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

English classes are a lifeline - not only to learn the language but to combat social isolation

Pam Poole is a retired BBC World Service Sports Editor who decided to utilise a CELTA qualification and volunteer for TimeBank’s Talking Together English teaching project in London.

Life can play funny games with us sometimes. I’ve just completed teaching on a second pre-entry ESOL course. It’s been taking place at a refugee and migrant centre in Ilford, on the East London/Essex borders.  

The centre is based in part of a former church-run school building.  It was one of the area’s local infant-primary schools when I grew up in Ilford many years ago. As a ten year old, I might even have played rounders or netball against one of the school’s teams.  But the Romanian-run café across the road is new to me and on the other side of the railway line, the Asian restaurant and function venue occupying a former public house is also a change I am trying to get my head around.  I know the area’s geography, but that is it. As I say, life can play funny games with us sometimes.

Thursdays at the centre are particularly hectic, with queues for the foodbank, and parents rummaging through plastic boxes of clothes and toys. There’s a seemingly never-ending line of people needing legal advice, help with form-filling and finding their way through the difficulties of settling into a new country - and that of course includes help with English language and conversation, which is where TimeBank and its volunteers come in.

Suneel, my teaching assistant (pictured with Pam above), and I have now managed to get around twelve students through the courses. It doesn’t sound like much, but it has been no mean feat given that a commitment to English classes has been made in the run-up to the summer holidays. The majority are juggling childcare and the issues around making ends meet. Some have been working nights and observing the Ramadan fast during the day.  Others have been looking for work, accommodation and even missing relatives; and all have had to deal with the demands emanating from the capital’s public transport strikes, and the fickle British weather.

Like the change which has gone on in my home town, the most obvious point to make after teaching two groups is that no one course, no one module, and no one day is ever the same.  Fairly early on, I tore up the rule book in trying to mix up speakers of the same language in class. Husbands and wives didn’t want to be separated, particularly if there were children in tow. Stronger students would more readily help the weaker ones, by using their mother tongues if they had to—and frankly anything which helped in getting them to understand and grasp vital English basics was worth it.  

One of the most challenging aspects has been managing those who have had no formal education, so haven’t been used to being taught.  We’ve got them to stand up, move around, play games, and made the classroom time fun and accessible.  I will never forget how one woman’s eyes lit up when she had pictures to draw and an advert to design. Suddenly English for her was real, and she had the confidence to talk and do something useful and highly practical in a non-threatening environment.  When I explained to another student that this was a class in which she could feel safe, there was the audible relieved ripple of a sigh around the room.  

Another challenge was the mixed ability group, particularly those who were already more advanced. I shouldn’t have worried.  The majority kept coming back because they enjoyed mixing and meeting other people, while developing their understanding and conversational ability at the same time.  One student told me that all the confusion in her head had been straightened out.  The classes are clearly a lifeline for both the development of functional English and for getting the socially isolated out of their homes for a handful of hours each week.

And that brings me back almost to the point where I started - to me, the volunteer. Why do it?  Well, I am also out of the house for a couple of hours each week. I’m doing something useful and sociable for both me and others. I feel valued by the students, by the delivery centre and by the ever-professional TimeBank. The experience has been joyful. It is heart-warming to see people gaining confidence and coming out of themselves.  Now they are flicking through leaflets and catalogues, picking up that most terrifying of implements when speaking a foreign language—the telephone - and enrolling for ESOL courses. They are using English more confidently, whether it’s in writing, speaking, listening or reading.  They are better prepared to engage and be engaged. 

I am so proud of them all for sticking at it and earning their certificates. And this is the teacher’s relief - they are still hungry for more and so am I!  I know it’s been extremely challenging, even frustrating at times, but those moments are far outweighed by the benefits for all concerned.  Let life play its funny little tricks and games! It’s not every day we are fortunate enough to experience a win-win situation, and it’s a moment I want to bottle and savour for quite some time.  

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Hidden Carers - reporting back

"Before coming to this workshop, I used to cry at home if something bad happens. Now, I can handle any situation myself. I feel confident now."

Our Hidden Carers pilot project ran from April until the end of June 2015 in Birmingham, as part of our DCLG-funded Talking Together programme.

The aim was to develop and test a short programme of support to meet the needs of carers who had limited spoken English. 

We wanted to help raise awareness of the carer role; support people to understand carer vocabulary and express their needs as carers; understand the Care Act; develop new connections with other carers and help carers plan how to support themselves.

Eleven workshops took place, for which 44 learners were registered and 36 attended. We worked with four delivery partners: UK Asian Women’s Centre, African Community Council for the Regions, Midland Mencap and Stonham.

The biggest impact we saw was increased understanding of the Care Act, which shot up by 29%. The next two greatest areas of impact were around carers identifying themselves as a carer who has rights and in knowing where to go to find support.

We had some really positive and constructive feedback, and tutors and delivery partners said they were keen to see more programmes delivered in future.

Most of the tutors had caring experience which helped a great deal, and teaching on the project helped them to develop their understanding of the issues that Hidden Carers face. One tutor, who was also a carer, thanked us in particular for the opportunity to take part as it had given her renewed confidence to get back into teaching.

The pilot is now being expanded in a variety of directions through our new volunteer-led programme called Be Well which will provide information, advice and guidance to a range of Hidden Carers, including those who do not identify themselves as carers because of the stigma attached to their role - those caring for people with drug or alcohol addictions for example.

It will include: 

  • An updated version of the Hidden Carers workshop for carers with low levels of English and little or no access to carer support
  • A workshop to covers carer rights and support and wellbeing. This is specifically targeted at carers who look after people facing addiction and social stigma
  • A proposed workshop offering ICT skills to carers to combat digital exclusion. Because of the nature of their role carers have less opportunity to get out and so online support can play an important role

If you're interested in working with us as a delivery partner on the Be Well programme, do get in touch at

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Seven year itch?!

LinkedIn is a superb tool in many contexts, not least when it reminds you how long you’ve worked somewhere and the odd, kind person uses it to reconnect and say congratulations. And so it is seven years ago today I walked into TimeBank as its new Chief Executive. It was a brand new feeling for me – having made the step up from Director of Fundraising – to inherit a national volunteering charity and whilst I don’t want to evoke an X factor-esque dialogue - what a journey it has been!!!

In the heady days of 2008 with a Labour Government in power, Government funding guaranteed, a healthy set of reserves and an, albeit rather eclectic, portfolio of volunteering programmes TimeBank was a pretty amazing place to take over. Of course like every incoming CEO finds, there was work to be done. The  charity had evolved over the eight years it had been in existence and needed to review its strategic direction – consider where our work could be focussed and how we could and should diversify our fundraising.

Crisis for us came in 2010 when our Government funding was cut and so ensued a challenging few years, having to let staff go, contemplating merger and forensically monitoring our finances. It was a period that shaped me as a Chief Executive and taught me much. It enabled me to reinvent our charity, to make us work smarter and be more focussed, whilst keeping staff motivated and continuing to deliver our projects on time, to target and on budget.

Without the support of the Board which we’d taken time to strengthen early on, none of it would have happened and TimeBank might not still be here. It is fitting then that tonight - my ‘anniversary’ -  we welcome four brand new trustees to our Board after an open recruitment process underlining to us once again how honoured we are to have such incredible people want to volunteer for us in every context throughout our charity.

It has been seven years but it has involved so much change and challenge and I run such a very different charity to the one I inherited that every day brings fresh inspiration and motivation - and I look forward to embracing whatever challenges face us next. 

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Thanks to a volunteer mentor, Mpho is a step nearer his dream City job.

It’s a sunny July day and I’m on the way to the Square Mile to meet Mpho and his mentor, Scott. Mpho is mid-way through a week’s office experience with Scott’s company and I’m here to find out how it’s going. Both are taking part in TimeBank’s City Opportunities project which matches young care leavers with a volunteer mentor from the City and have been involved in the scheme for the past six months.

We’ve arranged to catch up over lunch and Mpho bounds over to me ahead of his mentor, suited, booted and smiling. He’s keen to tell me all he’s discovered at his new workplace and over sandwiches he talks excitedly about life in a City office. Having just finished his final year degree exams, he’s spending the week shadowing two senior managers, one in the IT department and one in legal compliance.

The highlight of the experience so far has been a video link to the Tokyo office which has given the week a really international flavour. It’s been a hectic few days, but it hasn’t put him off life in the Square Mile and he’s even more sure it’s for him!

As well as helping Mpho to gain experience in his office, Scott has also been supporting him with job related skills such as CV writing, completing job applications and preparing for interviews. Reflecting on the last six months, Mpho feels that support has been invaluable and he has been able to call on Scott for help whenever he needs it. He advises any young person anxious about taking part in the scheme to just ‘give it a go’ and jump straight in. Scott has found the experience just as fulfilling, saying that he’s ‘always looked forward’ to catching up with Mpho and enjoyed being able to offer the benefit of his experience.

The relationship has been so successful, in fact, that the pair plan to continue to meet up even though the mentoring has officially finished, with Scott supporting Mpho through the next stage of his career and assisting him to gain a paid graduate role. First of all, though Mpho’s off to Ibiza on holiday, to blow off some steam after the stresses of his final few weeks at university!

I watch them both head back to work, feeling really pleased that City Opportunities has made such a tangible difference in a young person’s life, sure that Mpho will very soon get that City job that he so much desires and deserves, and grateful to the City of London Economic Development office and Team London for funding this wonderful project.

If you’d like to take part in City Opportunities or would like to refer a young person, take a look at the project here, or contact me at We’ve had a great response from people willing to mentor, so we're no longer taking on new volunteers, but still have room for young people!

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Talking to funders - warts and all

We were recently invited by the Big Lottery Fund in Birmingham to talk about our Carers Together project. They were interested to hear about some of the challenges carers face, the current climate for organisations funding carer projects, and how our project addressed carer issues. Perhaps more interestingly – and certainly unusual in any funder l have worked with – they wanted to hear about the challenges of working with the Big Lottery Fund. So we offered them three.

One of TimeBank’s perennial challenges is how we take projects forward – not just through continuation funding, but how we pass on our learning and experience. For most funders, including the Lottery, a detailed annual report against outcomes, targets and budgets is enough. But while those reports have a significant value they only paint a partial picture.  

What we wanted to let the Lottery know was that there was so much learning that happens around a project. For example in Odilia’s recent blog she describes our Hidden Carers project.

The idea for that project came about as we delivered our Lottery-funded Carers Together project. We quickly realised that some ethnicities were significantly under-represented, in particular those from the south Asian community. This very significant piece of learning enabled us to access additional funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government to run the Hidden Carers project. But we were not able to communicate that in the standard reporting format to the Lottery. Thankfully they recognised the value and we were able to communicate that learning. And they in turn will use that information when considering future bids from other organisations.

Another significant challenge for us in our relationships with funders is involving them in the work we do. As mentioned above, most funders are content with a report, but that just represents a fixed point in a process. So we challenged the Lottery to think about being more involved in the journey of the project, to develop an understanding of how the challenges of delivery were dealt with and problems solved. We argued that there are mutual benefits to both the funder and the organisation – the funder gets a hands-on feel for what works and what doesn’t. The funded organisation will develop a deeper and more honest relationship with the funder – able to communicate warts and all without fear of losing funding.

Finally we wanted to talk to them about something very close to TimeBank’s heart – and something that funders often miss. While TimeBank delivers fantastic projects supporting some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged people, we are a volunteering charity not a service delivery charity. Our volunteers make the difference to people’s lives and they are at the heart of what we do. This is something that can be lost when reporting solely on outcomes.  Each volunteer contribution is unique, making a difference in a way that can’t always be measured, counted, tagged and boxed. At TimeBank we hope our volunteers carry on just like that.

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The importance of sharing experiences and learning

At TimeBank we believe that sharing our learning is a fundamental aspect of our work. We recently had a great opportunity when a vocational college from The Netherlands – the Regional Community College of Twente – contacted us to arrange a meeting with a group of 25 mentors volunteering with their students.

We accepted enthusiastically and set to organising a three-hour workshop to ensure we used the available time as effectively as we could.

On the day of the workshop all was ready. We arranged for TimeBank's Chief Executive, Helen, to come and greet our guests and we booked a programme manager and project co-ordinator to run the event, present our projects and answer any questions the visiting mentors might have.  

The workshop opened with an introduction from our guests who explained that they came to London funded by the Erasmus and Mobility Programme of the European Union and that their main area of mentoring is to support mentees to prevent early school leaving during  their vocational courses at the college. We then talked about TimeBank and our volunteering projects and received many enthusiastic questions from our visitors about our approach to mentoring.

Our visitors were interested in how we managed such a diverse and specialised range of projects – especially regarding our work with young people with mental health problems, The Switch – and to learn about our procedures in recruiting, training and managing volunteers. Everyone was very impressed to learn that we are usually oversubscribed with volunteers for our projects, showing how much commitment to volunteering there is from the public in London and the UK more generally.

We also discussed some of the challenges we face in reaching and engaging beneficiaries. It was remarkable how similar these are in London and Twente. Although it was not possible to find, or even suggest, potential solutions to all these issues, it is always a useful experience to exchange ideas and information, if only to realise that you are not the only one having frustrating and difficult experiences when running a project.

We have also discussed in detail some of our procedures and the pros and cons of adopting them. Thinking about why an organisation is doing something - and how - is always a useful exercise, especially when you have 25 people in front of you keen to understand and learn new approaches as well as questioning you keenly! It forces you to reflect and makes you aware of potential pitfalls that may not yet have come to light. At the same time it strengthens an organisation’s practices to see that others are interested in adopting some of your methods because they find them effective, valuable or simply more efficient to achieve a specific goal or to streamline a time-consuming process.

By the end of the workshop we all felt that we learnt something from each other and that it was time well spent, on top of finding it a very interesting diversion from our day-to-day tasks.

So thank you to the Regional Community College of Twente and its volunteer mentors for coming to visit us and sharing their mentoring experiences with TimeBank.

If you'd like any more information on the topics discussed in this blog, do contact Filippo.

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Volunteers open up the digital world to English learners

If you’re reading this then you probably take it for granted that you can do an online search, navigate a website and send an email.  For some of the women who attended our Together Online workshops last week it was the first time they had ever been online. For others it was a chance to improve their knowledge and skills in a friendly, patient environment.


Together Online is a pilot programme offering one day workshops to people for whom English is a second language.  The workshops are aimed at people who already have basic computer skills but want to improve their knowledge about using the internet.

We started with an activity where the women created their own ‘picture boards’ documenting the main things they would like to learn during the session. Ideas included finding jobs, booking train tickets and flights, searching for online bargains, navigating school websites and keeping in touch with friends and family to name a few. The big surprise of the morning was when Surjit, a 79 year old woman announced confidently that she wanted to learn to Tweet using her tablet! We reassured Surjit that if that was what she wanted to learn then that’s what we would teach her.

Surjit’s example demonstrates the ethos of the day: it was all about reaching personal goals. After a taught session on doing an online search, learners had free rein to focus on their individual interests.  Volunteers were on hand to provide support and a helping hand whilst always encouraging the women to have a go for themselves and learn through trial and error. Taking this approach hopefully means that once they leave the workshop the women will be able to rely on knowledge and intuition rather than rote learning.


In the afternoon, after covering online safety, the women were set a task to practice their new-found skills. We discussed the fact that being online can not only have a positive effect on our lives as individuals but can help our communities as well.  It turned out that only a few of the women were aware of who their local MPs and Councillors were or how to contact them. By the end of the session they had all successfully found out their names, different ways of contacting them including Facebook and email, and when and where the Councillor’s Advice Bureaux’s took place.  One of the women also spent time searching for voluntary positions and hopes to contribute to her community in this way.

The two workshops were held at Asian Women’s Centre, Hockley and Ileys Community Centre, Smethwick. The learners ranged in age from 24 to 79 and were from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Somalia as well as Romania, Iraq and Afghanistan.  It was a great opportunity for the women to practice their English and learn some new vocabulary as well. The day was made all the better by the delicious vegetarian Indian food and Somali cuisine provided by the centres.


As ever, our volunteers made the day for us. They patiently supported learners with their individual needs. Many of the women said that whilst their children were regular Internet uses they rarely had the time or inclination to pass on their knowledge. Having someone spend one-on-one time with them made all the difference to their skills and confidence. ‘I’m excited to show my son what I can now do on the computer’ said one of the women after the session.

We are now organising focus groups with the learners and gathering feedback from volunteers and delivery partners so that we can develop the workshops for the future.  The resounding feedback so far has been that people can’t wait for more sessions!

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The rewards of volunteer mentoring

Over the last six months I have been volunteering with TimeBank’s Talking Together project as a language teacher and a mentor. Although both roles share the same goal of inspiring confidence and improving spoken English, after donning both hats as a mentor and teacher they have proved different in their challenges.


When I began mentoring at the BWA in Small Heath, I had just finished my first teaching group. I would now be working in a team to plan sessions with my fellow mentors Amy and Reena, shifting my focus from delivering individual areas of language to the individuals themselves; their wants, needs and goals.

The first major hurdle I experienced as a rookie mentor was how to go about helping the women in the group identify major life goals and decisions using a language they were still developing. That’s where us mentors had a secret, powerful weapon … good, thoughtful lesson planning!

Something I have definitely learnt from teaching is to start small and build from there. A simple idea and activity such as a memory game gets the group talking, introduces a topic and leads to a larger discussion, from shopping to daily routines to future life plans and beyond. Then in our individual mentoring groups we can expand on the larger group activity and/or focus on a key area in detail depending on the women's choices.

If you’ll forgive the lazy metaphor, we as mentors are the initial push of the bike and it’s the mentees that do the pedalling, with the security of knowing we’ll be there to dust them off and put them back on the saddle if they fall. We are mentors not teachers, we are a guiding force but the mentees have to be active in their learning which is why the emphasis should always be on getting the group talking and keeping the amount of time our mentor mouths are flapping to a minimum. This can prove difficult for people who lack confidence and are used to a teacher/student situation. It took time to communicate to the class that they needed to put their pens down and to get more comfortable speaking conversational English with each other.

All of this was building up to the group trip in the fifth week of the course where the ladies had the opportunity to practice that everyday English with other people. Unlike teaching which has a more structured, module based course, the mentoring group select their own areas to focus on and the trip gave them the chance to use what they had developed outside the classroom.

The trip to The Pen Museum in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter involved bus travel, navigating across the city centre and lunch in a restaurant. All everyday activities that require a little confidence and spoken English. This is what we had been building up to, and the women in our group really showed how empowered they are with real self-assurance and enthusiasm. I can honestly say I had a real, satisfied, warm feeling afterwards - and it wasn’t from the buffet lunch.

It seems a pointless question to ask whether my time as a teacher and mentor has been a worthwhile experience. All you need to do is look at the photo as the students receive their certificates at the end of the course. Each beaming smile says it all - and that includes my own.

See how you can get involved in our Talking Together project.           

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