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

At TimeBank we rate volunteer mentoring above all else ...

It seems that there’s a day for everything these days and today it’s National Mentoring Day! Who knew that was even a thing?! I’m pleased that it is though because at TimeBank we rate mentoring above all else and we’ve been doing it for a long time, usually alongside some of the most vulnerable groups in our society.

Back in 2002 before even I joined TimeBank we were awarded a large Home Office Grant (remember the heady days of Government Grants?!) to run a volunteer led mentoring project for refugees – a huge piece of work which resulted in over 2,500 refugees matched with volunteer mentors across 24 locations in the UK and working with a vast range of local refugee community organisations. Each relationship aimed to support a refugee to integrate more effectively and more quickly into UK society. How life comes full circle because we’re running a new version of that project 15 years later – but more of that below.

From this first and most successful project stems pretty much our entire volunteer mentoring model and one we have developed and honed over the past 15 years and remodelled to work with a wide variety of complex social issues. These have included young people with mental health problems transitioning from child and adolescent mental health services to adult care, veterans with mental health problems trying to cope with civilian life, carers struggling with the stresses of caring for a loved one, young care leavers transitioning into the adult system and into employment, young people not in education, employment or training, Muslim women to enhance their digital and English language skills, and back full circle to two of our contemporary projects working with refugees, both supporting them into UK society and into sustainable employment.

In a successful mentoring relationship the mentor supports the mentee to identify their skills, build on their strengths and their interests to empower change. The beneficiary identifies the goals they hope to achieve and the role of the mentor, in addition to being a sounding board and holding the beneficiary to account, is to encourage resilience and fortitude in pursuing those goals. Effective mentoring skills include; building trust; active listening; establishing boundaries; safeguarding and confidentiality and to break down the mentee’s goals into achievable targets. The mentoring is finite because we do not want to create dependency. Our aim is to empower individuals to make decisions, act and move forward with their goals.  

I think our model is so successful because it’s volunteer-led and our volunteers bring with them a wealth of skills and experience from their own lives. Plus it’s not always easy working with people with big problems in their lives so it’s a meaty volunteering opportunity that you really have to be dedicated to.  

One final thought on National Mentoring Day is that you don’t have to have big problems to benefit from the value of a mentor. For example, I both mentor someone in our sector at a different stage in their career to me and have a mentor - someone outside my world and circle of friends or networks who listens to the challenges of charity chief executive life – who helps clarify my thoughts about what’s good and bad and how best I can move forward – someone whose sole role for the hour or two that we spend together is to listen to me musing about life and that’s a real treat in a world where taking time out to think and create some head space is a rare but very much needed commodity.

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Carers - and their amazing capacity to keep on caring

Being a carer to a loved one, friend or neighbour can be stressful for many reasons.  The constant worry about that person not having their basic needs met, whether or not they are getting enough social interaction with others, getting them to their health checks and hospital appointments … the list is endless. 

Couple that with feelings of guilt, frustration and sometimes resentment for having to give up your identity or livelihood to care for your loved one and it makes for a very unsettling and difficult period in your life.  Caring can become very isolating and lonely. 

The Catch 22 is that many carers neglect themselves and risk not being fit to take care of the person who has come to depend on them.  Our Hidden Carers project aims to help carers understand the importance of their own wellbeing, offers access to services, support and social interaction.

Since I became the project co-ordinator for Hidden Carers I have come into contact with more than 100 carers, some of whom have been carers themselves and decided to pass on their experience. They act as volunteer facilitators at the workshops we run to support those caring for family members or friends, who for social or cultural reasons don’t identify themselves as carers. The facilitators lead  on a day of interactive tasks, exploring the role of the unpaid carer, what they do and who they care for.

Everyone at the workshops contributes to the list of things a carer does and that’s when it hits them.  They realise how much they do as well as trying to balance and meet their own needs.  At one workshop carers came up with the phrase: ‘Struggling and juggling’, which really illustrates the difficulties they face, especially those who are miraculously holding down full time work at the same time as caring. 

We listen to the story of Julie, a teacher who gave up her career to care for her elderly mother and husband, both diagnosed with Parkinson’s, whilst raising two boys.  It’s this part of the workshop where the tears are most likely to come.  Participants and volunteers identify with Julie and the challenges she faces.  Although there are common themes of financial disadvantage, decline in social interaction and sometimes psychological despair when you become a carer, all carers have very different needs and requirements.  The workshops aim to unpick those needs and put a plan in place to support our carers.

There comes a point when the carer stops being a carer.  This can be for a variety of reasons: the person they have been caring for may have recovered and no longer require the same level of support, they may have a professional care plan in place, moved into a residential care facility or sadly died. 

Whatever the reason, there can be a void or sense of redundancy and a feeling of what now?  Some of our volunteers and participants have been through the caring process yet still have the capacity to want to care for others, to share their experience and wisdom, and offer support to other carers in a similar situation.   Their abundance of empathy, compassion and kindness is exceptional.   Sometimes it’s hard to sustain the day to day care and responsibility of someone with complex needs close to you.  Yet with support and understanding from others we as carers can carry on caring in so many ways. 

If you'd like to know more about our Hidden Carers project, take a look here.

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We're working to address many of the issues raised in today's Race Disparity Audit

The Prime Minister launches the Government's ‘Ethnicity Facts and Figures’ website today. It highlights the disadvantage experienced by Britain’s ethnic groups in their interactions with public services, drawing on information about health, education, housing, employment and criminal justice. It is perhaps unsurprising in the bleak picture it paints of the outcomes and experiences of many from BAME communities, particularly women.  

In response the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, argues that the data would not provide the answers to why disparity existed, but said the Government wanted to work with outside groups to come up with ways it could tackle the injustice. 

At TimeBank our Talking Together programme goes some way to provide a solution. Our volunteer-delivered English language project across London and the Midlands offers informal spoken language training support to long-term UK residents who have little or no knowledge of English. Our practical input really helps transform lives, open doors and contribute to community integration. Talking Together works with women learners from the Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Somali communities. Research shows that it’s women in these communities who make up the largest proportion of non-English speakers. 

Working with groups at grassroots level we have been careful to consult and work with the women who are our learners to make sure we tailor the lessons to their needs. The most consistent response was that they wanted to improve their English for use at school with their children, attending the doctors, communicating online or by telephone and attending the Job Centre. They also mentioned the need to improve self-esteem, independence, well-being, autonomy and broadened horizons. We have worked on our curriculum with our learners to ensure that the lessons and activities focus on their children and education, moving closer to the job market, supporting them in their journey towards independence, well-being and integration. 

The programme of classes finish with a celebration of their achievements – often with shared food or a trip out to an unfamiliar place to practice their skills, something that is particularly valued by our learners, volunteers and TimeBank staff. And that is where the programme  adds even greater value - integration is not about one group of people having to do all the hard work to integrate and the other as passive observers. Our volunteers come from many different communities and backgrounds and in delivering the classes they learn about different cultures and experiences and challenges which can also break down barriers. 

Our knowledge and experience of delivering Talking Together since 2013 to over 3,000 learners from the South Asian community is that there is a real passion for learning and greater integration – they just need to be offered the opportunity at a local level and asked to be involved.


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Nine months - and a new focus

For nine months I followed the progress of George, a veteran who was eager to change his life for the better, but just didn't know where to start. George was referred to Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine by Veterans First Point to work with a mentor who could provide support. Here's his journey. 

George came out of the Army in 2004 after 13 years of service. He then worked in many different jobs: in security, as a parking attendant, life guard and a waiter. This wasn't the path he wanted to take. George lost focus and became socially isolated and depressed. With the help of Christine, a TimeBank mentor, George was able to identify some goals to help him move forward. He needed someone to talk with, to help enhance his confidence and self-esteem.  

Christine discussed with George his past interests to encourage him to take up a hobby as a goal to help him out of the home. He took up yoga, completed a course in meditation and mindfulness and attended the River Centre, which helped with coping strategies and positive thinking. His mentor also encouraged George to keep a diary of positive events.  

To help with focus and structure, George began volunteering at a local farm and with support by Employ-able delivered by the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH), he was able to look at his skills with a view to moving on to employment. He decided he was very interested in a career in alternative therapies and completed courses in Reiki and Indian Head massage.  

George's plans for the future are to set up his own business in alternative therapies, to see family members more often and he is planning to travel with a friend to Africa with a view to helping local people in need of support.  

George says: 'It's been good having someone to chat with. The support of a TimeBank mentor has enabled me to keep positive and focus on goals, helping me to feel less anxious. I don't feel as though I require any further support now and I'm happy to move on with my life. I'm excited about travelling and setting up my business in alternative therapies.'

Our Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine project supports ex-servicemen and women and their families who are struggling to adjust to civilian life. If you'd like to know more take a look here.

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The real issue isn't about paying trustees but of funding the volunteering infrastructure

I attended the All Party Parliamentary Group for Charities and Volunteering yesterday – the first of the new Parliament. It focussed on what next for Charity Governance so I invited TimeBank’s new Chair, Peter Beeby, to join me.

Governance is an age old issue thrust once more into the spotlight by the seemingly never ending fall out from Kids Company – having been to see Committee, the musical based around the select committee inquiry into Kids Company, I’m not going to lie - I was a tad disappointed that no one burst into song!!

On a serious point as Peter and I left we discussed what we could bring to our organisation – a starting point being to compare our existing strong processes with  the Codes of Governance highlighted by Rosie Chapman at the APPG.  It set me thinking about Governance and trustees and the current debates around volunteers. 

The irony is not lost on me that part of the discussion at the APPG was about whether  trustees should be paid.  Ironic because as a volunteering charity we are constantly standing up for the purity of volunteering and arguing that volunteers should not replace paid roles to plug public sector cuts and now we are suggesting paying volunteer trustees  would solve all our sector’s problems! I am intrigued to understand why paying someone makes them a more dedicated trustee – if you look to our commercial counterparts there are both good and bad non-executive directors who get paid – would we have had the banking crisis if some of them had been better? Does that mean we should just have paid them more? Or is it simply that we should have monitored and supported them to do their job better, ask the right questions and challenge those leading their organisations?

Paying someone won’t necessarily make them better or more committed – most people who volunteer to be a trustee do so because of a passion for the cause, a desire to understand what it’s like to sit on a Board or even improve their own job prospects. They don’t do it in the expectation of payment and I don’t think we would suddenly get better trustees if we paid them. We’d just get more, less dedicated to the cause.

I do think though the culture of not claiming expenses which is prevalent across many Boards should be addressed so we don’t exclude people. No one should have to pay to volunteer and the old school attitude that it’s your donation to the charity is outdated. And if you really want to donate it to the charity – claim your expenses and donate them back with Gift Aid and we all win!

Which brings me to diversity. There was a very strong argument for diversity on Boards and bringing in young trustees. I absolutely agree with this and the importance of different voices, but as a Chief Executive with a Board who all work full time I sometimes want more time from them, which I can’t have in working hours. So are we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water by sneering at the traditional “male, pale and stale” model of retired professionals? We should value their skills and knowledge, their expertise and more importantly the time they have available. We could, as one person suggested, invite them to mentor the future generation of trustees – not only on their own Boards but beyond.  

Retention was the other big discussion point. How do we keep and enthuse our trustees and bring diverse people together? My question on this is two-fold: What about those you don’t want to retain who’ve been a trustee for ever and hold back the charity with their ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mindset? A simple solution is to have defined maximum periods on the Board. At TimeBank our trustees commit to three years and an option for another three – of course when you have someone who you want to go that’s fine, but when there is someone you like and value it’s harder to wave goodbye – so shouldn’t we be capturing these people and asking them to mentor and support new trustees coming onto our boards?

Maybe as a national volunteering charity specialising in mentoring TimeBank should look at this – but then who would pay for the administration? And that’s the real point. It’s not the volunteers who need paying, it’s the infrastructure around them that needs to be supported. That is something that successive Governments have failed to address since they embraced the ‘Big Society’ and simultaneously cut the budgets of the volunteering infrastructure organisations meant to deliver it.  

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Tolkien, goats on tables and dusty warehouses

In August it fell to me to organise one of our twice yearly staff volunteering days.

I took it on assuming it would be a) relatively simply to find somewhere and organise and b) easy to accommodate everyone’s needs, including the charity offering us the opportunity to donate our time to them. Having not organised a staff volunteering day before, l revisited the excellent blog by my colleague Calley on getting started with employee volunteering tips for getting started with employee volunteering. It’s well worth a read if your company or staff team are thinking about a volunteering day. In her blog Calley suggests you consider four things:

What do you want to get out of it?

As a volunteering organisation, this was perhaps the easiest to address. We have an organisational commitment to staff volunteering that goes to the very heart of our work. In addition to the two days a year we volunteer together as a team, we offer all staff five days paid volunteering leave. Part of the thinking behind this is that we want to share our skills and experience with other organisations. But we also want to understand the reality of volunteering in the not for profit sector to inform our thinking and practice as a volunteering organisation.

On a more practical level we have staff in three different locations over 400 miles apart. Some of the team had spoken to, but never met some of their colleagues. The opportunity to meet up, do things that make real difference, that are completely outside of your usual job roles, teams and hierarchies really helps staff get to know each other. It’s not often that a Programme Manager gets to discuss the relative merits of a donated t-shirt with the Finance Director!

What do your staff want?

Our team (as l’m sure pretty much any other team) all wanted to do different activities, from “…anything as long as it’s inside…” to “…anything as long as it’s outside…”  What united them is that they wanted to do something where they felt they were making a real difference, that was interesting and fun. Thankfully, this is something that TimeBank really excels at. In the last 15 years we have organised team volunteering opportunities for companies large and small (if you’re interested in getting your organisation volunteering there is a link at the end of this blog).  

Budget for volunteering

Even though this was our staff volunteering, it still required a budget. We charge our corporate clients to organise volunteering days because we are only too aware of the costs involved. Suitable opportunities have to be identified which takes time (l contacted and discussed our needs with five different projects before identifying one that met both TimeBank’s and the charity’s needs). The project was visited and roles discussed. Can the numbers be accommodated? Can the task be delivered in a day? Are there opportunities to undertake a number of tasks in different teams? Are there opportunities for those with disabilities or restricted mobility? Then there are practical issues: will our team need to bring their own lunch/drinks? Are there secure storage facilities etc.? Once all of that was agreed l then had to undertake a thorough health and safety and risk assessment.

What do charities need?

For all of the charities we work with their aspirations are often not matched by their resources (and this is true whatever the size of the charity). There is much that they would like to do but are simply unable to. We wanted to find a charity where one day of our staff team’s time would make a difference that would otherwise not happen. I found lots of opportunities that were really interesting – from environmental volunteering in a Bronze Age bog – thought to have inspired Tolkien - to an urban farm, rebuilding climbing tables for goats which were too old to climb on the existing furniture.

But we settled on a charity that runs a food and clothes bank. We did this because we thought we could make the most meaningful impact in one day (although l was very tempted by the thought of building goat’s furniture!) The charity had recently taken over a warehouse space on an industrial estate which was full of donated food and clothing. They were trying to run their service, delivering food and clothing parcels, while trying to sort out the warehouse, which was neither practical or achievable in the short term.

With TimeBank’s support for one day we were able to clean storage areas, take down old shelving and put a new storage system in place. Meanwhile other colleagues emptied and sorted good donated clothes while another team folded clothes into men’s and women’s sizes. And thanks to careful planning and working closely with the charity we completed all of the tasks we set out to do. And just as importantly, we had great fun and the chance to socialise together afterwards over a curry and beer.

If you would like to find out more about how to get your company volunteering please visit or contact Sarah Bonoff on or 0203 111 0721 

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A look back over the last year

It was only when I was putting together some information about our Talking Together project in Birmingham, Coventry and Leicester and saw things ‘in numbers’ that I thought, WOW! We really have achieved so much over the last year.

Talking Together is our volunteering project which offers informal spoken language training to UK residents who have little or no knowledge of English, mostly women from the Bangladeshi, Somali and Pakistani communities. So, what’s been happening  in The Midlands?

·        We recruited and trained 62 volunteers

·        We held 17 volunteer training days

·        364 learners registered for the classes, with 316 completing the course

·        We worked with 19 local community organisations to deliver our courses

Maybe it’s because I really enjoy my job as the Project Coordinator, and it didn’t feel too much like work  that I didn’t realise how much we had accomplished. You go about your job each day, training volunteers, meeting new delivery partners, attending classes, ticking off the to-do list, never stopping to think about the impact the project is having amongst our stakeholders.

We have recruited and trained 62 volunteers – a huge success for our project, as without our volunteers we would not be able to deliver our English classes. We have been impressed by the amount of time and dedication our volunteers have given to us, with many choosing to remain a volunteer and teach extra courses. I am a big believer that this volunteering opportunity is popular because it is so hands on and practical, and really gives our volunteers an experience which increases self-confidence, develops personal and professional skills and provides a sense of achievement.

364 learners registered on Talking Together, with 316 completing the course. Having attended quite a few classes, I have seen first-hand the change in the women who take part. At the first class, learners tend to be quite shy and lacking in confidence. As the classes continue, there is a genuine increase in their participation, enjoyment and improved English Language. I make no secret that one of my favourite classes is the celebration class on the last day. Yes, it is partly that I enjoy the home cooked biryani and samosas the women cook to share, but mainly because I am always so overwhelmed with how far the women have come, and how much they want to talk to me and ask me questions in English.

We have worked with 19 delivery partners, who host and deliver the classes. We work with a variety of partners, including primary schools, community centres and small charities. Their role is crucial to the success of Talking Together, as they link the women to our classes.

And now we are well into the next phase of our project, with a drive for new volunteers and new delivery partners across the Midlands and in London.  Would you like to be a part of Talking Together? We are looking for volunteers in London, Birmingham, Coventry and Leicester so if you are interested take a  look here and  get in touch: for the Midlands project talk to or phone her on 07835300931 and if you’d like to get involved in our London project, contact, tel: 0203 111 7000.  

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Vape shop owners and DJs wanted

The news this week (Prisons Inspector warns of 'staggering' decline in safety at youth jails) made depressing reading for a reason particularly close to home to TimeBank. The Chief Inspector of Prisons reported a “staggering” decline in standards and safety at youth jails in England and Wales. This should be coupled with the fact that the most recent statistics show 69.4% of juvenile offenders released from custody reoffended within a year. Let’s just stop and think about that: nearly 7 out of 10 young offenders leaving prison will have reoffended within a year, with many going back to young offender institutions that the Chief Inspector describes as not safe to hold children and young people.

TimeBank is working with Prospects to pilot a mentoring intervention that can go a small way to address this. Prospects provide the education service for young people in Feltham Young Offenders Institution. In addition to delivering the curriculum, they focus on raising aspiration and providing alternative, positive futures. We have developed a mentoring programme designed to support young men as they prepare to leave the prison, with the aim of reduce reoffending rates and supporting them into work.

Both TimeBank and Prospects believe there should be the opportunity for ex-offenders to have the chance to live a different life on release. To do this we want to nurture and develop the aspirations that many of the offenders have: to be self-employed and entrepreneurial. Having spent time talking to the young people and the professionals that support them, we think we have some insight into the lives the young people want on release.

Like many young men who have grown up in tough inner-city areas their aspirations are, in part, shaped and informed by the places they come from. But that doesn’t mean they lack ambition or should be stereotyped: being their own boss and earning money is the dream – much like any other teenager. So, what do they see as both realistic and attainable? For some it is in the local music industry, promoting events, managing talent or as DJs or producers. For others, it is a career in retail, from the fashion and music they love to vape shops.

But this is not without significant challenges. The inmates are aged between 15 and 21 and the current prison population is about 500. Over 60% of the prison population comes from black and minority ethnic communities and 40% are Muslim. The shadow of gang culture looms large over Feltham. A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons found that over 48 gangs were represented in the prison population with high levels of “unpredictable and reckless violence”. A quarter of the young men with known gang affiliations are on “keep-apart lists”. At all times out of their cells they are escorted around the prison individually by prison officers to prevent any accidental or arranged meetings. Unsurprisingly in a 2017 inspection nearly half of the young people said they felt unsafe in the prison.

So where do you come in? Once again, we are reaching out for some remarkable volunteers – you might own and run your own vaping business, have offended in the past, or maybe you are now working in the music or event management industry. Whatever it is you do, we want volunteers who can connect with some very challenging young men.

You will need to visit the young people up to three times while they are preparing for release and then continue for three visits once they leave prison. Getting in and out of the prison is problematic – you will only be able to go on weekdays and only during office hours. You will be advised to come in the clothes you stand up in but nothing else and very definitely no mobile phone. TimeBank will train and support you throughout your involvement and once inside the prison gates Prospects will support and accompany you always. And now the tricky part. You’ll need to be young, speak their language and earn their trust. Now that’s an odd thought isn’t it? Earning the trust of a young offender? That would put the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” brigade in a lather. But if you don’t, then nothing is likely to bring about the process of change in these young people’s lives.

And one final thing, these young people can spot a fraud or a charlatan a mile off (l wanted to use another word there, but l hope you get the gist) – if you haven’t done it, don’t pretend you have.

If you would like to find out more about this opportunity please email me at

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