Blog

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

Can you teach a leader to lead?

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that those around me may consider me a tad cynical and that is certainly the way I started last week! 

The thing about courses in my experience is that they’re a bit overrated – those who speak on courses spiel textbook and people who go on courses all the time tend to regurgitate them (usually badly) – and when it comes to leadership in my view it’s a bit more complicated than that.

So why did I find myself on the emerging leaders programme at the Windsor Leadership Trust last week then? Lots of reasons. The first is that I was lucky enough to have been nominated to do so and because I work for a small voluntary organisation I was offered part of the cost as a bursary so it was affordable. Before I went I talked to several people for whom I have an enormous respect who had either done it or heard of it and who told me I should do everything I could to make sure I attended. Plus it was in Windsor Castle and perhaps most importantly of all I haven’t invested any time in me for a long time and sometimes having an opportunity to force yourself into some head space is vital.

So last Monday I walked up the hill trudging my suitcase behind into the gates of Windsor Castle to St George's House. It’s a fairly intimidating thing to do, committing to a week-long residential course, full not only of complete strangers but of leaders from a cross section of society. That first afternoon I remained a bit unsure – but then I realised that the people in my ‘syndicate’ were not only incredibly interesting and had a whole other perspective to bring to the party but also shared my uncertainty, so over a gin and tonic that evening I was fairly sure the week was going to be a success.

The extent of that success is of course yet to be seen – but I have been musing ever since what it was that changed my attitude from ‘what on earth am I doing here?’ to ‘this was probably the most inspiring week of my professional life’? In other words what makes the Windsor course unique.  

  • The mix of sectors – the problems and outcomes you face in  the police, the military, commercial business, the NHS, the church, local government or the charity sector may be different but the leadership challenges are fundamentally the same.
  • They don’t ram text books down your throat – you learn from one another and from the speakers who give their time to share different perspectives on their leadership journey. You have free reign to question and challenge them.
  • It’s intense but there’s time to think – whether that’s in the bar or over lunch or back in your room or taking a stroll around the castle grounds – you  are perpetually reflecting on what you’ve just heard and what it means for you, your style of leadership, your organisation or simply the way you appear to others.
  • It’s in the grounds of Windsor Castle which in itself makes it more of a retreat - your surroundings constantly remind you of how privileged you are to be there.  Late one afternoon in the manner of schoolchildren during a break in the programme we sneaked out to the pub and as we left I noticed the Union flag flying over the Castle. When we returned it was the Royal Standard – so as we had mused over a pint the Queen had rocked up to her home. It's that slightly surreal element that makes it so special.
  • The people – the chair, facilitators, speakers, guests, staff team and my fellow students – utterly blew me away with their generosity of time and insight, of ensuring everything that we did was right for us, not an imposed structure of one size fits all.
  • The humour. I can honestly say that I haven’t  laughed so much in a long time.

In essence this last week took me out of myself – made me think about every decision I have made or will make and I hope will make me a better, more considerate, more thoughtful, more successful leader in my sector with the support of my peers not just in the charity sector but across society and surely that can only be a good thing.  

The Trust’s  strapline: “Inspire, discover, transform” pretty much sums it up for me. Check it out, it’s properly awesome: www.windsorleadershiptrust.org.uk

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Volunteering around full time work - how do you fit it all in?

When I list all the volunteering I do, people’s reaction tends to be “How do you fit it in?” It’s easy really. I do things that I really care about so I want to make time and none of them involves a regular commitment at a set time.

I’ve always worked full time and I’ve always volunteered. As a Youth Support Volunteer for the National Deaf Children’s Society I attend residential events for deaf children and young people to provide pastoral care and communication support, translating between English and BSL (British Sign Language). These are at weekends or in the school holidays. I also attend the volunteer steering group three times a year.

I’ve been involved with Greenbelt Festival - an annual festival of arts, faith and justice - for nine years in a variety of voluntary roles including leading teams of volunteers. The festival takes place over the August Bank Holiday weekend and I’m there for a few days beforehand, as well as attending a Team Leader day and doing some prep at home throughout the year. I can do any admin and preparation in my own time so I just fit it in where I can.

I’m also an Independent Visitor Volunteer with The Children’s Society, which involves keeping in contact with a young person in local authority care and meeting them about once a month to do whatever activity they choose. Having moved away I’m continuing that role as a Virtual Independent Visitor, keeping up contact remotely with a couple of face to face visits. Independent Visiting is quite similar to the mentoring projects I’m working on at TimeBank.

These include Starting Together and City Opportunities Mentoring which match care leavers with a mentor who will spend five hours a month with them for six months working towards goals identified by the young person. Mentors receive training and expenses for their travel and refreshments. The Switch matches mentors with young people who are making the difficult change from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) to either Adult Mental Health Services or living independent of mental health services as they turn 18.

We are particularly interested in hearing from male volunteers who would like to be matched with a young person on The Switch. We are running training at the end of November so it’s not too late to apply. Please contact Rachel Carder, Project Co-ordinator on 020 3111 0730 or email us at theswitch@timebank.org.uk

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I volunteer as a trustee to support a cause I passionately believe in

Our trustees play a vital role, volunteering their time and working together to make important decisions about TimeBank's work. To mark Trustees' Week Peter Beeby talks about what drives his involvement.

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I didn't really need to think long and hard about volunteering with TimeBank. I firmly believe in the value of volunteering - the desire to put your hand up and do something for someone else or a cause – I like to believe it is something innate in most of us, second nature.

What TimeBank does is facilitate this need – co-ordinate and organise it in a way that is valuable for the volunteer, for organisations engaged in volunteering and for those benefiting from the contribution of volunteers. I am also very interested in the projects TimeBank supports – my particular favourites include co-ordinating volunteers to befriend and support veterans and their families, and a project matching volunteer mentors with young people who are living with mental health issues.

I like being a trustee firstly because I am supporting a venture/cause I passionately believe in. This is what drives my contribution and my enjoyment volunteering for TimeBank.

Volunteering as a trustee utilises the skills and experience I have gained in my day job and is something I can do around my work. It enables me to be part of a team that supports the success of an organisation that has a direct impact on the lives of others. Hearing about the impact and success of the staff and volunteers of TimeBank gives me a real buzz and I am never short of something to say when advocating and promoting the work of TimeBank! I’m also a bit of a geek when it comes to good governance and process which I think really benefits the organisation and the Board.

I don’t just get a ‘lovely feeling’ out of being a trustee. It has been beneficial in building my confidence attending external meetings and contributing my thoughts and opinions. The Board at TimeBank is supportive and focused with a team of trustees from various backgrounds and experiences. I enjoy the respect and knowledge shared around the table – I learn something new at each meeting.

I wouldn’t be a trustee or volunteer unless I felt my contribution in some way, however small, makes a difference. As a trustee there are many ways to contribute – sharing my skills and knowledge from my previous experiences, promoting the organisation at events or reviewing and commenting on financial performance – big or small they all in some way make a difference to TimeBank. Ultimately my time volunteering as a trustee ensures good governance, supporting an organisation that enables others to volunteer safely, and in mutually rewarding way. 

TimeBank will be recruiting some more trustees to its Board in the New Year, so if you've been inspired, look out for our ad on the vacancies page.

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Don't undervalue the role of older people as trustees - they have a wealth of experience to offer

I had lunch with an old boss of mine a couple of weeks ago. Someone I’ve kept in touch with not just because he was the first person to ‘take a punt’ on me and give me a chance at a time in my career when I needed someone to believe in me but because he’s someone who I have enormous respect for, learnt a huge amount from and whom I rate as a real leader. So I guess really he’s an informal mentor.

Over lunch he told me that his role as Chairman of a board of trustees at a big charity was coming to an end and he didn’t know what he was going to do with his time. This is not a man to retire quietly to the golf course or tend the lawn to within an inch of its life!  So I immediately said: Get another trustee role of course, you’ll easily pick up another chairmanship. No, he said I’m over 70 now, no-one will even look at me. When I’ve applied to register with an agency they just laughed. Apparently I have nothing to offer - I’m an old fuddy duddy, a ‘traditional trustee’ and no one wants those anymore!

To say I was shocked would be an understatement. Now please don’t get me wrong, I could not agree more with the importance of diverse Boards, of encouraging young people to take on more responsibility and become a trustee. And let’s not forget making sure women have their place at the table too. But it made me think that perhaps we could be in danger of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. The traditional, ‘old school’, retired, professional man actually has rather a lot to offer.

As a CEO I know that one of the most important things you need from a Chair is time – someone who can devote their time to reading Board papers and talking them through with you, who will lead a strategy meeting, make sure the Board works as it should and is happy to pop into the office for an hour here and there to act as a sounding board or to attend our events. Someone who is no longer working full time and who has life and work experience has an awful lot to offer.

So this Trustees Week – while you read all of the articles encouraging you to think of new people to join your Board – step back and think about the traditional candidates too and don’t undervalue them, their knowledge, their leadership skills, their time or indeed their ability to chair a meeting effectively. Don’t  assume everyone retires to the countryside and wants a quiet life – because if 40 is the new 30,  70 is the new 60!! Our country is moving into an era of an increasingly ageing population (there are more than 10 million people over 65 in the UK) and our older people are fitter, more active, and have more to offer than ever before.

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A new home for our Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine project

It was an exciting day for Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine yesterday. Even the pouring rain couldn’t dampen our spirits as our new home in Bishopton was unveiled after SP Energy Networks generously stepped in to renovate the exterior of a cottage at Erskine Home for us.

Local newspaper the Paisley Daily Express came along to mark the moment when the cottage was ready for use - much earlier than we expected thanks to the company's support. SP Energy Networks' staff volunteered to paint the outside of the cottage - a great example of employee volunteering supporting a local charity.

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Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine is a unique partnership between TimeBank and Scotland’s leading veterans’ charity Erskine, which supports veterans and their families in Glasgow and Edinburgh. 

The cottage will provide an important base for the programme. We’ll be able to hold a friendly drop-in there for ex-Service men and women, and for their families too, who often face unique challenges in understanding and dealing with the issues their partners, sons and daughters are going through. And we hope local people will come along to find out more about volunteering with us.

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Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine mentors provide one to one support, once or twice per month over the course of three to nine months. You can see more about the work we are doing here and if you’d like to volunteer as a mentor please call 0141 814 4510 or email ali@timebank.org.uk  We are here to help.

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Caring Conundrums

Caring for someone is far from easy. TimeBank’s Carers Together project is here to help.

The responsibility of caring can fall on us quite suddenly. When a close friend has a fall, or a family member suffers a stroke, life can be turned upside down. It can also creep up, as a parent reaches old age or a partner contracts a degenerative condition and makes ever-increasing demands. Loved ones can even hide their needs, not wanting to trouble us.

However it strikes, it will bring difficult choices and unforeseen challenges. Television presenter Fiona Phillips found a home for her mother, who was suffering from dementia. In an article for BBC News Magazine she describes the ‘hardest decision of her life’. When filmmaker Tom Browne’s parents reached old age, he wanted them to change the way they lived their lives. Now he has made Radiator, a very personal movie showing what he feels he should have done.

What’s right for Fiona and Tom may not be right for everyone, but the truth is that caring’s a tough and demanding job. It requires patience, physical strength, financial acumen, medical expertise and excellent communication and negotiating skills. And if you don’t match the person spec? Tough! You can still be handed the job.

Thankfully, help is available. TimeBank’s Carers Together online mentoring project uses a secure website to link experienced carers to those encountering difficulties. Carefully matched mentors provide everything from emotional support and encouragement, to practical advice on benefits, dealing with the NHS and social services, and finding respite. It’s not for everyone – some people just don’t feel comfortable interacting through a computer – but it is available everywhere in England, from the big cities to the most isolated backwaters. And carers can send messages at a time most convenient to them, even if that’s the middle of the night.

If you have caring responsibilities and need a mentor, or if you are an experienced carer able to share your experience with others, please get in touch. Call William on 0121 236 2531 or e-mail carers@timebank.org.uk

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Internships: a twilight zone in the workplace?

Once considered the preserve of academia and the private sector, the use of unpaid interns is increasing in the voluntary and community sector. But it can bring problems:

  • With no legal definition of interns, no status in law and no consensus about what an intern is, they occupy a twilight zone in the workplace. Unpaid interns are not volunteers: their contribution is “incentivised” in so far as it is seen by many as an entry-point into employment with the same organisation, their time is not freely given and they are often expected to work the same hours and conditions as paid staff.
  • Some voluntary and community organisations use interns to deliver the work of a paid role, without having to pay a wage – often characterising this as a volunteering role. In addition to the unethical use of interns as an unpaid workforce, there is also a knock-on effect of reducing the number of new opportunities for those seeking their first paid role in the sector.
  • Under some circumstances they can be classed as workers (even if they are unpaid) and employers will be legally obliged to pay minimum wage. Their entitlement to the minimum wage has nothing to do with what they are called – it depends on the agreement or arrangement they have with their employer.

Ask yourself this: Do you have an unpaid intern who:

  • Has a contract or other arrangement to do work or services personally for a reward (that contract doesn’t have to be written)
  • Is rewarded (their reward does not have to be money – it could be a benefit in kind, training or the promise of a contract or future work)
  • They have to turn up for work even if they don’t want to (they have set hours and tasks).

If the answers is yes then that unpaid intern could well be seen as a worker under employment legislation.

The range and quality of opportunities available to interns varies significantly. While some will have fantastic experiences in rewarding roles and be well supported, others will find themselves in demoralising, unrewarding work with no clear outcomes or goals.

At TimeBank we will not support or provide unpaid internships and do not believe they can be considered volunteering. However, there are some circumstances where we would both provide and/or recognise paid internships.

When we involve interns in our work we will make sure that:

  • Internships are advertised in the same way as paid positions – in a fair, open and accessible way to ensure that all potential interns have the possibility to apply
  • The opportunity is time-limited, discrete piece of work, this could be a research opportunity, a consultation exercise, or a delivering a specific campaign
  • The principal beneficiary should be the intern and the opportunity should offer tangible benefits, for example as a pathway to full-time employment or further education
  • Interns are paid a fair living wage.

We’ve put together our thoughts on all aspects of volunteering in ‘What TimeBank Thinks’. Take a look and let us know if you agree!

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Meeting the emotional needs of care leavers

Starting Together is our mentoring project, matching volunteers with young female care leavers. Starting in Southwark in May 2013, we’ve now expanded to other London boroughs, offering more young women access to this great support.

Mentors meet the young women for around five hours a month for six months, offering them practical and emotional support as they make the transition to independent living.

Young people are particularly vulnerable when they leave care and the project aims to act as a preventative measure to long-term mental health difficulties. A recent BBC report highlights this vulnerability, stating that the ‘emotional needs of children who have been in care are not being well looked after’. 

The report focuses on a study by Action for Children which reveals that 'Most young people who have been in care continue to cope with the lasting impact of a traumatic childhood. They can suffer from depression and anxiety, on top of dealing with the challenges of living on their own for the first time. They tell us that too often they feel alone with these difficulties - even when they have been helped with the practicalities of transition and finding somewhere to live.'

It calls for better ways of meeting such children's needs and warns that support must be ongoing to prevent them from following 'chaotic pathways'.

One young woman who is currently benefiting from the support of a TimeBank volunteer is Sara who was matched with her mentor, Genevieve, in September. They have already developed a great relationship.

Genevieve is helping Sara to find work, obtain her theory driving licence and learn to live more healthily. Sara has said that Genevieve is ‘friendly, motivating and patient’. Genevieve has been equally positive about the experience, saying that Sara is a ‘lovely person to be around’.

If you’d like to refer a female care leaver, please contact me to start the referral process on 020 3111 0730 or at Rachel@timebank.org.uk    

Alternatively, if you would like to become a volunteer on the project, I'd love to hear from you! You can find out more and complete an application form at www.timebank.org.uk/starting-together, or contact me on the email address or telephone number above.

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