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

Bring your skills, time, energy and passion to TimeBank!

Start the week as I mean to go on positive, upbeat and excited … about recruiting trustees. Volunteers who genuinely want to make a difference to your charity by bringing their skills, time, energy and passion.  As a CEO it’s a bit like being involved in recruiting your own boss! The last time TimeBank recruited, 85 people applied for five posts on the Board and they were so good we wound up appointing seven.  But that was four years ago, people are retiring and moving on and so is TimeBank. And  what better time to choose to launch our recruitment campaign than Trustees Week.

The role of a trustee is varied but what it’s not, at least not here at TimeBank, is just rocking up to a meeting four times a year and popping it on your CV, job done. No, what we want are people committed to our charity, passionate about volunteering and willing to get their hands dirty.  People who bring with them different skills, are willing to speak up for what they believe, who will be ambassadors for a charity that they hold close to their heart. Those of you who have read my blogs over the past 18 months will know it’s not been easy and we aren’t out of the woods yet, so this isn’t an easy gig. Money is hard to come by and I, like many other CEO’s in the sector, am permanently attached to a spreadsheet of one sort or another striving to make every penny go further. Of course we need people to scrutinise our numbers but we also want people helping us to increase them, people who understand mentoring and employee volunteering, business and governance and those who can help set our strategy for the next few years by challenging conventional ideas about volunteering.

Trustees are vital volunteers in our sector we need them to take responsibility for our charities to ensure they are governed well and that our CEO’s - whilst being challenged are also well supported – because believe me it is no myth that it’s lonely at the top! So if any or all of the above sounds like you then think about applying, it’ll be fun as well as challenging at times but you can play a part in changing volunteering and as a volunteer yourself surely you are the best placed to do that.

If I’ve convinced you, take a look through our application pack - and I look forward to hearing from you!

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70,000 Gamesmakers - volunteering champions or missed opportunity?

Autumn has now taken a grip - its dark when we get up and dark when we get home. So what’s happened to the Olympic feel good factor?

At the moment we’re all talking about who will take over the stadium? Which athletes will get funding towards Rio in 2016? And who will get the BBC Sports Personality award? My money’s on Brandy Simmweir.

But with our volunteering focus here at TimeBank, we’re wondering just how employers supported their Gamesmakers. What help did they get while training and volunteering? Have they been able to share their stories back at work? Will the experience help in their careers?

After all, the 70,000 volunteers who have been universally praised and admired should be a central part of the Games legacy. They are 70,000 volunteering champions who have been recruited, trained and managed at considerable expense. If they each inspire 15 friends and colleagues to volunteer that would be over a million volunteers to add to the legacy of the Games.    

This is exciting stuff and we wanted to move quickly. With the help of our own Gamesmaker Becky, we used social media to issue a survey that starts to address these important questions. Here’s a summary of our results so far:-

  • Firstly, a relatively small number of Gamesmakers work in the private sector (28%). In many ways this is understandable as teachers, students, retirees and people out of work would find it easier to take 2 weeks away in August. 40% were public sector employees while 28% were not working.
  • Most working Gamesmakers had to take annual or unpaid leave for the duration of their volunteering – several employers offered 1 or 2 days paid leave in addition to annual leave entitlement. 6% were able to volunteer entirely in work time and there were many ingenious examples of how hours were juggled and partners stepped in to help.
  • Although the most significant benefit was in learning about their own personal qualities, over 50% learnt new skills such as effective communication and team-working and a third of the volunteers will think differently about next steps in their career as a direct result of being a Gamesmaker.
  • Two-thirds believed their experience will be helpful in their current role and an almost identical number say it will define the next steps in their career.
  • Encouragingly, nearly two-thirds have been asked about the experience since returning to work with many presenting to colleagues and reporting in blogs and in house magazines – there was even a personal thank you from a CEO.
  • However, among those in employment, nearly half have no opportunity at all to continue volunteering with support from their employer and less than 20% will be allowed any allocation of work time for volunteering.   
  • Despite this over 90% would be willing to champion volunteering among their colleagues.

This is a snapshot, yet it chimes with much of what we hear in repeated surveys of employee volunteers and conversations with corporate responsibility practitioners. Even when doing tasks that do not relate directly to work, volunteers develop valuable and transferable skills in communication, empathy and adaptability. They come together to form powerful and lasting teams that sustain themselves organically (and through Facebook!) Yet still we find that this incredible energy that has been funded for a once-in-a-lifetime event is in danger of not realising its true legacy.

There are employers out there that are providing the mechanism, encouragement and investment to help their new volunteering champions to spread the word. However, it does appear from our survey that it was difficult for private sector employees to get involved in the first place and it has been difficult so far for them to carry this enthusiasm back into their working lives.

Any companies looking for support to develop their employee volunteering programme and for volunteering opportunities that make a real difference, should contact us and we’d be happy to advise on next steps.      

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Promoting the business benefits of employee volunteering

We were at Westminster this week, welcoming senior business leaders and policy makers to a reception hosted by Stephen Lloyd MP to outline the business benefits of effective employee engagement. We think there is an amazing story to tell about the impact it can have on staff morale, motivation, commitment and retention rates.  

There were great contributions from MPs including Andrew Bingham, who has “walked the talk” by spending two weeks out volunteering in his constituency during the summer recess. Our host Stephen Lloyd drew on his own business background to describe the value of volunteering.

Corporate responsibility has always made good business sense – attracting the best talent and earning the trust of customers and the community. Employee volunteering helps a workforce to develop leadership, decision-making and negotiation skills while making a genuine difference in the communities where they work. During difficult economic times, those skills are more vital than ever.

One statistic really had the audience buzzing. We’ve long known that investing in volunteering enhances the way employees perceive their company – and want to stay with it, resulting in lower staff turnover rates.  But who would have thought a company with 9,500 employees could achieve an annual saving of nearly £2m through the motivational benefits of volunteering? It came to light when they compared staff turnover rates and found a dramatic decrease - from an average 19% to 2.7% - amongst those staff who took part in their employee volunteering programme.

TimeBank has been connecting businesses and communities for the past 10 years – delivering employee volunteering that really works. We’ve delivered programmes for EE, BT, T-Mobile, Ernst & Young, Sony and the Cabinet Office to name just a few, so we’re highly experienced in this field.

If you weren’t able to get along to our reception, but would like to find out more about how employee volunteering can benefit your company, do get in touch.

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Volunteers made the Games happen!

That was the message delivered to me and my 69,999 other team members at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. I had the privilege to be one of the 70,000 Gamesmakers for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and part of the biggest UK volunteer workforce assembled in peace time.

The closing ceremony was the end of a long and emotional journey and as the torch was extinguished it was time for me to hang up my fetching red and purple baseball cap and say goodbye to one of the best times of my life.

My journey was most definitely a marathon not a sprint. It didn’t start on my first shift, or at my various training days, or in the East London warehouse where I picked up my uniform and accreditation back in May. It didn’t start back in December 2011 when I got the email saying my interview had been successful, or back in July 2011 when I had my interview. It didn’t even start in September 2010 when I swam across the tide of negative energy surrounding the London Games and submitted my application to become an Olympic volunteer.

It started over 12 years ago at High School when I was voted my form’s Charity Representative (for the second time – not to be big headed!) and I organised a 'Stars in their Eyes' competition for Breast Cancer Care. Amid the various renditions of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ and Backstreet Boy dance routines, I knew I had found something I love to do…Volunteering. Since then I have rarely stopped volunteering. I have delivered drama workshops for kids, organised a ton of fundraiser events, coached trampolining, taught school children in Honduras and shaken a lot of buckets. The majority of these opportunities I took part in whilst working full time and having a hectic social life. This has been a struggling balancing act but has always been worth it. I call my volunteering roles “opportunities” because as well as making a difference to others; I’ve got to have the most amazing experiences myself.

I feel like I’ve blown a volunteering secret, and now the other 19.8 million people who volunteer in the UK will mob me for letting everyone else know what they’re missing out on. Though I think the success of the London 2012 Games and the attitude towards the Gamesmakers have already turned public opinion on volunteering. I know that at TimeBank we have received volunteer applications that specifically mention the Olympics as the inspiration for wanting to volunteer. The Gamesmakers helped people to realise that giving up your time free of charge is hard work but can be full of rewards. By this, I don’t mean the obvious rewards that everyone thinks of, like getting to watch the action in the venues or meeting the athletes. I would say the majority of Gamesmakers never saw any action (unless they had bought tickets) and only a tiny percentage got to shake hands with the likes of Usain Bolt.

The Gamesmakers who greeted spectators with a smile (and sometimes song and dance) didn’t get free seats to the action. The Gamesmakers who were based in an East London warehouse from April to July, giving out uniform and accreditation, didn’t get entry to the Olympic Park or hang out with Chris Hoy. But they still volunteered for a minimum of seven hours per shift, still travelled across London (sometimes across the whole of the UK) and still went home with sore legs and hoarse throats.

The rewards I’m talking about are meeting amazing people. As a Gamesmaker I got to meet some great people I genuinely hope to stay in touch with, and with reunions already planned I believe that will be the case. There’s an atmosphere created in a volunteering team that can’t be recreated elsewhere. I’ve been a paid steward for major sporting and public events and the buzz and camaraderie isn’t the same. The satisfaction and relief after volunteering for a fundraising event is so much greater than what I’ve experienced as a paid member of staff at similar events. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t feel as special.

The biggest reward, though, is being able to say “I was there. I made it happen.” I will tell my grandkids about my time volunteering for London 2012, and how I helped to make it the massive success it has been.  If you were a greeter who made a spectator smile, or a press volunteer (like me) who made a journalist’s experience (and consequently their reporting) of the Games that much better, it all adds up. I know I was a tiny cog in a massive machine. I could have stopped turning and it wouldn’t have made a difference. But if we all stopped turning, there wouldn’t have been a London 2012.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) put the Games in the hand of volunteers and we delivered it… with a smile.

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How much are voluntary organisations being squeezed?

A recent survey report by the London Voluntary Service Council (LVSC) found that that 89 per cent of voluntary organisations and charities in London think that the current economic and policy climate has negatively impacted on the communities they serve over the last year.

Two-thirds of those surveyed have seen an increase in demand for their services. Yet 60 per cent report a decrease in their funding for 2012-13.

Due to the increased strain, 41 per cent of organisations say they have had to close services in 2012, and almost one third are expected to drop services in the coming year. More encouragingly, 90 per cent say that they are changing the way they operate to survive the challenging climate, such as diversifying income, improving work with funders, collaborating or partnering with other organisations in the sector, and taking on more volunteers.

We'd be interested to know what you think. Does it suggest that London’s voluntary and community sector organisations are responding more effectively to the challenges of the current climate? Or is there a real danger that demand is far outstripping supply?  

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My journey to the Games, at the Games and to the volunteering legacy beyond

I can’t believe that the Olympic Games are over. I’m not sure what to watch on TV and already feel bereft not being able to take a sneaky look at it in the kitchen every time I make a cup of tea at work! London 2012 has been a collection of millions of people’s personal experiences; this is my journey to the Games, at the Games and beyond. 

On the 6 July 2005, I was meeting someone for lunch and halfway across Tower Bridge, sitting on a red London bus, I wondered why all the cars were hooting their horns when the bus driver came over the tannoy and said we’d won the Games. It was a truly bizarre but memorable moment and very, very un-London. That night, I watched the newsreels of Kelly Holmes and David Beckham and all the other iconic images we’ve seen replayed over the past seven years.

And then it all went wrong as I came across that same Bridge less than 24 hours later. There were sirens coming at me from every direction – the London tubes had been bombed and all of us were overtaken by fear and sadness it could not have been more opposite to the euphoria of the day before.

Wind on and I’m Chief Executive of TimeBank and invited to join Locog’s volunteer advisory board. TimeBank had already run the Back the Bid volunteering campaign, with over 100,000 people saying they’d volunteer if we won it. In fact, 250,000 did volunteer and 70,000 - as Lord Coe said at the closing ceremony - ‘Made London 2012’.  I’m not going to pretend it was all plain sailing. We didn’t always agree with Locog or what they were doing or how they did it, but my goodness! To have played just an infinitesimal part in this process and watch it grow makes me glow with excitement. And let’s face it what a result - the Games Makers were fantastic.

I’m also proud to live in Walthamstow and be an adopted East Ender. I have watched the Park grow from nothing to everything and it’s been incredible to see. The Olympic Park has changed the East End for the better: it’s brought jobs and it’s brought pride and I hope more than anything it will bring a legacy, of sport, of affordable housing and of community.

And so to the home straight. We’d done our final meeting at Locog, we’d been to a test event – I’d got up at 7am on a Saturday to go to Wembley to join 10,000 Gamesmakers at their very first training event – I’d seen the uniforms and the distribution centre and I'd finally scored some tickets in the ballot. I am the luckiest person in the world because I was then invited by a friend to join him at the opening ceremony and what a memorable night. 

The next day I flicked through millions of new BBC channels wondering which sport to watch next – it was a sports fan’s heaven. Suddenly as Olympic fever gripped, everyone was an expert on every conceivable sport. In the office, we were taking it in turns to let each other know when the next race would be so we could watch another Gold for Team GB. And everywhere you turned there was a volunteer directing you or smiling at you. I have never been so proud to be a Londoner.

But my journey isn’t over. My job must surely be to work with others to capture a proper legacy – not just a weekend of excitement between the Games but a lifetime of volunteering, a generation inspired to volunteer and see the good that can come of it, to see the pride that can be had and to know that you have made a difference to someone’s life. That’s what this Olympics has shown: everyone can make a difference, everyone can be a part of it, everyone has a Games Maker in them somewhere. So let’s ride on the crest of the wave and volunteer for other things too. We cannot allow this not to make a difference to the charitable sector.

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Has the Big Society taught charities to soul search?

There has been an interesting discussion in the Guardian recently about the Big Society and its impact on the voluntary sector. Here's an extract from the blog that Helen, our chief executive, wrote for the paper. You can see the full article here.

Losing our core funding forced us, and many others in the sector, to soul search beyond our normal depths – to ask some difficult questions: "Should we still exist?", "What is our unique selling point?", "What is no one else doing that we are?", or at least "What do we do better than anyone else?"

In the past two years nothing has kept charity chief executives from sleeping more than the question: "Which group of our vulnerable beneficiaries are no longer worthy of our support?"

In the balmy days of funding we thought we asked these questions when we were strategising, but in reality many of us continued to run services that weren't wholly cost-effective and weren't really truly aligned with our mission. Certainly at TimeBank it has forced us to focus on our two core activities: volunteer mentoring programmes to tackle complex social problems, for example young people and ex-servicemen and women with mental health problems, carers, and those not in education, employment or training; and running employee volunteering programmes to empower companies to get their staff volunteering in their communities. We no longer support people generically into volunteering, we no longer help other charities recruit volunteers, we no longer run big campaigns to get people volunteering – all the things we thought were the big society's core aims, because, put simply, we can't afford to. So you could say it has focused the minds of the sector to hone what it does.

Our vision and mission haven't changed but our route to achieving it has – and that doesn't mean that we wouldn't or couldn't pick up those things again should funding come on stream. It just means that right now we are focusing on what we are good at and on our beneficiaries, who are ironically more in need than ever as other public services are cut.

At a Civil Exchange seminar on the Big Society recently we were asked what three things we would change about the big society and how would we reinvent it. These are mine:

 1. Explain what it is

I never really understood the big society beyond a vague concept and I work in the voluntary sector, so how are others supposed to get it? Plus if David Cameron's idea of volunteering is noticing that there aren't enough bulbs in the local village green and rallying the troops to plant some – it's very different to mine, which is that it's a way to tackle complex social problems with a challenging but rewarding volunteering solution. So we need clarity that the big society covers both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.

 2. Define it

Create some clear and measurable outcomes so we can see the goal we are aiming towards and prove that we have achieved it.

 3. Fund it

There is a spectacular irony that while it is recognised that volunteers need, more than anything, help and support into volunteering opportunities that suit them and their lifestyle (flexible, interesting, challenging and varied) – the first thing this government did was cut the budget of every single national volunteering infrastructure body.

If I could reinvent it I'd audit and capture the good practice that happens already. There is too much wheel reinvention going on and too many people irritated that the government wants more people volunteering without recognising the numbers that already do. People won't volunteer because they are told to by the government, they need to be engaged and not alienated. I'd encourage and support proper partnership in the sector – get larger organisations to recognise the value of partnering with smaller, more fleet of foot, risk-taking organisations that can benefit from being backed (not taken over) by the process and credibility of larger ones. We need to acknowledge that not everywhere is an Oxfordshire village whose needs are very different to say Hackney. Not better or worse, but different, and as such any volunteering campaign needs to be inclusive.

Finally, learn from past mistakes – the previous government did pump huge amounts of money into the sector and not all of it worked. There is nothing wrong with learning from your mistakes, or indeed other people's.

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The start of the Games - and time to cheer our volunteers on

I know I can’t be the only person in the world buzzing with excitement about the start of London 2012 – because I’ve seen for myself the streets lined with people cheering the torch, I’ve seen volunteers in their uniforms all around London, I’ve even seen people smiling on the Tube, which is unprecedented.

So why then do I constantly feel the need to justify my excitement at living in a city about to put on the biggest (sporting) event I will ever see in my lifetime to those who just want to find fault?

Because I work for a volunteering charity, and because I sat on Locog’s volunteer advisory body, I am constantly asked how I can possibly admire and support the Games Makers programme, which certainly hasn’t treated volunteers in the way our sector would want or expect.

So here it is this is what I think about volunteering at the Olympics:

Not by any stretch of the imagination did Locog get everything right and no, they didn’t listen to all the advice the voluntary sector gave them.  

But you have to remember that Locog’s priority was first and foremost about delivering the Olympic Games. So by definition it is a bit different to the way we work with volunteers in our sector.  At the end of the day 70,000 people have been recruited, trained, clothed, and are on our streets voluntarily striving to make our Olympics work better than any other in history. The numbers and roles that were required are incredibly diverse – some couldn’t be filled until the last minute when they knew, for example, what language skills would be needed around the football venues once the draw was made. And that 70,000 incidentally doesn’t include the tens of thousands of volunteers who have given up huge amounts of their time to rehearse, sometimes outside in shocking weather, for the opening ceremony.

You just need to look at one tiny part of the logistics - the uniform distribution centre – somewhere that had to be accessible, huge (70,000 sq ft of empty shell), close to the park and able to take the footfall of over 100,000 volunteers and officials trying on, and collecting something as simple as a uniform, well actually two sets of uniform, in every conceivable size, an extremely complex and thorough security screening and identification card system, and a ticket for free transport section. Anyone in the voluntary sector do that on a daily basis? Fit with your average volunteer management? No? So maybe that’s why some things had to be different.

They aren’t paying expenses and I disagree with that, they haven’t managed everyone seamlessly and some would-be volunteers have been disappointed and let down. None  of us are really sure where the legacy we had all embraced and believed in will come from. BUT they have achieved the single biggest mobilisation of volunteers since the second world war, and they still have those numbers engaged. Those volunteering may well be doing it just because it’s the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t then go on to volunteer again if they have a good experience. I think it is time to support them and work towards capturing whatever legacy we can.

So come on guys - accept that we are where we are, things could have been different but they aren’t and frankly there’s no point banging on about it now. We tried our best to get them to listen, we tried our best to make change and we did achieve many things. So now let’s enjoy the Games and do everything that we can to capture the inevitable feel good factor from the whole thing and pull that into our sector along with the volunteers because to be honest, we all need a lift right now. 

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