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

Caring - exploitation or choice?

A recent animation funded by the Gates Foundation highlighted the ‘exploitation’ of carers across the world.

Exploitation in this case means unpaid labour that is ignored by policy makers but clearly benefits industry and governments. Rightly pointing out that the burden of this work falls disproportionately on women, who are 10 times more likely than men to provide unpaid care, the piece offers the view that anyone voluntarily caring for another person, who is not sufficiently remunerated for the activity or supported by Government policy decisions, is being exploited. 

It is interesting to consider this in relation to carers in the UK. Although rarely expressed in these terms, there is a level of anger among carers of both sexes that hints at a sense of exploitation.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers three definitions of exploitation: the first is to make full use of and derive benefit from. This seems to chime with current Government policy. The message is clear: ‘We know there is a problem, but the State cannot provide.’

The second definition offered by OED: to make use of (a situation) in a way considered unfair or underhand. The situation here is a sense of obligation, love or commitment to the person being cared for. The sense of exploitation comes from the motivation this provides to undertake complicated and arduous work for little or no financial reward.

The third definition offered by the OED: to benefit unfairly from the work of (someone), typically by overworking or underpaying. This  highlights the hidden benefits to society from a carer’s role. When someone cares for a family member it means there is less call on the State’s resources.  If we consider the welfare of its vulnerable citizens to be the responsibility of the State, exploitation seems embedded in the structure of caring for a family member.

But this does not chime with the experience of carers. We have more than 150 carers involved with our Carers Together  project and none of them say they feel  ‘exploited'. But they do express  anger, largely with Government, about the lack of support they receive in their role. Equally when asked ‘Why did you become a carer?’ large numbers respond with: ‘I had no choice". The focus of the anger and the sense of injustice suggests that they do not believe the State is honouring its obligations to the more vulnerable members of society.

Perhaps the reason carers do not claim to be exploited is that they are primarily motivated by love for the person they are caring for. It is in this context our mentoring takes place. Navigating degrees of willingness, obligation, poverty and exhaustion are part of the mentoring task and it is by finding a balance - between acknowledging the way in which our carers are exploited, and that in some way they freely choose their situation and must work to make the best of it - that our mentors succeed. 

TimeBank's Carers Together project offers face-to-face and online mentoring to carers. It aims to reduce social isolation, improve emotional well-being and help carers cope with the stress and strains of caring. If you’d like more information, take a look at email Stephen at

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Top tips for recruiting and supporting volunteers

The world of volunteers and volunteering has changed a lot in the last 10 years. Perhaps the most interesting change for me has been the move away from the collective contribution of thousands of individual volunteers to the language of mass participation. Volunteers and volunteering has morphed from informal activity at a local level into 'community engagement' or 'active citizenship' and even the 'big society', with an emphasis on how volunteers can contribute to public service delivery.

However, one constant has been the struggle faced by some volunteer-involving organisations to recruit and retain volunteers.

Nearly 10 years ago l was lead author for the now lost Volunteering Compact Code of Good Practice. The Volunteering Code was part of a national agreement between the Government and the voluntary and community sector and set out how volunteers and volunteering should be described, supported and encouraged. It contained undertakings and commitments for the Government, public bodies, and volunteer-involving organisations. As a document it had its shortcomings, but looking back I was surprised by how relevant some of those undertakings and commitments still are … and depressed at how often volunteer-involving organisations fail to meet those undertakings yet still question why they are so unsuccessful at recruiting volunteers.

So drawing from the Compact, these are my top 10 tips for volunteer-involving organisations recruiting and supporting volunteers:

  1. Challenge yourself to examine your overall purpose, values and objectives – and focus on how involving volunteers might relate to them.
  2. Ensure you have both the time and resources to support and train volunteers, and that you can provide something that will make their volunteering a valuable experience – for example increasing skills and confidence as well as supporting finding ways back to work.
  3. Identify a named person or groups to be responsible for volunteer involvement, and for monitoring and reporting on it (ideally appoint a paid Volunteer Manager).
  4. …also identify a trustee board champion for volunteering.
  5. Encourage the involvement of volunteers in on-going decision-making and include them in internal communications, so that your volunteers are acknowledged as important partners and stakeholders in your organisation.
  6. Volunteers, while not paid staff, should have many of the same entitlements as employees – clarity about their roles and responsibilities, induction, managerial supervision and support, and relevant training and development opportunities.
  7. Adopt clear policies regarding the payment of expenses. Volunteers should not be out of pocket because of their voluntary activity. Volunteers are entitled to reimbursement of all reasonable expenses. Many volunteers are reluctant to claim, so make sure you encourage them to claim.
  8. When preparing funding proposals and submitting bids, recognise that while volunteering is freely given it is not cost free. The full costs of involving volunteers should be included as legitimate overheads in full cost recovery.
  9. Look at your current volunteers – do they reflect the community of interest/location/beneficiaries in which you work? Tackle barriers to ensure that volunteering is open to all.
  10. Challenge yourself to offer opportunities that match potential volunteers’ motivation and abilities and that are diverse and inclusive – don’t just dress up the jobs that no one else wants to do as a volunteering opportunity!
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Community projects can grow into small businesses ...

Engage is our exciting project for unemployed young people in East London. We support these young people to deliver their own community project – and provide a mentor to help them plan their futures. Romie came up with the idea of face painting for children, which she now hopes to turn into a business ...  

"I studied Art & Design at college, so for my project I wanted to do something which involved art and creativity. I really enjoy painting and doing media makeup so I thought to put the two together and do face painting for children which is fun and creative.

152 I delivered the pilot project at a church in Tower Hamlets where a group of home educated children come together to do group activities. When I arrived on the day, after the children had finished their activity, I started the face painting (which took about 10 minutes to paint a face). I hadn't really done much face painting before, so this was a good opportunity to practice designs. It was good to do something fun for the children and it was nice to see them enjoy the activity and this is why I would say my pilot project was successful.

I also became a bit more confident in my face painting so I attended a Sports Day in Leyton in East London and did a face-painting stall there.  As part of the project, I then did my final face painting session at Stepney Greencoat school in Tower Hamlets as part of its school fun day.

The project helped me in different ways. While I was undertaking the formal training, during each session someone came in and talked about different areas of delivering a project like planning and costs. This really helped me because I'd never have thought about these tasks before I started with Engage. 157

Delivering my project has really encouraged me to want to start a face painting business for children's events, so I am glad I was involved. I already have some face-painting equipment, a banner and business cards so this gives me a good start.

I am currently looking for apprenticeships in childcare and I have also done a couple more face painting events for children's parties."

If you'd like to support young people like Romie to get into education, training or work, why not volunteer as a mentor on the Engage project? Take a look here.

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Should charities think more like businesses?

TimeBank’s Leaders Together project matches small charities, social enterprises and community groups in London with free business mentoring to help them build their capacity.  And what many of these organisations want to learn about is fundraising.   

Unfortunately, I am not writing my first blog to give you the secret formula. I don’t know it and TimeBank doesn’t either.  Every small commission, big foundation site or training blog will have millions of tips to give you: what to write, what not to say, always to call and enquire and never rush your bid writing.

But at a recent Leaders Together workshop on fundraising we wondered if all this advice focusses a little too much on the charitable perspective.

‘Good fundraising is good branding’ – that’s a very scary statement that puts a lot of charities off. There are other words that the charity sector doesn’t like to use: ‘sales’, ‘marketing’ and the general idea of having to think like a BUSINESS to get ahead. But it is essential for small charities to realise they have costs like rent, electricity and employees … no organisation can run at a loss and every charity needs to earn enough to cover those overheads and continue its good work.

The first step towards this realisation is that good businesses get ahead. The good ones are structured, have lots of ideas and know how to market themselves well. This applies to big charities as well as small ones.

Fundraising is multifaceted - whether you write bids, appeal to major donors, rattle the collecting tins or approach local businesses it’s all the same. You need to know your facts as only good communication skills will bring you one step closer to the cheque you need to pay your bills.

At the workshop, some of the fundraising problems raised by organisations included: ‘Where should I look for bids?’, ‘Why wasn’t my bid successful?’ and ‘How do I know what my funder wants to read?’

Here are the top tips we came up with:

  1. Take it back to the basics. Firstly, you need to evaluate which fundraising method works best for you
  2. Fundraising is about relationship building
  3. There are five essential components to writing a good introduction: you have to say what you do, who you help and how you do it. You need to provide evidence that the problem exists in society and provide tangible results of the impact of your work
  4. Know your numbers: the more facts you have about your field, project and community, the more credible you will sound
  5. Your supporters are probably right in front of your nose, already giving you donations or volunteering for you

Due to popular demand and great feedback, there will be a Part 2 of this fundraising workshop later this month for everyone who is involved in the Leaders Together project, so we’ll bring you more top tips. And if you think your organisation would benefit from free professional support, or you are interested in joining the project as a mentor, do take a look here

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Changing our attitudes towards mental health

The news pages, Twitter and blogosphere have reacted in great force to the ‘mental patient’ fancy dress costume controversy. From football players to spin doctors, it’s seems that everyone’s talking about mental health. But is it enough?

Three of the UK’s biggest retailers Asda, Tesco and Amazon were criticised this week for selling ‘mental patient’ and ‘psycho ward’ fancy dress costumes. And rightly so. A blood-spattered straight jacket with axe accessory should never be synonymous with someone living with mental health issues. There are those that would argue it’s just a ‘joke’ - that it’s exaggeration and make believe. The problem with this argument is that these ‘mental patient’ costumes are harmful. They exacerbate the extremely damaging and unfounded stigma of mentally ill people as ‘violent and a danger to society’.

According to Time to Change, the anti-stigma campaign run by leading mental health charities Mind and Rethink, over a third of the public think people with mental health problems are likely to be violent. In fact 95 per cent of homicides in the UK are committed by people who have not been diagnosed with a mental health problem, yet someone with a mental illness is four times more likely to be a victim of violence. 

So the stigma may be unfounded but its effects are very real and very damaging.  It isolates people from friends, family, colleagues, neighbours, employers, teachers, services and everyday life activities. As Time to Change explains: “People often find it hard to tell others about a mental health problem they have, because they fear the reaction. And when they do speak up, the overwhelming majority say they are misunderstood by family members, shunned and ignored by friends, work colleagues and professionals or called names or worse by neighbours.”

This shouldn’t be happening. If one in four of us have experienced a mental health problem then why is it such a taboo subject to talk about? If at least one family member, one colleague in the office, one football team mate has struggled with depression, anxiety or delusions then why aren’t we doing more to help?

The funny thing is helping couldn’t be easier. We just need to talk. If you know someone who has been struggling with their mental health, ask them how they’re doing. You don’t have to be a professional to talk about mental health, you don’t need to offer therapeutic advice or provide a ‘cure.’ Just be there for them, as described in Time to Change’s campaign Time to Talk  which provides some really easy to follow tips for talking:

  • Talk, but listen too: simply being there will mean a lot.
  • Keep in touch: meet up, phone, email or text.
  • Don’t just talk about mental health: chat about everyday things as well.
  • Remind them you care:  small things can make a big difference.
  • Be patient: ups and downs can happen.

The simple act of talking can be a light in the fog to some people. Knowing that someone cares, understands and is non-judgemental makes a huge difference. As Project Co-ordinator for TimeBank’s mental health mentoring project ‘The Switch’  I’ve seen this difference first hand. The Switch matches young people who are living with mental health problems and leaving Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), with volunteer mentors who help build their self-esteem and confidence by spending time with them, doing everyday things like going for coffee, enjoying a hobby or preparing to get a job.

One young man, 18 year old Dean, told me that the best things about having a mentor was that: “I could talk about how I was feeling, but we could also talk about normal things, like music and TV.” Dean went on to explain that his mentor helped him to trust people and become more sociable. Nine months of mentoring and Dean has gone from being unable to leave the house on his own or access services and with no plans for the future, to a young lad who can walk to the high street on his own, is able to trust and access other services, and who has the confidence to apply for internships and think about the career he wants.

So I’m going to set you the easiest of homework – talk. Because trust me, one quarter of the UK population is waiting for it.

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Just one day of volunteering can boost children's reading

Last Friday I got to work with a fantastic group of employee volunteers from the property investment company, Picton Capital. Working with an enthusiastic and generous group of volunteers reminds me why I’m very privileged to have such a great job.

The team of 11 designed and built a reading corner at Harry Gosling primary school in Tower Hamlets. The volunteers transformed an ordinary library space into a mythological wonderland full of legends and mystery to inspire the pupils to enjoy reading.

The Picton volunteers arrived ready for action in the morning fully prepared to get creative and to get stuck into some hard labour! No time was wasted and they went straight to their set tasks like champions. Even a mid-morning fire drill interruption didn’t phase them - the volunteers powered through to ensure they delivered everything they promised, and more.

It was great to see a group of volunteers work so well as a team. Each volunteer had their own tasks but they all supported each other to make sure the reading corner was finished to an excellent standard. They listened to each other and shared their opinions, although they had a good sense of fun so there was plenty of banter!

This was a great example of how a group of employees can come together to truly give something back in their local community. Yes they spent just a day at the school, but they created an inspiring reading corner that the pupils can enjoy for the rest of the school year. Not only this but they had carefully thought about their designs and plans and they made considerable effort to ensure that the pupils would enjoy what they had created. They kept that focus from beginning to end, and it showed in the brilliant result. The Assistant Head teacher was very pleased, saying: “It was far more than I could have expected.”


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We experience the benefits of corporate volunteering

A few weeks ago a random email landed offering TimeBank the opportunity to be a beneficiary of corporate volunteering.

Now as regular readers of our blog will know, Employee Volunteering is one of our core areas of work, particularly skills based volunteering which helps community partners to move forward in a way they simply have neither the time nor sometimes the knowledge to do.  But this put the boot on the other foot – we were to be the beneficiaries.

I can think of nothing better than embedding a belief in the power (and fun) of volunteering for both the individual and the company from the very moment an employee walks through the door.  So, all credit to firms which immerse their future leaders into the charity sector from day one. We were well briefed and had to provide our graduate banking team with a social media challenge, support them to do it, evaluate them and attend the end of project presentation. There was also an added element, which the natural competitor in me latched onto: there was to be a winning team out of the 16 groups of graduates matched with a charity. So for me there could only be one winner from the moment we embarked on the project – TimeBank doesn’t ‘do’ losing!  

And so one Friday morning a couple of weeks ago our graduate team arrived – very smart, very enthusiastic, extraordinarily polite, business-like and ready to take on the world (remember how that felt?). I worried what they’d think of our slightly shabby building where the lift comically takes you to whichever floor it feels like rather than the one you have pressed. Fortunately we had two things to win them over – chocolate biscuits and a fantastic brand new initiative we wanted them to work up a social media campaign for: Christmas Party Volunteering. They loved it, they got it, they instantly had lots of ideas and they were as competitive as me!

The thing about this scheme is that they have to fit it in around their intensive graduate training programme working in lunch hours, evenings, weekends – just like people who volunteer normally. We agreed a process of communication via email and they came back to us that evening with their first thoughts and various things they needed from us. On Tuesday I headed off to Canary Wharf at lunchtime to film a video with them for their twitter campaign and we’ve been filming our staff team too. Over the next few days they put the film, the plan and their ideas all together for the start of the campaign today. So watch this space I’ll tell you how it goes……

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Christmas Party Volunteering - a much better way of spending the party budget!

Last Christmas I asked the staff what they wanted to do, pointing out that we had what could only be described as an infinitesimal budget for a party but that I was keen we did something. It shouldn’t have surprised me that they came back to me with a brilliant idea – they suggested that we volunteered (and of course they had sourced some ideas) and then if we paid for a cheap lunch they’d cover their own drinks. 

I bang on in every talk I make about how we walk the talk at TimeBank - how all our staff have five days volunteering leave, how all our trustees are volunteers and how it’s part of our DNA. Here once again was another example of really passionately believing in what we do. And so it was on a cold wet December morning I found myself with my entire staff team in a Crisis warehouse packing up crates to be sent to nine different temporary shelters that were being set up over Christmas.

It felt good, it felt right and it was a classic team building experience. Then, in time honoured tradition, we went to the pub and headed out for a curry. It cost us very little in cash, took no more time than a Christmas lunch would have and we all headed home for Christmas feeling that we’d made a difference to someone less fortunate than ourselves.147

From a business perspective we learnt how another charity manages its volunteers, how they welcome you, thank you and power through the inevitable health and safety messages. Some things we thought we did better others that we could learn from and bring into our own programmes. It also brought our team together after a challenging year.  Everyone I spoke to that holiday was bowled over by what we had done – by the desire to do something positive with our ‘party time’ and everyone said “I’ll suggest that next year at my office”.

So it struck us as a good idea to make it really easy for anyone starting thinking about their Christmas party to put together an ‘off the shelf’ volunteering package that arranged it all for them and secured a discount in a local restaurant or pub for anyone volunteering on a TimeBank Scheme (and yes I know it’s only September but last week alone we had nearly 2,000 hits on the Christmas volunteering pages on our website, so I know you are thinking about it!).

So here it is - our half day volunteering/party pack. You volunteer for a morning or afternoon at a charity, usually but not exclusively on a Christmas theme – feel free to bring those comedy reindeer antlers if you feel so inclined. And then go out for lunch or supper in one of the nearby locations we have sourced. We’ll do it all for you for a one off fee starting at £250 + VAT. We’ll check out the health and safety, the risk assessments, we’ll liaise with the charity and give you a full briefing pack in advance, including lists of what you will be doing, how you can split your teams, elements of competition you can create if you want and of course the good you will be achieving whilst you do it. 150

All you need to do is turn up and make a difference in your local community this Christmas before going out for a slightly slimmed down party already feeling on top of the world – isn’t that a better way of spending the Christmas party budget?

If you're interested in learning more, take a look at  our Employee Volunteering page or download our Christmas Party Volunteering flyer here

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