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

Speaking the same language and building more inclusive communities

It’s been nine months since the Talking Together adventure started in London. After being a great success in Birmingham for 18 months, in March we started a pilot programme across 10 London boroughs.

Throughout these months I have had the pleasure to work with amazing colleagues and volunteers and inspiring and exceptional learners. In London, Talking Together recruited and trained 42 volunteers to hold basic and informal English language classes to long term UK residents with very little or no English.  35 classes later, an amazing 302 learners have completed the course.   

Talking Together has been all about a holistic approach to sustainable development - a ‘win win’ for everyone involved.   For our volunteers, their time has been used doing something really meaningful, and that has further developed their skillsets and employability. Our delivery partners have been able to offer an extra service to their users, as well as gaining some additional funding at a time when the charity sector is being stretched beyond its means. And our learners can now communicate and have basic conversations in English. Most importantly, they now have the confidence to speak.


Being a national volunteering charity our focus is on creating great, meaningful and sustainable volunteering opportunities. Talking Together has been just that.  Ten of our volunteers have continued volunteering with the organisation they were matched with, delivering English classes the way we trained them. Four are pursuing careers in teaching after being inspired by the programme; one has already completed his CELTA qualifications.

Two inspiring young women - both victims of domestic violence - have gained confidence and experience to enter the job market. We haven't pictured them here to protect their privacy but one said: “I will never forget about you, especially after giving me the opportunity to gain my confidence again after nine years of domestic violence. Only you and the three days of training woke me up from my nightmare and made me see life in a positive way and look forward.  You gave me opportunity to start from scratch, built a career and feel worth in this life.”

Every class has been different; we have worked with 23 diverse organisations who support refugees, get people into employment, support victims of domestic violence or link schools and mothers. The learners are from many different backgrounds, but what is common for all is that they want to be a part of British society and they want to be able to communicate.

Talking Together has been all about creating more inclusive communities. About overcoming boundaries and providing support to volunteers, organisations and learners. Some of our learners have been in this country for many years, but had no friends outside of their immediate family.  One told me that she had made her first friend since moving to this country on our course.

Talking together is about improving people’s English, but a truly great side effect of the programme is its social impact. How it helps people out of isolation, be it volunteers or beneficiaries, and how it builds friendships and understanding of different cultures. The project empowers our learners, beneficiaries, partner organisations and local communities as a whole. We all have something to learn from each other, speaking the same language and building more inclusive communities.


I’m so proud to have been one of two project co-ordinators on Talking Together London, and that the project as a whole (including London and the Midlands) has reached 2,011 learners via nearly 200 volunteers.  Thanks to everyone involved making this a truly great project! 

Add a comment

A trip to the British Museum

"I have lived in this country for 16 years, but never been to the museum. I always wanted to go, just been afraid to go on my own.”

As a part of TimeBank's Talking Together programme, offering informal English language classes to UK residents with very little or no English,  I taught a class at an Islington Primary School in co-operation with one of our delivery partners Renaisi, an award winning social enterprise.Ten mothers completed the course and they were truly exceptional learners with great drive and a keen interest in learning. One had just moved to the UK and didn’t speak a word of English; she spoke three other languages, but not this one.

In the beginning we communicated through miming, and let’s face it, me looking like an idiot most of the time, but in the end we could actually have a small conversation (almost without reverting to comical moves). After a class covering public services I found out that none of the mothers had ever been to a museum in the UK. They didn’t know it was free and some of them were afraid to travel alone.

An idea started to form in my head and I spoke to Emma Brech, head of schools and communities at Renaisi, and together with their bilingual advisers we organised a class field trip to the British Museum.  I joined the mums after they had dropped off their kids at school and gave them each a printout of a map, directions and bus information and they guided us from the school all the way there.

As we reached the Museum one said: “I am taking my kids here, it’s so easy. Just one bus and you’re there!”  It’s all about helping people take that little step outside their comfort zone. Here was a lady who had not even entered the Museum yet, but had felt empowered by being able to direct us and had crossed an internal boundary doing so.


We checked out the Egyptian section, Greek artefacts, South East Asia, Africa, and the Islamic world. Throughout the day we were constantly using our English vocabulary, unless some descriptions were too difficult and then the translators from Renaisi would step in and explain more complicated aspects of world history. After a long informative day I turned to one of the learners and asked what she had liked the best.  She told me that her favourite part was seeing the mummies and that she hadn’t known that they existed.

We do field trips with children all the time in school to expand their learning and to make it interactive. Why don’t we do the same with adult learners? The people I have come across have specifically enjoyed the informal nature of Talking Together which makes learning fun and less intimidating. 


Our learners have hopes and ambitions and want to be a part of British society. They want to learn English to speak to their child’s teacher, to go to the doctor alone, to be able to get a job, to have the confidence and ability to ask for directions or travel on their own.  I have never come across people that are so dedicated to their studies and it has been a pleasure to be a part of their journey to learn the language and integrate better into their communities. 

Add a comment

My role as a TimeBank trustee is everything I want from a volunteering opportunity - and more

When I first heard about becoming a TimeBank trustee, I only knew a few things about volunteering. Having been a School Governor and a Games Maker, I knew I enjoyed it. Having done short term and long term volunteering, I felt that there was a real value in starting a long term volunteering relationship. And having done generic and skills specific volunteering, I wanted an opportunity where I felt could use my professional skills - as well as develop new skills that would help in my professional life.

I also wanted to work with a charity that made a provable difference to individual's lives, so was instantly impressed by TimeBank's targeted, measurable and end user-centric mentoring programmes. I could see how they would have a real impact, both for mentor and mentee, and admired the way in which they aimed to fill gaps in provision or meet emerging social needs.

Having been lucky enough to pass my initial interview, I've found that my role as a TimeBank trustee has been everything I wanted from a volunteering opportunity and more. I've been able to use my professional skills (I work in communications) on everything from blog writing to helping review communications procedures and protocols. I've been part of Trustee interview panels and TimeBank away days, and attended Parliamentary events. I've even done a stint as a mentor myself, as part of the Leaders Together programme, supporting smaller charities. 

But the main thing I've enjoyed is working with such dedicated, enthusiastic and talented people - both in terms of my fellow trustees, and TimeBank's own staff. Every meeting brings a different, thought provoking challenge, and it's really inspiring to be part of that discussion with such a great team. I might have not known too much about volunteering when I started as a trustee, but I've learned so much in my time with TimeBank so far - and am looking forward to seeing where we go in the future!

Add a comment

Being a trustee - a professionally and personally rewarding experience

Being a trustee might not be suited to everyone, but I am pretty certain there are many, many more people who would gain from the experience than currently get involved. And there are certainly many organisations that would benefit from the skills that volunteer trustees can bring.

My interest in volunteering started in what is probably a fairly traditional way: first the Parent Teacher Association and then Governor at my children’s schools. I quickly realised that I really could make a huge difference, not only by raising money, but also by supporting the senior teams with strong governance, guidance and challenge.

My children may both now have left school far behind, but I have continued to volunteer.  It gives me so much in return, why wouldn’t I? Whether it’s a new playground for children; the opening of a new theatre with a community play; the award of Technology status to a school or the involvement of company employees in raising money for special causes … whatever the volunteering opportunity, the reward far outweighs the effort.

And that’s what is so exciting about being a trustee for TimeBank. Here is an organisation which lives and breathes volunteering and which is making a truly significant difference to some of the UK’s most complex social problems. Projects such as Talking Together which offers informal spoken language training and mentoring support to long-term UK residents who have little or no knowledge of English; and The Switch which matches volunteer mentors with young people who are living with mental health issues like depression, anxiety or self-harm. Personally, I am really interested in the work TimeBank does to encourage Employee Volunteering and the Leaders Together project which matches leaders from small charities, social enterprises and community groups with senior professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds in London.

As a trustee of TimeBank I can use the skills that I have developed in my corporate life to support the aims of the charity. I get to work with other people who are similarly passionate about volunteering, but from whom I can learn a huge amount professionally. We are bound together by this passion, but we come from many different backgrounds and walks of life and all contribute to the success of the charity. This is not mere ‘do-gooding’. This is working at a highly professional level as part of a senior decision making team; in many ways similar to being a non-Executive Director of a corporate company. Whether it’s decision-making at board meetings; assisting with fundraising strategies; supporting the CEO and her team at TimeBank events; it is a professionally and personally rewarding experience and I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

Add a comment

Too many of the most vulnerable young people in England are "cut adrift when they need help the most" say MPs.

Young care leavers are still being let down according to the Head of the Public Accounts Committee, who says there has been "systemic failing" in support to young people leaving foster care or children's homes.

A BBC report today says the committee found that outcomes for the 10,000 young people aged 16 or over who leave care each year are "poor and worsening" and that the quality and cost of support to care leavers "varies unacceptably" between local authorities.

This report highlights the need for TimeBank projects such as Starting Together which supported female care leavers during their transition to independent living. The project was a small pilot, which originated in Southwark and ran for 18 months from May 2013. It provided young women with a volunteer mentor at the point they left care.  Mentors met the care leavers for around five hours a month for six months, offering them both practical and emotional support as they made the transition to independent living.

Young people are particularly vulnerable when they leave care. They have to leave home much earlier than those who have not been in the care system and are often the least equipped to deal with it. They may be susceptible to anxiety and depression and the project aimed to act as a preventative measure to long-term mental health difficulties.

Although a small pilot project, the outcomes were very positive. One third of mentees were supported with finding or applying for jobs and 50% with drafting a CV or cover letter. 42% received help with applying to college or college work and another 42% gained support with every day matters such as starting driving lessons, budgeting or housing issues. The young people also became used to confiding in their mentors about day to day issues or concerns, learning to open up about a range of personal difficulties.

One of the young women, Carla, was supported by her mentor with her dream of becoming a lawyer. She said she found the help she gained from her mentor invaluable: ‘I’ve become more focused and targeted. I’m ready and on track with school work and applications. I’ve made lots of plans and really enjoyed the experience.’

Another – Ellie - was helped with her goal of living more healthily, by attending gym classes with her mentor, shopping for nutritious food and discussing affordable, tasty recipes together. She says that her mentor has been ‘friendly, motivating and patient’ and has encouraged her to do activities which were previously a struggle.

This project has sadly finished now, but we’d love to offer this support to many more young people and roll it out more widely across the UK. So if you know of any funders that would be up for supporting us please do let us know as we’d really like to see many more care leavers benefit from a project that is so clearly needed.




Add a comment

Helping South Korea to create new opportunities for people with disabilities

At the end of October we had an amazing meeting with a delegation from the Seoul Welfare Foundation. They are travelling around Europe to collect information and share experiences with other organisations on how to improve access to volunteering for people with disabilities, as well as helping them to make a bigger contribution to their local communities.

We started the meeting with an introduction to TimeBank and an overview of our volunteer mentoring projects and the beneficiary groups we support. Specific attention was paid to the lessons we have learnt  and, especially, the transferable elements of our model. The delegation from Seoul was particularly interested in how involving more people with disabilities in volunteering could also help build stronger communities.

We gained the impression that in South Korea there still are big obstacles for disabled people to find employment or even meaningful volunteering. We were keen to emphasise that for us the question was not “if” they could make a valuable contribution to society but “how”. We told them about our mentoring programme The Switch and how we worked with a young person who suffered such severe anxiety that she was unable to leave her bedroom. After 12 months of mentoring, she is now working as a teaching assistant. Also, how one of the volunteers on our English teaching project Talking Together  has MS, but has enjoyed the experience of language training so much that they have decided to train as a teacher and continue working in this sector.


These example helped us to show  our guests how volunteers and volunteering can help a variety of people to gain new skills, confidence, motivation and support to break down the barriers that keep them from fully developing their potential. I would not argue that volunteering is the solution to all problems, but it can definitely help in many different situations it if is properly managed and supported.

Volunteering also breaks down social barriers. When people from different communities meet, they find they are not so different after all. This is the third time in the last few months that TimeBank has been contacted by organisations from overseas who want to learn from our projects and experiences. We feel very proud and honoured that our model of tackling complex social issues is gaining such an international reputation.  This is further recognition of the extremely high quality and impactful interventions that TimeBank staff deliver. Well done to all of them!

Add a comment

On time, over target and under budget - what an achievement

Regular readers of the blog will know that our most recent Westminster events have had an animal theme – being upstaged by a mouse running through the audience, or accepting you have to kiss a lot of frogs before finding the right partner!

Last Monday night saw us launch our Talking Together evaluation in the Thames Pavilion room on the river at the House of Commons – and our only animal guest was a seagull sitting on the wall outside!

Talking Together was our innovative volunteer led English language training and mentoring project, funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government, that we ran in Birmingham and Leicester over 18 months. And what an 18 months it was - we trained 144 volunteers who supported 1571 learners to speak every day functional English Language and we then mentored 204 to the next level.

Our External Evaluator, Hilary Barnard, gave a fantastic overview of what we achieved -  here are just some of the stats:

  • A retention rate of 91%

  • 88% learners were women; 69% had dependent children

  • 87% learners were not working; 60% wanted to find work; 65% wanted to prepare for further study

  • 60% learners in the UK for less than 10 years

71% learners from target group aged 18 to 40

And perhaps some outcomes that are harder to put a number against:

  • Growing confidence (c. 65%) and competence (c.45%) of learners in everyday issues
  • Raised aspirations of learners for their next steps in education, training and employment

  • Boost for wellbeing and for vital work of carers

  • Strengthening parenting around children’s education and healthcare, including knowing what their kids are doing on the computer

Crucially Talking Together came in on time, over target and under budget with an estimated social return on investment of £9.31 for every £1 invested, which we think is a phenomenal achievement.

This was a big project for a little charity like TimeBank, and we take great confidence from the faith shown in us to deliver it, but it’s not the largest project of its kind that we have run. Our very first mentoring project from which all of our expertise in this area stems was called Time Together, a project matching refugees with a UK national to help them integrate more effectively into UK society. It is incredible to think that 13 years on Talking Together was built based on our learning from that project and indeed today we see a new refugee crisis looming where our programme may yet be resurrected to support this vulnerable group of people.

So we were incredibly proud when Talking Together replicated its parent project and was awarded the prestigious Approved Provider Standard Award by the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation.TimeBank is above all an expert in volunteer mentoring. In all our projects we seek to ensure that volunteers have a positive experience, gain new skills and become more rounded individuals.  So the feedback we’ve gained from our volunteers has been particularly gratifying.

As one volunteer said “Another unseen delight has been the chance for me to connect with a community I have never been involved with … it is a shining example of how different people and communities can integrate …”

I’m very proud of the way that Talking Together has played such a vital role in building community integration because English language truly is the glue that binds our society together.  We hope very much to be able to expand this programme long term – if you’d like to find out more take a look at the evaluation here or the video we commissioned about it where volunteers and learners talk about their amazing journey.

Add a comment

Partnership is in our DNA - together we are stronger

Last week I was in Birmingham with our friends Acorns Children’s Hospices welcoming our new funders BCBN (Better Community Business Network) to one of Acorns’ three hospices to talk about our brand new partnership.

As anyone who has ever heard me speak will know, partnership is in TimeBank’s DNA - it’s part of our fundamental belief that together we are stronger. Partnership working is such an important part of our ethos simply because we believe that working with organisations that have different skills and knowledge makes our projects stronger and more impactful and enables us to offer greater support to our beneficiaries.

Our partnerships start in many different ways – we may have an idea and seek out a partner who is expert in the field where we think our volunteer mentoring model might work or sometimes we are approached by organisations wanting to set up a mentoring programme. In this instance it was a chance meeting at an event between myself and the CEO of Acorns, David Strudley – a conversation about our respective organisations that sparked an idea in both our heads that we might just have a new way to use our mentoring model – working with young people with life limiting illnesses who are transitioning from children’s to adult services. 

Like any new partnership, in any context, the early stages are fraught with anxiety - will this work, do we share the same values, is it long term? And perhaps more specifically to charity partnerships, can we fund it?! And that is where BCBN came in. Our starting point with any new idea is proof of concept. We start with the belief that the best programmes are co-designed with the full participation of the potential beneficiaries and stakeholders. And so we wanted to design our mentoring programme with Acorns staff, former and current clients of Acorns and their parents/carers, starting with the assumption that those receiving services have the best idea of what that service should look like. This not only makes the best projects but the evidence also convinces funders of the true worth of what we are doing and makes it more likely to receive funding long term.

BCBN kindly granted us vital seed funding to run these focus groups which we’ll be starting in November. So the partnership has officially begun and we’ll keep you posted as the project develops.


Add a comment