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

2012 - what a year!

2012 - what a year! This time last year I can honestly say I didn’t know how we’d get through it. But it’s been absolutely amazing.  We’ve seen people and projects come and go and we’ve constantly explored the next steps we can take in volunteering. 

Who can possibly talk about 2012 without mentioning the Olympics? The Gamesmakers made volunteering the thing to do and as Lord Coe has said, they ‘made the games’. But let’s not forget the achievements of all those volunteers who don’t wear a purple and red uniform to spend time transforming people’s lives.

Back to Life, our first ever mental health mentoring programme, came to an end but what a legacy it left - not just the people we have supported through the programme but applying that learning to new projects - Shoulder to Shoulder for veterans and The Switch which started early in the year to support young people transferring from children’s to adult mental health care.  The Lottery came up for TimeBank (literally) in June when it funded our brand new Carers Together project, a face-to-face and online mentoring programme. This not only has the potential to change the way we think about volunteer mentoring but also prompted us to open our Birmingham office – so now we are a two office charity which surely can’t be bad!

We have focussed on our business development and fundraising and seen some really interesting trends in the way companies are recognising the benefits of employee volunteering. We hosted an event at Westminster with companies and MPs to promote what we do and we’ve engaged dozens more volunteer mentors, so we really are doing something right. Closer to home our chair of 12 years the lovely Paul Jackson retired and handed the reins of TimeBank into the eminently capable hands of Andrée Deane. And to cap it all we have been interviewing for new trustees to join the board and what an amazing group of candidates we met.

Just before Christmas the whole staff team volunteered with Crisis to help them prepare their homeless centres for the holiday period.  Who needs a party when you can do that! I love that we genuinely want to walk the volunteering talk. (Of course we did go out afterwards and let our hair down a little!)

I’d like to add a couple of personal highlights – talking about volunteering on Sky News during the Olympics was great fun. And yet to come is my Christmas address to the nation on Christmas Day! OK, I’m not the Queen and it’s on at 3am but if you are just coming in from a party or the kids have got you up because Santa’s been, switch on to Radio 2 for a little festive volunteering cheer.

Just in case you miss it - from me to you: our volunteers, our future volunteers, our funders and supporters and my incredible staff - have a very HAPPY CHRISTMAS and a volunteering filled New Year!


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Shrinking classrooms and developing work skills

There’s a (rare) joke in the corporate responsibility world:

Q. Why are classrooms getting smaller?

A. Because of all the corporate volunteers re-painting the walls every week.

Not exactly Oscar Wilde, but it does make an important point as employee volunteers should never do work that’s not necessary and team challenges should be, well, challenging.

Team volunteering can certainly be done better, but I worry that there’s a danger of losing an important volunteering driver if we focus exclusively on individual opportunities and skills-based volunteering. There needs to be a blend of activity and going out as a group is a great way of getting new volunteers started, lifting morale and building stronger teams.

Last week, at TimeBank, we piloted a new team challenge model which met a clear community need and developed business skills while retaining the team bonding and fun elements. As ever, there will be tweaks, but the feedback’s been overwhelmingly positive from all parties.

So, what did we do?

We decorated a classroom and, frankly, it was a bit smaller after we finished! However, this was a bit different, because:-

  • Our team of volunteers from Nectar worked with the children to brainstorm ideas for a creative and inspiring reading environment.
  • A group of the volunteers went out in the community “apprentice-style” to find extra materials to help realise the children’s ideas.
  • They worked to a tight deadline to make sure that the project was finished on the day and children could see the results.

This was all possible during a fast-moving half day that had something for everyone. From the company point of view, it was great to see that skills as diverse as empathy and planning were developed. Creative minds had plenty to keep them busy, while project managers and negotiators also had a role to play.

Do  get in touch if you are interested in skills-based team building – we’ve plenty more ideas in the pipeline!

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Time to Give!

Last week our wonderful volunteer Despina told us how she started volunteering on the Back to Life project, which supported young people recovering from mental health issues. As the project comes to an end, Despina tells us how much she gained from the experience.

Meeting my mentee Tasha (not her real name) was a great experience and I am so grateful I was matched so well to someone I would grow to like and feel so at ease with. Fighting my natural shyness and finding strength in my enthusiasm and curiosity I went to that first meeting. I was as fidgety as I can be and, no doubt, bright red, but felt calm and positive.

My mentee and I seemed to be as talkative, inquisitive and friendly as each other and as soon as we started talking, both sighed in relief at how uncomplicated our first conversation was. After the introduction, we were left to our own devices and clicked immediately.  We were lucky to have so much in common and our personalities matched without clashing.

To me it felt like I was meeting an old friend I hadn’t seen in years and discovering their beautiful personality all over again.  Looking back, I believe the reason this relationship started off so smoothly was because our relationship structure  was explained so clearly so we had the nature of a mentoring relationship clear in our minds. There was no confusion as to the interaction between us and very quickly we intuitively understood boundaries and openly discussed them to help us achieve our goals.  

At first, we agreed on and set the goals we wanted to get out of the mentoring relationship, both personal and practical. Later on we tweaked and readjusted those as needed and before we knew it found ourselves having our last few sessions. We had no problem being open about what we would do and not. In our time as mentor and mentee, we planned activities but also had impromptu meets. We walked around parks, rode bikes, must have had coffee pretty much everywhere, visited the Dragon Cafe where we watched poetry, a play, listened to music and made friends, went to museums, exhibitions, made things, ate things, and broke long weeks into digestible chunks, encouraging each other to be honest and express ourselves creatively. Sometimes it was difficult to tell who was the mentee and who was the mentor as I learnt so much from Tasha.

Unexpected life circumstances often stopped us from meeting up, but I feel we managed to pull through and come out the other side. There were tough times and there were times of joy, but none of it would have been feasible without the support of the Back to Life project co-ordinator who was there to help at any time of the day and with any problem we encountered.

Closing our relationship, we have achieved most goals we set out to do, have developed as people, and have seen our relationship get stronger. I feel happy to have been part of Tasha’s life and I feel proud to have been her mentor, looking at the tremendous progress she has made herself, despite what life has thrown at her. I have never met such a mature and strong woman and I hope she never loses her sense of humour, and has all the luck in the world as well as all the puppies and nail varnishes her heart desires!

Tasha taught me to laugh,to be myself, to be positive but realistic, remember my boundaries and not be scared to love life and people around me, even if life situations don’t go as planned. Apart from gaining new skills and valuable memories, through the Back to Life project I gained a dear friend.

Back to Life has now come to an end, but if you are interested in volunteering as a mentor, do take a look at our other mentoring projects.

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What's it like to be a volunteer mentor?

Have you ever thought of becoming a volunteer mentor but were uncertain about what it would entail?  As our ground-breaking Back to Life project comes to an end, we asked one of our volunteers, Despina, to recall her own experience.

Volunteering was something I’d thought about a lot, particularly when filling out endless forms found everywhere from the Jobcentre to Facebook ‘fun’ personality questionnaires. So I googled: ‘mental health’; ‘volunteer’; ‘opportunities’; ‘London’. I was a little nervous what the Internet would decide I was to do. Then I clicked and opened a link that caught my attention: TimeBank. ‘Be yourself. Be a volunteer’.  I certainly liked that motto, I thought. I wanted to get involved.

The project which caught my attention was Back to Life, a mentoring project for young people starting again, following mental illness. I thought of my life and how I had been supported by my own mentors. I clicked the link and filled out a form. Then anxiously my fingers finally pressed send. I finished my tea and smiled out the window full of anticipation and excitement, hoping I’d hear from them soon and that they’d like me.

So many questions flooded my mind: ‘Would I be a good mentor? What would it be like? How was this relationship with a new person going to develop?’  I was filled with questions as well as excitement and anticipation.

When the project co-ordinator called, I was reassured. To be honest I have not had an interview more comfortable, inspiring and empowering before. All went well and I was booked in for training.

The training Saturday came and walking into TimeBank’s office was a lot more nerve-wracking than I’d anticipated. As soon as I walked out of the lift, however, the sense of belonging returned. I wanted to be part of this so much and I admired the organisation’s dedication and effortful work in the community. My thoughts on meeting the team were that they were warm, welcoming, friendly, people with beautiful hearts and care about the world but still remaining practical, pragmatic and to the point.

 We started our training like excited children about to learn how to make something new. The volunteers were from all walks of life. Our trainer and project coordinator efficiently prepared us for our role as mentors whilst passing on her energy and enthusiasm. We learned about the nature of the project, about mental health, about the organisation, but (perhaps unexpectedly) we also learned about ourselves, how we deal with life situations, what our expectations and our personal limits are.

After the second day of training, I felt I had made new friends and was confident I could do this. What impressed me was the constant support from the TimeBank team. Apart from very good contact with our project coordinators, there were frequent meetings for all volunteers, matched or not yet, to meet up and support each other, as well as specialised training on relevant topics that would be helpful resources for our mentoring work. In these sessions we got a chance to exchange views and advice and share our experiences.

 After a short wait I was finally matched to my mentee. On receiving the news, I almost clapped my hands with excitement. Of course I had initial nerves, but I knew I had the support I needed from TimeBank and the knowledge to perform my task.

Look out for the next instalment of Despina’s blog to hear how she got on!

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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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