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

I’m so lucky to be doing a job I love

I’ve been the project co-ordinator on our Time Together project, which recruits and trains volunteers as mentors to support refugees and asylum seekers in the West Midlands, coming up to 12 months now and the project has another 12 months to go until completion.  Nothing could prepare me for the overwhelming sense of job satisfaction I feel – I’m immensely lucky to be doing a job I love. 

Why do I love my job?  Mainly it’s the fantastic people who participate and volunteer on Time Together.  Both our volunteers and participants need to be committed to having an open mind, respect each another and be willing to meet up five hours a month for six months.  How our matched partners spend their time with each other is really up to them, although we encourage our mentees to think about areas of their lives they might like to improve, their hopes and aspirations.  Our volunteers are there to help empower participants to achieve and progress within the six-month timeframe. 

All our volunteers complete a full day of training and are DBS checked before being matched to their partner.  We have strict boundaries and safeguarding policies in place to protect both parties throughout the process.  Sometimes at the first match meeting things can be a little socially awkward.  However I’m there to break the ice and get the conversation flowing before I leave them to get know each other.  After that first meeting I call both parties to see how things went and make sure their next meeting is set up, and it’s usually not long before our volunteers and participants build a strong bond. A vitally important aspect of the project is regular communication between the volunteer, participant and the project co-ordinator. 

It is the project co-ordinator’s job to support and guide volunteers through the process and any difficult situations and challenges they may face and I receive regular updates on how the mentoring relationship is going.

Two-thirds of the way through I attend a mentoring session to remind our pairs that the end of the six-month relationship is on the horizon.  It is at this point that I get a warm fuzzy feeling inside.  The bonds formed between our volunteers and participants are incredibly heart-warming to see.  When it comes to the final mentoring session at the end of the six months it really is remarkable to see the positive difference the mentoring sessions have made to lives of our participants and also how much our volunteers gain from the experience too.  That’s one of the reasons why six of our volunteers are mentoring a second time around.

One of those volunteers, Sue, says: "I would recommend and do recommend Time Together to friends to volunteer on this project.  It enables both mentee and mentor to share experiences and listen to issues that are concerning my mentee.  The refresher training course was extremely valuable not only for content but meeting other mentors". 

We are currently recruiting volunteer mentors across West Midlands in Coventry, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Tipton and Walsall.  If you would like to know more and get involved in Time Together, do get in touch with Siân on 07842 811 459 or email

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Why is it so hard to start volunteering?

I hear this all the time, and trust me, I understand. I work for a volunteering charity and spend half of my life talking about volunteering, yet I still struggle to find an opportunity that works with my schedule and complements my skills and interests.

From the perspective of the potential volunteer, I recognise the frustration of wanting to help but being unable to find suitable opportunities, getting put on waiting lists or not even getting a response from some charities at all.

But as a volunteer co-ordinator, I see it from the other side. The project that I work on, Talking Together, requires volunteers who can teach English classes during the working day. This suits the needs of our learners and if we ran evening and weekend classes, they would not be able to attend.  We also tend to run classes in school terms so there are none over the summer and we usually only take volunteer applications at certain times of year depending on need.

I know this means that many amazing potential volunteers can’t get involved, but we can only look for volunteers who can do the role we need them to do. This applies to many other charities which need volunteers to assist with specific projects and so will require volunteers with specific time available and particular skill sets.  

I don’t want to make excuses for charities not replying to emails or answering calls. Here at TimeBank we always try to get back to potential volunteers as quickly as we can!  However, limited time and resources means that often the person you need to speak to about an opportunity isn’t available. This means the response may take a little longer than you’d expect, and you may have to wait a little while for the recruitment window to open.

But having said all of this, I assure you there are plenty of organisations out there looking for volunteers just like you!  There are many websites that charities use to advertise, including Do-It, Team London and Charity Job. It's also worth following charities that you're interested in on social media as many charities post volunteer opportunities there.

If your work schedule makes volunteering seem impossible, find out if your company offers volunteering leave as this could be a way to increase the amount of time you have available. Or think about corporate volunteering, when you can volunteer with your colleagues for a day.

Some opportunities naturally work really well for those in full time work: volunteering on one of our mentoring projects to support refugees or veterans, or being a charity trustee, for example. Many charities are looking for talented trustees from a variety of backgrounds and the time commitment for this usually suits those with a 9-5 job.

While it can take more time than you would think to find a volunteering opportunity that works for you, the end result could be volunteering for an organisation you feel passionate about, doing something that you enjoy. And who knows what else volunteering could bring to your life? TimeBank volunteers have gained new skills, changed careers and made friends as a result of their volunteering. So a good opportunity is worth the wait!


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Integration is a two-way street

I am always inspired when meeting TimeBank volunteers by how much they are willing to venture out of their comfort zone; taking on the role of mentor or English teacher and allowing the experience of volunteering to shape their own lives and attitudes.

Talking Together is all about providing women who can’t speak the language with free and accessible, volunteer-led English language classes. At the heart of this project is the desire to see learners more empowered and communities better integrated, which can only be achieved by increasing learners’ confidence to apply their new language skills and step outside their comfort zone.

That’s why we encourage many of our volunteer teachers to literally go the extra mile (or five), taking learners on a local trip, where they can experience using their English in real life situations that the classroom has prepared them for.

One volunteer, Penny, said she was surprised to find that some of her learners had never been to the city centre or seen the library, museums, canals and markets. As someone who had recently moved to Birmingham herself these had been some of the first places on her list to explore. So she organised a trip at the end of the Talking Together course to include all the free tourist attractions Birmingham has to offer.

Penny says: “When I was talking to my students about our coming trip I realised that some had never been on a bus before and felt nervous about the prospect. The thing was that I felt nervous too - being new to the city I hadn’t worked out all the bus routes and wasn’t sure about the fares. I let my students know that this was new to me as well and we all felt a lot more confident once we’d made the trip into town together. Some of the students who hadn’t used the bus before felt they would do so in the future - and I use the bus much more now as well.

I’ve found my students have very different experiences of the city centre. Some go in regularly (much more often than I do) to buy fresh food from the market and some to window shop. Others might have only been in once, or maybe never. For those students who don’t know it, it’s a real adventure and they’ve all said it’s been a really good experience.  And for those who go to the market it’s been eye-opening to go to the library or the museum or see the canals for the first time.  Many of the students have said they’ll now take their families to these places and I know some students have got all their family members to join the library.”

Penny has since taught many other Talking Together courses and each time ends her course with a trip to the city centre. But on my next visit to her class, her lesson took a twist and she asked learners to help her prepare for a trip to Sparkhill.

Penny had realised there were parts of the city she did not venture to, through fear of the unknown. Parts of the city that were only a mile down the road but she didn’t know how to orientate herself; whether she might need to ask for directions or how she could ask about the different foods in Bangladeshi and Pakistani shops. How was she surprised that learners hadn’t entered new and unknown spaces when she herself lived a mile away from areas still unexplored?

She says: “Taking students into town also made me think about why it was that I hadn’t been to some parts of the city - and it was for  much of the same reasons why some of my students hadn’t been to the town centre. I was surprised they’d never explored the canals and they were surprised to hear I’d never gone shopping somewhere like Ladypool Road. So I asked for their advice about where to go, and then went; and had a really enjoyable time. Amazing clothes shops, fab sweet shops and supermarkets. It was brilliant and so next time I took my family and we will go regularly.

Teaching the English classes has meant that I’ve needed to learn more about the city for my teaching and it’s also meant I’ve learned about the city from my students. It’s been a great way of getting to know Birmingham and feeling part of it.”

Integration is truly a two-way street; our Talking Together volunteers are not just imparting their knowledge to help others learn a language, they are learning from our learners, encountering people and cultures they may never have crossed paths with otherwise and discovering parts of the city they had called home for so long. What a difference a mile can make.

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

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Work experience with TimeBank has inspired me, challenged me and introduced me to some fantastic people

For the past week I’ve had the privilege to have done work experience with TimeBank and have learnt so much about all the amazing work it does for communities across the UK.

I’ve been lucky to have met so many fantastic members of the team by doing 1:1 sessions every day to talk about their roles at TimeBank, ranging from helping people to connect to their communities, to teaching English to women across the UK who speak little or no English. Also, partnering volunteers with refugees who seek help with finding work as well as adapting to a new culture.

My favourite part of my small role at TimeBank was visiting Lumpy Hill Adventure Playground with Cara-Jan who is the employee volunteering project co-ordinator but also has been my wonderful mentor throughout the week. During the day I helped sand down and repaint one of Lumpy Hill’s climbing frames alongside staff from The Telegraph who volunteered that day. It felt so rewarding helping out and being part of something so special as well as seeing the volunteers come to life when they realised the difference they had made. Overall, it was fun day and together we all left feeling positive and connected as a team having made a real difference and I couldn’t wait to tell all my friends and family about what we achieved.

In the past week I have also managed to send emails out to foodbanks, schools, community centres and playgroups which might benefit from an employee volunteering team and managed to be successful and get a few replies! Cara-Jan and I then went on a site visit in East Acton to one of the community centres I had contacted which I was really proud of. It made me realise that even with a small team, the massive impact they have on helping other people is phenomenal.    

I also went to a Knowledge Quarter Centre with Mark who is the fundraising and business development coordinator to meet a range of companies and charities to see if we could get them involved in our employee volunteering days. It was my first time networking and it was quite scary being the youngest person there but it was a great chance to tell people about what TimeBank does and the support it provides to thousands of people across the UK.

It has been such an enjoyable experience. I have learnt so much in such a small space of time and seen for myself the good that TimeBank does for local communities. It has motivated me even more to get involved in volunteering in the near future. I’d say being part of TimeBank has inspired me, challenged me, and introduced me to some really fantastic people I’d otherwise never have met. As a student and as somebody relatively new to volunteering it provided a brilliant opportunity for me to understand the importance of helping people in need and it’s been a pleasure being a part of it all! 

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Saying thank you is the simplest thing in the world but it makes all the difference

At the Board away day a couple of months ago I mentioned that I was coming up to my 10th anniversary at TimeBank - it was during a regular and responsible governance conversation about succession planning both for the Board and CEO role. It was in my diary and I’m rather conscious of it because devoting a decade of your life to an organisation is a big commitment.  

But TimeBank has sucked me in and because of the rollercoaster that is the funding climate, Government decisions and the need for charities to adapt and change, it has never quite seemed the right time to go – plus of course with change comes interest and enthusiasm to survive, to thrive, to grow in a new way to try new things – in essence it’s not been a dull 10 years!

The TimeBank I inherited 10 years ago was a very different organisation to the one I now run – the political and economic climate was very, very different in the balmy days of New Labour, Government grants, being able to try new things and change lives without really worrying. But it was also an organisation that had evolved from its inception in 2000 and the time was right to hone down our eclectic portfolio of activity and diversify our fundraising.  

And then came the announcement of the Big Society and all the volunteering charities rubbed their hands in glee – surely in order to deliver that, we would be safe from cuts.  How wrong we were, how ironic it was and how angry I remain today – not that cuts happened, because everyone suffered, but that Government doesn’t see the impact of its decision making. Telling a charity that is 95% Government-funded that its funding will end is devastating. Doing it three weeks before the new financial year is crippling and it ripped the heart out of our organisation.

That is when you truly strategise of course - are we doing something differently to others, are we doing it better, should we close, should we merge? We decided we were doing two things better and differently – volunteer mentoring tackling a variety of complex social issues and employee volunteering.

2013 saw our next big change as we bid for and won a £1.12m contract from Government to deliver volunteer led English language classes. It enabled us to regrow and plan – until in 2015 delays in decision making by funders and Government wavering left TimeBank once again on the brink. But we powered through and that is a reflection on the incredibly dedicated and passionate staff we have and our Board’s willingness to take significant but calculated risks – all of which I believe was possible because of open, honest dialogue and trust.

And so to today – we are in a real position of strength and if I look around me there are few volunteering charities that can say that what a difference a decade makes! We have rebuilt our reserves; invested in new posts to aid our fundraising and business development; we are looking at innovative and creative new projects and we are still delivering our now highly regarded English language classes – what next I wonder every day as I walk to the tube?!

So back to the Board - our meeting was a week before ‘the day’ and if I’m honest I was trying to power through it because it had inconveniently fallen on the day of an England match in the World Cup and anyone who has read my blogs over the last decade will know I’m a massive football fan! So when my Chair announced he had something to bring up under AOB my heart sank! And then he started talking about me – my dedication, my drive, my decade and produced gifts that the Board had bought me –incredibly thoughtful and beautiful gifts. A brooch with the famous quote from Millicent Fawcett, who tirelessly campaigned for women’s right to vote: ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere’ and a stunning Paul Smith scarf as well as a bespoke card made up of TimeBank photos and signed by everyone. I momentarily forgot all about football and was absolutely overwhelmed by their thoughtfulness, kindness and generosity.

This is the kind of thing that happens when you leave an organisation when you realise how much people thought of you and it makes you sad to be leaving, but this, this came whilst I was here. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a fellow CEO a few weeks ago who’s moving on to a different role. She said: ‘Everyone is saying such amazing things about me – I just wish they’d said it three years ago!’

And I guess that’s my point. Saying thank you, making people feel good, driving the organisation in good times and bad is the CEO’s role but very rarely does anyone recognise that or make you feel valued and special at the time. I am extraordinarily lucky to have a Board that did just that – so it doesn’t matter whether I stay for another 10 years or another 10 days, I will be walking just a little bit taller and if it is possible feeling even more passionate about TimeBank and the work that we do. Saying thank you is the simplest thing in the world but it makes an immeasurable difference. 

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Team volunteering - a brilliant opportunity for me to get to know my work colleagues

I joined TimeBank two months ago as the Fundraising and Business Development Coordinator. With my Business Development hat on I have been promoting our Employee Volunteering days to companies. These are a fantastic way for organisations to give back to their local community whilst bringing staff together to take part in a team activity. More than anything else though, its good fun! As I found out last week.

As well as designing employee volunteering days for other companies, TimeBank staff also participate in one every six months and last Friday we all met up at Balsall Heath City Farm in Birmingham for this summer’s event.

Balsall Heath City Farm was formed in 1980 on an old housing estate to provide local inner-city families with access to animals they would otherwise not get to see. Originally just housing a few chickens, the farm is now also home to sheep, goats, rabbits, guinea pigs, ducks, geese, turkeys and cats.

Having been given our introduction to the farm we split into three teams: one team went about mending the children’s sand pit whilst the other two were responsible for digging holes for fence posts - two of the sheep on the farm have recently had lambs and need a new enclosure fenced off for them. 

This hole digging quickly became competitive with people regularly walking to the other end of the field to check on their rivals’ progress. Although my team were beaten to the required 50cm by a minute or two our hole was neater, so we claimed a moral victory.

One of the more adventurous lambs provided a distraction from all this digging by doing its best Harry Houdini impression and squeezing between the bars on its temporary enclosure - emphasising the need for the work we were doing. However, this escape act still required some work as the lamb got stuck half way. Instead of panicking though it decided to carry on grazing until we managed to pull the bars apart, allowing the lamb out in to its desired pasture. This is one lamb who definitely believes in the saying ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’!

Following our lamb saving heroics we had enough time left in the day to help the sand pit team with their task by shovelling out the sand into the chicken, duck and turkey enclosures. The birds apparently enjoy the texture and root around in it for insects to snack on. While we were doing this, children started arriving having finished their day at school. It was great to see so many young inner-city children taking such an interest in the animals and asking so many questions about the them and the farm in general.

For somebody so new to this organisation this volunteering day provided a brilliant opportunity for me to get to know my colleagues better in a more informal setting than usual. I was also able to see for myself the good that TimeBank’s Employee Volunteering days do for local communities which has motivated me even more to get more companies involved in them.

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We're connecting businesses to communities to experience the joy of volunteering!

In February I started as Employee Volunteering Project Co-ordinator with TimeBank and what a few months it’s been. I moved to London from Northern Ireland four years ago, yet I’ve probably seen more of London during my time in this post than ever before.

When I moved people told me ‘Cara-Jan, you’re mad, no one has time for each other in London’. While it’s safe to say people at the bus stop here aren’t often up for a chat, when you look close enough there are so many bubbling, diverse networks and communities within London, it’s just about making that connection.

When you’re wrapped up in work you don’t always find the time to immerse yourself in the community where you live or work. My favourite part of my role at TimeBank is connecting people to their communities and seeing volunteers come to life when they realise the difference they’ve made. In the past three months I’ve seen a group of ten men with very little decorating experience paint the most beautiful landscape in a school (to which the Ofsted inspector later gave his sign of approval).

We’ve had a group tidy up a children’s playground followed by a very intense football game with the kids. Another team painted a mural full of inspirational figures including Malala Yousafzai, Marie Curie and William Shakespeare. And we built a community garden in the torrential rain at the back of a housing estate – the director of the company’s son even got involved in this one!

My favourite employee volunteering day so far has to be working with a team of volunteers from Fidelity Investments when 17 members of their team came to support a local foodbank.  We set the team a supermarket challenge, seeing who could be at the till first with all the items on their shopping list. The team were so enthusiastic and delegated roles, making it super clear and easy. Then when we returned to the foodbank to weigh, sort and date the items, they turned it into a game! The volunteers lined up and were each assigned a date and they would throw the pasta to the appropriate person according to the sell-by-date.

While this may sound like fun and games, it makes such a difference to a small foodbank which operates nearly entirely through the support of volunteers. Many hands make light work, so by taking part in a foodbank stocktake you can help to ensure food is sorted appropriately so nothing goes to waste.

The best part of the day was when Fidelity Investments announced that the rest of the team in the office had joined together to raise some money for the foodbank. In total, they raised an incredibly £4,350. Funmi Ikele who works for the foodbank told the team ‘I struggle for words to express our thanks and appreciation …your generous fundraising and subsequent donation of £4,350 to a charity that you’ve probably never heard of until now is unprecedented…indeed Fidelity Investments have set the bar for going above and beyond the call of duty in CSR!’

With limited funding and staff, small community organisations couldn’t cope without the support of volunteers. A day of your team’s time can be the equivalent of weeks of work for their team. And the result? Your staff get to spend a fun day together and they leave the day feeling positive and connected as a team having made a real difference.

I’d be the first person to put my hand up and say that arranging employee volunteering isn’t always easy. Finding a date that works for everyone, taking time out of the office, getting everyone there, there’s a lot to consider. That’s why we want to make it simple by doing  all of the leg work for you. We work with community groups all over London and the UK and would love to help your team connect to your local community and experience the joy of volunteering!

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Does volunteering hold the secret to eternal youth?

Volunteering runs in my family. I’ve always been encouraged to give something back wherever I could – whether that’s giving an hour to help at an event, or more long term commitments, like being on the board of TimeBank. 

It’s tempting just to think about volunteering being something you give – after all, you’re donating your time, your skills and your knowledge. And of course, it’s a great chance to learn new skills too – I’ve learned a huge amount about management and the voluntary sector during my time on the TimeBank board. 

But what about the less tangible things? Let’s take a look at the other volunteers in my family. There’s my Gran – she’s 94 and would pass for 20 years younger. Despite ‘retiring’ at 59, she gives her time for free most weeks, volunteering for a local cancer charity for over 30 years. And she’s got no plan to retire from this – the company, sense of purpose and friendship she gains from this her volunteering are the things that keeps her young. 

My Dad, coming up to 70, is much the same. He’s volunteered at the Paralympics, the Commonwealth Games, the World Athletics Championships and is currently gearing up for the Cricket World Cup. Having worked all his life, you’d think he’d be ready for a break – but no, adventures such as these give him energy, endless enjoyment and the chance to meet new people and be part of a new team, again years after he’s formally retired. 

Undeniably, volunteering has played a key part in keeping both of them younger than their years. I’m not sure it’s quite working for me yet – though I’d welcome looking 20 – but I’d say being part of the TimeBank board has challenged me, inspired me, and introduced me to some really fantastic people I’d otherwise never have met. It may not quite be the secret to eternal youth, but it’s certainly one of the secrets to getting the most out of life!

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