are to be part of the class.  Their hard work and enthusiasm makes teaching them such a pleasure.  A perfect example of this enthusiasm is that the women at one of my centres asked for an extra weekly lesson, just to focus on reading and writing.

So, to go full circle, when I was asked to talk on the radio, I weighed up the possibility of potential embarrassment versus the opportunity to discuss something that I feel incredibly passionate about.  I knew almost immediately that I would accept because I don’t think I could have faced the women in my class again if I had not followed my own advice: ‘go on, be brave, don’t worry if you don’t get it right, don’t worry if it isn’t perfect, just have a go’.  I care about all the women in my class.  I am so pleased that they happened to walk through my door and am so proud of them for taking that first step.  There have been so many special moments in the past two years, but my favourite is always witnessing each class make the magical transformation from strangers to classmates.  I am convinced that all the women have so much to gain by integrating into the community, but more importantly they also have so much to offer. 

My initial decision to volunteer with Talking Together was a great first step for me.  I feel incredibly lucky to have had the privilege of being involved in other people’s lives and winning their trustI can honestly say that I have gained more than I have given, so if anyone reading this is thinking about volunteering, I would really encourage you to go ahead and do it.  Who knows, it may take you outside of your comfort zone too.  

If you'd like to know more about Talking Together, take a look here.

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