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

Ex-servicemen and women need our support ... and so do their families

We wanted to give our new Shoulder to Shoulder Families project a start point … an event … and make it an opportunity to meet with families and potential volunteers. So we planned a small low key occasion to mark its start.  

This was to be a practical event enabling us to gather information on what mentors want and, more importantly, on what family members need.

A mixture of people came along - current volunteers, potential volunteers and family members. One of our potential volunteers was an ex-serviceman who gave us a real insight into his experiences of leaving the Services and what he and his family had to deal with.

Everyone found it interesting – and for us, his input was invaluable. He spoke about the difficulties he had in doing simple things that many take for granted, for example registering for a GP when you have no NHS number because the whole family have only ever used military doctors in their adult lives.

Or having to choose your clothes after years of being told what to wear.  

The difficulties older children have when they are older than school age with no friends in a new place.

How hard it is to go from a high rank where you are called ‘Sir’ and your wife ‘Ma’am’ to being just like everyone else … 

We discussed how most military leavers’ packs don’t provide information for the wider family - they are very much focussed on the service leaver.  That’s understandable - but the family are also leaving their homes and all they know, with little support.

Finally and most importantly we had a useful discussion about mentoring itself. We agreed on the benefits of having group sessions that would provide practical support and advice to families but also opportunities for us to provide some structured training and talks to help families build their lives here in the West Midlands.

The session was enjoyable and really informative for us. Now we will be starting to build on those conversations to create a project which is valuable and as supportive as is needed.

Families of ex-service men and women face unique challenges in understanding and dealing with the issues their partners, sons and daughters are going through. They may also have been located in a variety of towns and countries so find it hard to settle into a new community.

Shoulder to Shoulder Families recruits and trains volunteers to act as mentors to help tackle isolation and signpost them to services to help. Take a look here for more information. 

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Choosing the right partner

Given the recent, and quite justifiable furore about the quality of care provision in England, it was a privilege to visit an organisation that gets it absolutely right.

Erskine has been caring for veterans since 1916, providing nursing care for elderly veterans in specialist homes across Scotland, but also offering support, housing and employment opportunities to veterans of all ages.

Two years ago TimeBank brought together a group of all the key players providing or commissioning support for veterans across the central belt – the first time many of them had been in the same room. We wanted to discuss the possibility of delivering Shoulder to Shoulder in Scotland, but to make sure that we did not tread on any toes or duplicate existing services.

Just as important was to find a delivery partner that was the leading provider in its field and shared something of TimeBank’s vision and values. Immediately after the meeting Erskine came back to us, keen to pursue the idea and develop a working partnership. Two years on and we are now recruiting a Project Co-ordinator to deliver our Shoulder to Shoulder programme in Erskine.

From the outset the partnership has been sustained not only by openness, honesty and communication, but also a good understanding of the two organisation’s culture, vision and values. Surprisingly, to me at least, was how close the two very different organisations are in those terms – like TimeBank, beneficiaries are at the heart of what Erskine deliver, and they, like TimeBank, are happy to be held to account for the work they do – doing what they say they will do.

On every visit to Erskine l’ve been impressed by the friendliness, the team work and commitment to get things done to the highest possible standard from everyone you meet – from the porters to the Chief Executive. The new TimeBank Project Co-ordinator will be based in Erskine and will benefit from having a fantastic working environment and culture around them – and hopefully they will be able to impart a little of the TimeBank culture too!

As you will notice from the picture, Erskine offers something of the best of the old with forward-looking innovation - this amazing building is apparently the oldest gothic piggery in Europe and to the rear is Erskine's state of the art conference and training facility. 

You can read more about our new project, supporting ex-servicemen and women and their families in Scotland, at Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine.

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Buzzing with ideas

Yesterday the whole TimeBank team from both our offices in London and Birmingham were at our Away Day. The day was organised, prepared and run pro bono by our friends at leading innovation agency Happen.

We’ve worked with Happen before but it’s a few years since we’ve had a full Away Day like this and the first since many of our new staff joined us so we were really excited about what we could achieve.

Everyone has different views on the value of events like this but when they are run well in a friendly and engaging way they can’t fail to be a success.  In advance we’d been sent our ‘Muse books’ a little booklet that set out the day and asked questions for us to ponder and research – where is our sector going? What are new and upcoming government initiatives that might impact on our sector? What can we learn from other charities? We were also asked what TimeBank does really well – a question that is easy to answer if you are the CEO: “everything”! But more of a risk when asking your staff team – what if they don’t think we do anything well?! 

So we arrived all prepared. We’d read the business plan and we had our books, our ideas and our creativity. The Happen offices are designed to be a comfortable, innovative and crucially, given some of our staff had never been to a day like this before, non-threatening environment. Sally-Anne and Gabriel just guided us through the day – by the afternoon, helped along by endless sugary products and a fantastic lunch we were down to the hard work – creating four new projects that we could develop back in the office to take TimeBank to the next stage in our journey in this new challenging environment the charity sector finds itself in. Before we fed back to everyone some of our trustees had arrived to share with us why they volunteer for TimeBank and to learn from the team the different ideas and themes we’d worked up during the day.

The enthusiasm and ideas were fantastic – everyone got to work in different teams throughout the day.  For the first time since our office expansion in Birmingham everybody met everyone else, putting faces to names and learning about their new colleagues. We have an amazing group of people at TimeBank and days like yesterday remind you of just what an outstanding resource our staff are and how many hidden skills we have lurking within that we can tap into as we grow in size and ambition. The day ended as all good Away Days should with drinks and nibbles and some socialising with our colleagues. Whoever says that Away Days are a waste of time should see just how far they can take you towards your goals and aspirations – no idea is wrong and everyone can contribute. And if you are wondering – staff reported that there were lots of things TimeBank does well, phew!! 

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Congratulations to EE!

TimeBank has worked with EE since 2012 to deliver a digital skills employee volunteering programme nationwide. Our partnership began in 2006 when TimeBank started to provide T-Mobile’s employee volunteering programme, and over the years it has evolved towards skilled based volunteering.

As part of this we’ve delivered fun and informal events such as Techy Tea Parties when EE employees show older guests how to make the most of technology and the internet over a cuppa!

So we’re naturally very excited to hear that EE has won a Prime Minister’s Big Society Award for its digital skills volunteering programme. David Cameron said: “Whether it’s creating an email account to connect with friends and family, or learning how to use an iPad, EE’s ‘Techy Tea Parties’ are demystifying technology and giving people the skills to get online.” 

Since its 2013 launch, EE has held 68 Techy Tea Parties, with over 565 employees volunteering to improve the digital skills of 861 people. Techy Tea Parties have been held in 28 different locations across the UK and there are plans to further expand the project this year. EE employees don’t need to be tech experts – it’s about spending time with someone from their local community.

Dan Perlet, Director of Corporate and Financial Affairs at EE, says: “Digital inclusion is an important issue for us – one in five people lack basic online skills and nearly seven million people in the UK are not currently online. They are missing out on a huge range of benefits, from keeping in touch with family and friends to saving money and accessing information and jobs. TimeBank’s employee volunteering programme has helped us to develop digital skills-based volunteering among our staff to help local communities make the most of technology and being online, such as our popular techy tea parties.”

If you are a charity or community organisation and you think your members, service users, staff or beneficiaries would benefit from attending a Techy Tea Party to improve their digital skills, please email or call 020 3111 0728.

And if you’re a company and would like to get your staff involved in volunteering, do get in touch!

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She made me believe I could pursue my dream career

City Opportunities Mentoring is a TimeBank project which matches care leavers with City Workers to support them with tasks such as writing job applications, practising interview skills, networking, job shadowing or gaining work experience.

Starting in September 2013, the project has matched 13 mentors and young people who meet for around five hours a month over six months.

One of the earliest matches was between Gurleen Virk, a final year law student at London SouthBank University and Saghar Roya, a solicitor working near Liverpool Street. Saghar took up the offer of a mentor after attending a five day work skills programme at the university. That gave her a taste of City life and she decided that she'd benefit from the help of a mentor to support her in her ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer on graduating.

Saghar had volunteered previously and now she had more time on her hands, was keen to offer support in a way that would use both her professional and personal skills.

Gurleen and Saghar have been meeting for several months now and are both enjoying the mentoring experience. Saghar has been supporting Gurleen with her college work, including help to draft a revision timetable and feedback on her final year dissertation.

In future they plan to focus on finding Gurleen a work placement and Saghar will help her to research companies, polish up her CV and practise interview skills. Gurleen says Saghar is a very ‘determined and motivating’ mentor whom she saw as a role model and who made her believe that it was possible to aim for her dream career. She says Saghar is very approachable and always encourages her to ask questions and be in contact whenever she needs support.

Saghar is having an equally positive experience, saying that Gurleen is ‘lovely to work with’.

If you would be interested in becoming a mentor on City Opportunities or you are keen to refer a young person to the project, I would love to hear from you! Please contact me at or on 020 3111 0730.

And if you would like to know more about our City Opportunities mentoring project, take a look here

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Local volunteers are helping us to shape our language courses

Our Talking Together project offers informal and flexible language teaching to long-term UK residents who have little or no knowledge of English. 

The programme is fundamentally based on working collaboratively; with our delivery partners, who manage the processes of engaging with and supporting learners in close liaison with a project coordinator, all the way through to potential volunteers who are being trained to deliver the programme.

So we were all really excited to involve our first cohort of volunteers in shaping our super-intensive ‘train the trainer’ course for language trainers and to find out what they think.

We had a nice mixed bunch of volunteers and everyone was clearly motivated to get stuck into the content. The day was led by Alex from Elevation, who’s been a joy to work with and she delivered with aplomb. We had lots of fun, plenty of challenges and experienced a good chunk of minor anxiety as, in turn, we were each put on the spot and asked to deliver a session.

We kind of knew it already but now we could see that creativity, thinking on your feet and being able to truly respond from where people are, while keeping a good eye on the wider group, were all super-key qualities. We learnt a lot by participating as a team so when the "happy sheets" came out towards the end of day two we were already feeling confident and better informed about the challenges our volunteers will face. 

We were even happier when we saw the  feedback. Several great improvements were suggested and we’ll integrate them into the  next version, plus an overall aggregated score of 9.6/10! But we won’t be resting on our laurels … that remaining .4 score on the door is important to us.

So with our delivery partners all lined up and ready to go, next for us is ensuring the best possible matches with volunteers, scheduling the first set of pilot ‘learner courses’ and getting started. With pledges of more learners than we can probably manage at the moment we’re all excited at taking on what will probably be our biggest co-ordination challenge yet.

Want to get involved? Find out more about our Talking Together project here

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Southerly go back to school to inspire children to read

Staff from Battersea company Southerly went back to school on Friday to create an exciting reading corner at Falconbrook Primary School.

The creative content agency volunteered to transform a part of the school library into a castle complete with fairy lights and cushions, to encourage children at the school to read. They see volunteering as an ideal way to spend time together as a team – and give something back to their local community. 

Shelley Hoppe, CEO of Southerly, said: “We could have had a whip round in the office and contributed money to charity. But we wanted to use our creative skills to bond as a team, have fun and do something to make a big impact somewhere nearby that really needed it.”

Our chief executive Helen Walker joined the volunteers to help create the reading corner and take part in a film that Southerly are making about what the day achieved for local children.

What a transformation - the finished reading cornerLocal branches of Homebase and B&Q in Wandsworth very generously donated materials for the volunteers to use on the day. And as you can see from the photos, the finished result looks great!

We love organising employee volunteering challenges for companies that want to make a difference in the communities where they live and work. It was a real pleasure to work with Southerly as they are a great team of very creative and generous people. They really cared about making the best reading corner they could, and all this effort showed in the fantstic quality of the finished reading corner.

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Mental health carers - an unseen majority

Carers are often presented as a hidden healthcare workforce - something that is finally being recognised by the new GP carers' champions.

This is a tried and tested way of raising the profile of an issue within primary care, and is something that has been successfully done with GP specialists in mental health.

However, describing carers as a hidden healthcare workforce creates an image of an army of people providing physical care. This is only a partial picture. Carers Together supports large numbers of people and we were quite surprised to find the most likely reason that the cared for person needs care is mental health.

A carer isn’t just someone who performs the physical task of looking after someone - they also shoulder the burden of feeling emotionally responsible for that person. We can probably all empathise with those who have to get up and down throughout the night taking someone to the toilet, but it is perhaps more difficult to imagine the impact of years of worrying about a person. 

Imagine spending every evening worrying if someone is going to come home. Half anticipating a call from the police or the health service telling you your son, daughter or husband has tried to take their life. Imagine being told by a loved one that they feel unsafe to be around people; that they are too frightened to go outside; that their food is being poisoned or that they know that you hate them. Not every mental health issue produces these extreme scenarios but they do create specific difficulties for the carer.

Why? If someone has a physical problem the carer feels that the clinical treatment of that problem is the responsibility of a doctor. While the Government suggests this is true of mental health issues too, a carer’s experience can be very different. Mental health is still a Cinderella service, support is extremely varied and all too often comes nowhere near meeting the needs of those with mental health needs.

Unlike physical care, people, especially parents, feel responsible for the mental health of those they care for. The belief that if you could just do the right thing, the cared for person would be alright, can be psychologically crippling.

In addition if the central issue is mental health, life can be as chaotic for the carer as it is for the person suffering the condition.

Despite the emotional hardship there is little recognition of what carers for people with mental health issues are facing. Even within carers groups the difficulty in articulating the daily grind of looking after someone with a mental health issue means that there is a doubt about being a ‘real carer’. Our experience has told us that carers for those with mental health issues are crying out for help. Let’s hope they get it.

Find out about the support we offer to carers - both face-to-face and online - through our Carers Together project.

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