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

Body bags on Brighton Beach - don't let them drown

On a bright, sunny spring morning last week, I found myself lying in a black plastic body bag on Brighton beach with the tide coming in.  Not the type of volunteering experience I usually take part in! 

At TimeBank all staff have five days’ leave each year for volunteering and I was using some of this to support Amnesty in its efforts to put pressure on the EU to do more to stop the tragic migrant crisis which is taking place in the Mediterranean. 

Over 1,000 people drowned last week alone (800 on just one capsized boat) as they made the perilous journey in search of a better life.

After a health and safety briefing, the first task of the day was to help lay out 200 body bags, some of which we filled with balloons.  The bags were laid in rows as close to the shoreline as possible.  We were then asked by Amnesty staff if we would be happy to lie in the remaining bags for 20 minutes or so whilst national and local press took photographs and did interviews.  The bags would cover our entire bodies and faces but would only be partially zipped up to waist height for safety. About 30 to 40 of us willingly volunteered.

It was slightly surreal to lie anonymously in the dark, under pungent plastic edged with brightness, with the gentle sea breeze rustling the bags, listening to voices all around us. Some time in, I could hear people talking to “Caroline”, deferentially giving her instructions and asking her to look this way and that.  Her responses sounded very close so I can only assume that local Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas was standing right by my head at one point!  I also heard someone nearby saying, in a low hushed voice, that the problem with the word “migrant” is that is has been used so negatively by so many people that it dehumanises the situation.  The ebb and flow of photographers went on longer than expected and some were very late in arriving!  But Amnesty staff were extremely attentive and concerned, regularly making sure we were all OK and offering us plenty of water to drink.

As I lay there very still in the darkness, I thought about all sorts of things … of the poor people who drowned, especially all the children on that one boat alone; of how invisible I felt at that moment to those around me which is what some migrants must feel all the time; how important it was for the EU to allocate more resources to save as many lives as possible and stop these tragedies from happening time and again.  

Most of all, I thought about how deeply I feel about this issue from my time as a volunteer mentor on TimeBank’s TimeTogether project  way back in 2004 and  my more recent role helping TimeBank to secure funding for our Talking Together project.  Both projects have helped many migrants and refugees to improve their English and settle into a new life in the UK. 

For me, the “dehumanising” comment was the most memorable aspect of the day.  I think of it often days later. If my world was broken by poverty, war, repression or violence, I hope I too would have the courage to risk everything to make that crossing to give me and my family a life free from fear and hunger.

(Finally, if you’re wondering which bag I’m in… it’s middle row, third one in….)


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Calling all volunteers: Talking Together has started in London and we need YOU!

Following the success of Talking Together in Birmingham and Leicester we are delighted to be able to extend it to London! Talking Together is our English Language training project for long-term residents who feel cut off from British life because they can’t speak the language.

TimeBank has received funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government to extend Talking Together and launch new projects in  eight London boroughs: Barking and Dagenham, Brent, Greenwich, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Lewisham, Southwark and Wandsworth.

We will be working with local organisations and community groups to deliver the programme, and we’re still recruiting partners, so if you’re a community group working with long-term UK residents who have little or no knowledge of English, get in touch at

The classes are informal and locally based, covering basic skills such as taking public transport or going to the doctor. This kind of practical input really can help transform someone's life, open doors and contribute to community integration. It’s truly a life changing programme - bringing the ability to talk to a doctor, a child’s teacher, or even the bus driver. And the change is caused by people like you and I, donating a few hours to volunteer.

Not only does volunteering for Talking Together make a massive difference for the learners, the volunteers also benefit. It’s a brilliant volunteering opportunity for people studying to become a teacher or wanting to improve their CV.  No previous experience is necessary and we offer you excellent, intensive training, individual support, out of pocket expenses, a fantastic experience and the satisfaction of genuinely making a difference.

One of our volunteers, Amy, wrote a blog on her rewarding experience of volunteering on Talking Together in Birmingham.

So if you are looking for a rewarding volunteering experience, have a couple of hours to spare each week for the next six weeks and have good language skills, look no further! See here for more information about the project and if you have any questions get in touch with us at or phone us on 0203 111 0730. If you’re ready to apply, just follow this link to download the application form.

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Our Hidden Carers pilot project will explore the needs of carers who have limited English

Our new Hidden Carers pilot project in Birmingham is exploring how to meet the needs of carers who have limited English as well as insufficient access to carer support.

The pilot will test a short programme of workshops which will cover the language needed for a carer role as well as information on carers' rights and how to engage with carer services.

We are looking for trained ESOL tutors to help deliver the programme - if you're interested, contact Odilia Mabrouk at or call 0121 236 2531. The deadline is April 24 and there will be a paid induction day on May 12.

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Helping a small charity to grow

Running a small charity is both rewarding and challenging. Even more so when you are the only full time member of staff juggling the day to day activities and tasks, as well as keeping track of the overall direction of the charity.

From managing staff to reporting to trustees, applying for funding, overseeing current projects and managing finances, there is a lot for the CEO of a small charity to do!

Many of the charities in TimeBank’s Leaders Together project, which matches the leaders of small London based charities with mentors who can support them to grow, face these challenges. Often ploughing through day to day tasks, it’s hard for them to see the wood for the trees.

Rui Octavio is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Nutmeg Community, an award winning charity that aims to empower young people aged 11-25 to reach their full potential. The charity provides mentoring, organises community cohesion events, delivers workshops and promotes volunteering opportunities with young people across Barnet.  

Like many of the Leaders Together mentees, Rui came to the project hoping to be matched with a mentor who could provide support with project management, leadership skills, strategic planning, staff management and financial management. We matched him with Nasar Ramzan, the Director of Financials Practice at Kloud, a leading consultancy in cloud-based HR & Financials technology. Nasar already had experience of working with small charities and had a good idea of how he could help Rui keep tabs on all of the different moving parts involved in running a small organisation.

For Nasar, working with a small organisation was perfect: “I love working with small organisations as you can easily see the impact your advice is having. These organisations are agile and provide high value for money. Supporting them, and in particular Nutmeg Community, means rapid results and even more value for money for funding organisations or donors.”

Nasar worked with Rui to develop tools and processes that could enable him to see what was happening across the organisation. Firstly, he helped create a financial monitoring tool so Rui could easily see what was happening with the budgets for each project. They then worked on developing timelines and project management tools for each project, so it was clear how the organisation’s projects were progressing against milestones.

As well as freeing up Rui so he had more time to be moving the organisation forward, the tools and processes they created played a huge part in the organisation winning a tender bid from Genesis Housing Association to project manage a community fun day event. 

Rui says “As a result of Nasar’s help we have less overspend on our project budgets, our meetings and activities are a lot more results-orientated and it has helped me take a broader view of our work.”

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TimeBank urges Birmingham businesses to get their staff volunteering

Birmingham is an exciting city, voted ‘Best Business Environment in Europe’ and ranked as one of the top three most dynamic European cities. The business community in Birmingham has a great legacy of supporting local communities; Joseph Chamberlain and the Cadburys were pioneers of their time.

Here at TimeBank, we want to help businesses carry on this proud tradition of social responsibility. At our Birmingham office we already run projects to support ex-service men, women and families and also to teach English to local residents who are cut off from British life because they can’t speak the language.

Now we want to expand our successful employee volunteering programme across the West Midlands from our  office at the Big Peg in the Jewellery Quarter.

Over the last 15 years we’ve worked with major companies like EE, CEB, BP and Balfour Beatty and are very much looking forward to working with more Midlands-based companies.

Research shows that volunteering helps staff develop leadership, decision-making and negotiation skills. It can also help staff develop as individuals, boost morale and improve retention.

Helen Walker, Chief Executive of TimeBank, says: “Volunteering can be a cost- effective option for team building, away days, or offer training and development opportunities for staff. Most importantly, it enables companies to make a real difference in their local communities.”

If you’d like to know more, take a look here or get in touch with Richard Gaskin on 07538 476590, email

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Making sure ex-Service men, women and families get the support they need

Before TimeBank I worked in youth volunteering and the one thing I remember clearly about those times is the number of networking meetings and events I was invited to – far too many to attend them all.

Fast forward a few years to when I started here on the Shoulder to Shoulder project and the situation couldn’t be more different. In the early days I felt maybe I just wasn’t “in with the right crowd” or maybe people didn’t know about us so we just weren’t invited.  

But months ticked by and still no sign of an opportunity to sit in a room in Birmingham with all the other organisations involved in working with veterans and families and network. So it was clearly time to set to and organise one myself!

As a part-time worker it is hard to meet with all the necessary key players in the sector and maintain that relationship – it can be a full-time job in itself. I am passionate that our relatively small project, compared to the big boys like Combat Stress and Royal British Legion, is remembered.  

I want agencies to think of us when a veteran or family needs support. A good number of agencies attend our monthly Veterans Drop-In but I believe that time is to support those ex-Service men, women and families who come along and to keep them informed. It should be about putting the veterans or family members first so they feel supported when they walk back out the door.

So I wanted to ensure Shoulder to Shoulder was on the map in and around Birmingham. We also wanted to hear about what everyone else was doing so we knew what services to signpost our veterans and families to.  We wanted to offer a one stop shop to veterans and their families. As a result of this the Veteran and Families Roadshow was created.

We organised the Roadshow in March and had such a positive response from organisations wanting to attend and make sure veterans and their families knew about the services they could offer.  All the information stands were snapped up by military and support charities – we covered housing, welfare, volunteering, employment, peer support and general mental health support services. The organisations included Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, Combat Stress, Help for Heroes, Royal British Legion, The Poppy Factory and SIFA Fireside to name a few.

Helen Walker, TimeBank Chief Executive, opened the event, highlighting our passion for partnership working:  “Today is really about us working together with a common aim to support our Service men, women and their families in the best possible way we can by recognising one another’s strengths and ensuring that we cross refer and maximise support to our beneficiaries.”

We received a great deal of positive comments from organisations that attended including:

“We were able to network with new and existing partners, and met potential new clients who we can support with employment needs,” Poppy Factory

“Thanks ever so much for having Rewards for Forces yesterday - it really was a great event! I found it so useful to be able to speak to different organisations that I had never heard of previously. I really benefited from networking with the charities to see how we can help promote them to our members so it definitely was a success!” Reward for Forces

I certainly feel that despite being a relatively small project we can throw a decent punch! I hope we are on the map and people across the city and surrounding areas are able to find out about us through various avenues but essentially through the other fantastic support organisations out there. 

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Kissing frogs in Parliament

Last week we launched our Carers Together evaluation report. At TimeBank we believe passionately in the importance of sharing learning – not just of things that have worked but things that haven’t – we believe that stakeholders, funders and partners should have sight of that learning so as not to reinvent square wheels that don’t work as well as replicating things that do. 

The last time I spoke at Parliament I was upstaged by a mouse taking a turn around the audience. Now TimeBank supporters are hardy people but mice just have a way of freaking people out! So this time we moved venue just along the river to Millbank in the hope that the mice would stay away and the focus would remain firmly on the speakers!

We were hosted by long term TimeBank friend Sir Kevin Barron MP who opened proceedings by talking about his passion and belief in volunteering. When you share a platform with three others it’s important to keep things short and sweet particularly since people really wanted to hear about the outcomes of the report from the evaluator – so my focus was on the benefits of partnership. 

For Carers Together we partnered with Carers UK, a national membership body supporting carers. As I said in my speech, just like in real life you have to kiss an awful lot of frogs before you find the right partner!

Partnership in the voluntary sector is more important now than ever before and whilst we pride ourselves on it, in reality it’s hard to find a partner who matches your ethos and values and of course who is as willing to work on the relationship as you are.

Carers UK and TimeBank was a match made in heaven – we had relationships from Chief Executive through to director and operational level so we always all knew where we stood. We knew we brought to the party our skills in mentoring and volunteering, training and matching relationships and they brought their extensive membership and knowledge of carers.

Heléna Herklots, Carers UK CEO, spoke of the importance of the learning that they had gained from the project. The fact that she had spent the day at their very first volunteer forum spoke volumes.  

But the reason people had come was to hear Matthew Terry from Cloud Chamber who we had commissioned to do the evaluation.  He said this had shown that online mentoring in particular could be useful in allowing carers to express their anger, feelings and raw emotions.  It offered them the flexibility to send messages at a time convenient to them, or when they felt particularly overwhelmed by their caring responsibilities. And some carers said they were more willing to discuss personal and emotional issues online that they would have found difficult or embarrassing to raise in face-to-face conversations.

Online mentoring also meant that TimeBank was able to recruit a wide pool of volunteer mentors from across the country instead of a small geographical area, enabling careful matching of mentors to carers’ specific needs.

It also enabled the project to triple the number of people it was able to support, because each volunteer mentor could respond to more than one carer online.

The learning from this project has already been integrated into our existing projects and bids to support new socially disadvantaged groups that might benefit from it. And the questions to the panel after the speeches showed a real interest in the detail of the project and the extent of carer breakdown it sought to reduce. Like all these events the real discussion got underway after the formalities were done, over a drink and I am confident that we truly did share our learning far and wide. And this time the mice stayed away!

Take a look at the full evaluation report here.

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We're proud and humbled that people like Janet want to volunteer with us

As I am sure you know if you are reading this blog, TimeBank is a national volunteering charity and as such all our projects have volunteers involved in their delivery. As Chief Executive it’s often all too easy to allow yourself to get one step removed and not see the work that’s going on at the ‘coalface’ of the charity. I make a point of trying to go out to our projects when I can, attending social events for volunteers and making sure I’m there to thank them whenever possible.

This week I was in Birmingham to welcome everyone to our Veterans and Families Roadshow. I was delighted to be there to promote partnership amongst a wide range of organisations working with ex-service men, women and their families in the West Midlands – as I used to work for a military charity it’s a subject close to my heart and I believe passionately in the work we do to complement the services provided by others.

At this event one of our volunteers, Janet (pictured here on the right) was there helping to promote our Shoulder to Shoulder Families project and I had the opportunity to chat with her. She’s been a volunteer mentor for TimeBank for 18 months and she told me a bit about her work. What came over was an overriding pride in the difference she was able to make supporting a veteran’s family. She told me how her friends questioned why she would do something for free. She explained that it was something that had shown her qualities she didn’t know she had:  listening skills, empathising, empowering others to speak to her and off-load and it gave her a real sense of pride.

One thing that really made an impact was when she described how she felt when she was selected as a mentor. She said: “The co-ordinator said at training that not everyone got through to the final stage of being a mentor as not everyone is suited to it, but that they’d signpost you to other opportunities if that was the case. When I got the call to say I had been selected I was so proud and excited that I had been chosen and that I was good enough to make a difference on such an important programme.”

It is profoundly humbling to hear that someone clearly so passionate, so committed and so caring could imagine that she wouldn’t be good enough to mentor on our project. But it also shows the importance of being open and honest with volunteers throughout training.

This isn’t an easy opportunity, indeed it’s often a (literally) thankless task. There will be challenges that you need to be prepared for, emotional detachment where possible and striving not to allow mentees to become dependent upon you. But if it works it is incredibly impactful and we are so, so reliant on people like Janet to give their time freely and generously to support those more vulnerable than themselves.

I came away from this successful event once again overwhelmed by the amazing people who not only work for TimeBank (and a lot of work had gone into the organisation and promotion of it by the co-ordinator) but by those who volunteer for us too. It reminds me why I do the job that I do and why I am incredibly honoured to be the Chief Executive of TimeBank. I can’t stress enough the importance of CEOs taking time out from behind our desks to see what’s happening at the grassroots delivery level. When times are hard and funding difficult to come by, it gives you that extra push to go out and make things happen regardless. 

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