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

The Advent of Treats - looking after your wellbeing

The coffee cups have turned red, TV adverts are reducing us to tears and every spare bit of land has been turned into an ice rink. This can only mean one thing … it’s Christmas!! 

It may be the season of joy and jolliness for some of us, but not for all. For many it can feel as if the financial worries, family tensions, relationship problems, grief and trauma that we cope with all year combine forces to hit us in one ridiculously large bow wrapped package come December. So I’m going to talk about the ‘Advent of Treats’ and suggest some ways to improve wellbeing and look after yourself during the Christmas period.

The Advent of Treats began life last winter as a way to combine my passions for crafting, my love of Christmas and my constant desire to treat myself. The core idea is to adapt an Advent Calendar to include 25 different ways you can treat yourself – one each day in the run up to Christmas. Whether you’re at work, 50 miles from home or in a bad financial place, there should be a way you can give yourself a little ‘pick me up’. Looking after your mental health and wellbeing doesn’t have to take hours, cost a fortune or affect your responsibilities.

One in four of us are living with a mental health problem. For many people dealing with depression, anxiety and isolation, Christmas can really heighten these feelings. Last Christmas the Samaritans received around 15,000 calls to their helpline every day. 

There is a very simple and effective way to give yourself a daily treat and boost your mental health – using ‘The Five Ways to Wellbeing’ model. Developed by the New Economics Foundation (nef) from evidence gathered in the UK government’s Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing, The Five Ways are a set of simple actions we can do in everyday life to promote wellbeing.

These actions are: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning and Give:

  • Connect …

With the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them.

  • Be active …

Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy; one that suits your level of mobility and fitness.

  • Take notice …

Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are on a train, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.

  • Keep Learning …

Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident, as well as being fun to do.

  • Give …

Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and will create connections with the people around you.

I hope I’m able to inspire others to create their own ‘Advent of Treats’ and to think about the little things in life that help to make you feel better. To start your thinking I will list a few treat suggestions and ways to play the game.  But whether you take up the treat challenge or not, I do implore you to think about your own mental health and ways in which you can improve your wellbeing. From picking up the phone and calling an old friend, to taking a walk and enjoying the view, we can all do things everyday to make us feel better.

Suggested treats:

  • Enjoy a glass/mug of a favourite beverage you don’t have every day
  • Eat a favourite food 
  • Be active … or if you exercise every day, your treat could be a day off!
  • Hug someone 
  • Make contact with someone you haven’t spoken to for a while
  • Enjoy a really long catch up with a friend
  • Give someone an unexpected bunch of flowers
  • Make a Christmas card for someone
  • Watch a favourite tv programme
  • Listen to a favourite album
  • Find out about something new
  • Look through a memory box/photo album
  • Read for an hour
  • Visit a famous landmark

How to play:

Just think of 25 treats that work for you. Be creative, ask people for help, adapt your plans and make new discoveries. And remember that the point is to enjoy yourself, so don’t stress out in order to fit in a treat! The idea doesn’t only have to fit the Christmas Advent Calendar – it can work at any time of year. Maybe do 31 treats in January when things are dark and gloomy. Or even 365 days of the year. It’s not the packaging that’s important but taking little steps to improve your wellbeing.

Becky is project co-ordinator for The Switch, TimeBank's volunteer mentoring project to support young people making the transition from children's to adult mental health services. 

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Helping small charities to raise funds

Leaders Together is a project designed to help small charities and social enterprises in London to become more sustainable by matching them with mentors and also giving them free training courses at the TimeBank offices.

A month after our first session about fundraising we returned, with a few new guests, to sit back down and learn about approaching local businesses.

There are many different fundraising methods out there, but talking to people in the community seems the hardest to do. Donations from individuals ok - but what about that local business that just opened around the corner or the coffee shop where you’ve bought your pastries for years?

It is scary and it can go wrong - but it can also go very right and you have not only created a possible income for your organisation, but made your community involvement greater by increasing your supporter base.

To do it right, we tried to draw up some kind of step by step explanation to put five hours of role playing and brainstorming into perspective:  

Step 1: Research your target business

Find out everything about them. You need to know if they have ever supported a charity, and have the time, the capacity and the money for it. Secondly, you need to find out who the decision makers are. That might be one person, a group of employees or stakeholders. Whoever it is, that's who you need to sweep off their feet.

Step 2: Ask the right questions

You did your research, so now you know everything there is to know about the company. You're ready to ask the right questions - informed questions that show you have done your research and that you are serious about working with them.

Step 3: What is in it for me- WITFM

As much as you need to know what you can gain from partnering up, you need to know AND tell them what benefits they will gain. Whether it is volunteers you are after or money, you can tell them that if they work with you, they can polish their image, give back to the community, develop employee skills or help with employee retention.

Step 4: Protect your image

Your research should have shown you if the company you are trying to approach has a bad reputation. You don’t want your own image to get hurt. If you find out that the company you are approaching is obviously not interested (mind body language) while you are having the meeting - leave graciously. Thank them for their time and make sure they remember you as that ‘nice person with great ideas’ even if they couldn’t help.

Step 5: Closing the deal

Imagine everything went alright; you like them, they like you and you are about to leave the room. Make sure you have the next meeting already scheduled, ask them how long it will take for them to make a decision and what you need to do in the meantime. Exchange all possible names, mails and telephone numbers to stay in contact and thank them for their time.

If you need help making your charity sustainable or know a social enterprise that could benefit from Leaders Together, do give us a ring or drop me an email at The fundraising training session will now be accompanied with a monthly coffee morning at the TimeBank London office, open for all questions on fundraising, including bid writing and reporting. The sessions are available to all Leaders Together participants.

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The Government has backed TimeBank to deliver a major new language project

Today we are in the hugely exciting position of announcing our success in being awarded a grant of £1.12m by the Department of Communities and Local Government.

This is to run a brand new project to support long-term UK residents with little or no knowledge of English, by offering a variety of engaging, informal and flexible English language learning opportunities, together with mentoring in essential skills such as IT, employment and access to health and other services.

This is a huge project. We’ll be recruiting and training 70 volunteers to support around 1,300 residents – many of them women – in practical language skills that will enable them to do vital, everyday things like visiting the doctor or communicating with their children’s school. Our volunteers will train other volunteers, so that way we’ll build in sustainability.

And it’s a vital project. 60% of people believe that not speaking the language is the biggest barrier to integration.

We’ve called it Talking Togetherbecause quite simply, using our innovative volunteer-led model, its goal is to empower people to talk together, to be part of the wider community and to flourish and develop in the environment in which they live. Our project will be based in the Midlands – adding to our already flourishing projects in the area.

It is simply fantastic news for TimeBank and the very nature of the bid (which includes an enhanced version of our social franchise model originally developed for our very first mentoring programme Time Together) shows that we have constantly learnt and evolved as an organisation. We know just how much volunteers can and want to deliver given an interesting, challenging and well managed opportunity to do so.

It shows that our reputation for delivering quality, innovative and impactful projects on time, to target and on budget is not only intact but soaring! Those of you who regularly read our blog will know that TimeBank has had a challenging couple of years – but we’ve focussed on what we’re good at, continued to deliver what we say we will and believed passionately in what we were doing and the importance of supporting our beneficiaries. Today’s news only endorses this belief.

We have many people to thank for helping us on our journey so that we were able to pitch for such an ambitious project including our staff team, trustees, volunteers and funders so a big shout out to all of them. There is of course much to do to get a project of this size and complexity off the ground and we’ll be working hard in the coming weeks to do so.  I’ll keep you regularly updated as we do - but today we might just allow ourselves a little celebration!

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Engaging with ex-service men and women on Remembrance Day

TimeBank’s Shoulder to Shoulder project in Birmingham has recently started up a monthly drop-in for ex-service men and women to find out more about the mentoring that we offer, and to have a coffee and a chat with other veterans.

On Monday November 11 - Remembrance Day - we'll hold the next drop-in, the third since we set it up in September, so veterans will be able to drop in informally for a coffee and a chat on this day of remembrance for service personnel who gave their lives in the First World War and in conflicts since.

Shoulder to Shoulder offers one to one mentoring support to ex-service men and women who have had difficulties adjusting to civilian life and are recovering from mental health problems, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression.

The project is delivered by TimeBank, which has 13 years’ experience of delivering effective mentoring projects, in partnership with the Royal British Legion and leading veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress.

On average 20,000 service men and women leave the Armed Services every year. 27% experience mental health problems - 20% as a result of traumas during active service, which have a lasting and devastating impact on their lives.*

The problems that such veterans face are complex and they can spiral, potentially leading to serious drink and drug problems, physical health problems, relationship breakdown, homelessness and offending.

Leaving the military is a huge culture shock, as the structure, hierarchy and comradeship of military life is left behind and the uncertainties of civilian life are confronted. This is a jolt for many but for those dealing with mental health difficulties it is much harder to adjust and progress into the future.

Having a mentor creates the opportunity for a veteran to meet regularly with someone who understands, is an objective listening ear and can offer practical support so the veteran can address some of the difficulties they are having, whether it is with benefit forms, getting out of the house more, or trying to find work.

Shoulder to Shoulder is repeatedly recognised as a valuable and vital service for veterans but it’s not always easy for them to get involved, considering the difficulties they might be having. This is why we have set up the drop-in so that a veteran can call in informally and find out more about what we can offer over a coffee, without signing up. It’s also an opportunity to meet other veterans who’ve experienced similar problems.

We also recognise the difficulties that partners and close family members supporting a veteran can have and the impact it has on the whole family, so we are offering the same mentoring and drop-in service to partners and close family members as well.

Shoulder to Shoulder takes referrals for veterans & their families from across the West Midlands.  For more information about the Drop in and Shoulder to Shoulder mentoring take a look here or contact Jane, the Project Coordinator on 0121 236 2531, email

* Mental Health Network NHS Confederation briefing November 2010, issue 210.

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Recruiting new trustees is a challenging task, but it's vital to get it right

It’s Trustees Week and in a super timely fashion TimeBank was able to announce the appointment of three new trustees to strengthen our Board

Recruiting trustees is always a challenging task – as with appointing staff, it’s absolutely key to make sure that you have the right person with the right skills, prepared to do the job and stick with it.

We’ve been very lucky in recent years as we’ve sought to refresh our Board on an on-going basis – we always do a skills audit first to see what we have already and as the charity has evolved, which new skills we need. We then go out and target those skills and it doesn’t have to cost money – social media, circulating information as far and wide as you can through contacts, volunteers, staff,  other trustees, our own website and useful free sites like as well as specialist ones like TrusteeWorks, Trusteenet and Trusteehome.

You have to make sure your advert is inspiring and your paperwork informative and engaging. If it’s dull and dry that’s how people think the Board will be and let’s face it we’ve all come across dull and dry Boards in our time! We then interview as many candidates as we can and I’m involved along with the chair and another trustee as personality plays an important  part and it’s vital we can all work well together.  

Induction is next on the list. It’s comprehensive and in several parts – a formal day with financial and legal responsibilities (our auditors and lawyers are fantastic and do a slot for free), business plan, brand guidelines, how our Board works, what our Chair needs from trustees etc - then we always try and build in a sandwich lunch with staff so trustees aren’t seen as ‘removed’ from the organisation.

I meet with each new trustee one-to-one at their convenience so it may be during work hours, over lunch or a drink to talk through the way I see TimeBank, what they want out of the experience as a volunteer and what I need from them as CEO. Put simply, I try to build a strong mutually open relationship.  Finally they are invited to observe their first Board meeting where they are voted onto the Board formally. It sounds onerous but it’s not - and it means everyone knows what to expect and becomes part of our TimeBank family. They know what their responsibilities are and are able to ask questions in different environments so they can be confident that the role is for them.

So as Trustees Week kicks off it set me thinking about why I entered the charity sector in the first place – it was as a volunteer trustee for a tiny charity and my job was to help them get charitable status. It’s a long time ago now and I learnt a huge amount as well as, I hope, giving something back. Perhaps now is the time for me to volunteer to be a trustee again. Having been CEO of a national charity I think I know a lot more about what is needed from a trustee (and what isn’t!) than I did back then. So, any takers?

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Inspiring children to try sport - and Marcus to become a teacher

Engage is our brilliant project for unemployed young people in East London. We support them to deliver their own community projects and recruit volunteer mentors to help them plan their futures.

Marcus wanted to give local youngsters the chance to try sport and we're thrilled the experience inspired him to start training to become a teacher. Here's his story  ...

"I got involved in the Engage project because it looked like a good opportunity to do something positive with my time. Plus the TimeBank coordinator who first informed me about the Engage project at a Job Centre Plus event in Tower Hamlets seemed so enthusiastic about it and reassured me that it would be an all-round good experience.   What I enjoyed about the opportunity was that I had the free rein of being able to come up with my own idea, developing it into a project and executing it, although still being provided with excellent help when necessary.

My project was about taking the local youth (aged 7-12) out of the immediate local area and providing them with a new experience which allowed them to play a variety of sports in a safe environment.  I ran a small Fitness for Children project where children could come and try different sports activities and have nutritious snacks. This was to encourage children to take up sport and also to eat healthily. 

The project was initially supposed to be a one day event, but I have since had many calls from participants asking to make it a regular occurrence. Before delivering the project I was anxious because I'd never led my own project before to such a level. During the project I began feeling confident about it as the plan started coming together and I gained faith in the people around me that if I ever had trouble in my project I would have all the help I needed.

After the event finished, I was extremely satisfied with the results and the experience as a whole, as I met a number of new delightful people during the process and my project went down so well. 

Engage has also matched me with a mentor to help me with next steps. From this I would like to get general life advice, especially relating to university studies and fitness training as my mentor has achieved his degree and is now working in a related field. I would also like to develop in my fitness training as this is also something that he takes pretty seriously, so it would be nice to help motivate myself in that way. 

Throughout the process and my time in the Engage project from TimeBank, I have been amazed by the amount of help provided by those involved, especially Aklima, who helped me to gain practical work experience in a primary school, which was a vital part of me starting my journey to higher education. Overall I'd like to say a big thank you to everyone involved in the Engage project because it has given me an experience which both helped me develop my skills, learn new ones and gain confidence in previously unknown areas."

If you'd like to support young people like Marcus 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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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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