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

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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How much money could volunteering save your organisation?

We spend a lot of time talking about what employee volunteering can give a business - developing skills, building teams and boosting a company’s reputation. But can it also be a money saver?

One company with a mature volunteering programme and 9,500 employees achieved 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.  

Of course there are costs involved – managing the volunteering programme itself and payments to staff filling in for those who are away from the workplace. But because of the high costs of recruiting and replacing staff, the company calculated it was saving almost £2m each year even after taking those costs into account.

And this is in retail, where margins are tight. Add in less tangible benefits such as improved productivity from happier staff, great PR and developing skills and it’s even more of a no-brainer!

So what can we learn from this?

  • This very tangible business benefit is driven by participation rates – the more employees you get out, the more you save.  So be as pro-active as possible to encourage employee involvement and focus on “easy access” opportunities that work for your people.   
  • A blend of employee volunteering opportunities is always best, so don’t be afraid of offering a range of different opportunities to drive participation, before introducing more skills-based activities to follow up.
  • Connecting your payroll to your volunteer database, like this company did, makes it possible to evaluate your strategy. 

As a footnote, a recent CIPD report on Resourcing and Talent Planning confirms that median labour turnover in the “private services” sector is up from 13.8% in 2011 to 16.1% in 2012 so this is clearly a big issue for UK business and is likely to be a key priority for HR Directors.

At TimeBank, we can help you to realise these benefits by helping you to plan your programme and providing a range of opportunities that get your employees out volunteering. We can get you to a position where work-time volunteering is demonstrating a clear bottom-line return on your investment.

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Why volunteer?

Have you ever had the urge to make a positive difference to the lives of people in your community?

For me, this urge first emerged about three months ago. Just the thought that I wasn’t contributing regularly to my community had me thinking I was wasting the better hours of my day. So I began brainstorming roles that would fulfil this yearning. And in the end, I gravitated toward befriending and mentoring roles – which is how I happened upon TimeBank!

I now volunteer two days a week at the TimeBank offices helping out with the organisation’s communications and public affairs strategies. And in the coming months I will be mentoring a young person with a history of mental health issues as part of TimeBank’s The Switch project. Outside TimeBank, I volunteer as a befriender and mentor, working with school-age children and vulnerable adults.

It’s been just over a month since I started volunteering regularly. What can I say of my experience so far? A cliché: it’s been absolutely life-transforming. I’ve already begun developing life skills that I had previously either underused or neglected altogether, including the ability to listen, to be empathic and to be patient. In a difficult job market, you can’t go wrong building up your skill base, and volunteering provides ample opportunities to do so.

I’ve also acquired a wider and deeper understanding of some of the problems that plague our society (social isolation, unequal opportunities, mental health issues); and the solutions that charities are attempting to put into place. I’ve taken a keener interest in the policies affecting and shaping the voluntary sector. In fact, it now makes me cringe to know just how ignorant I once was of the myriad challenges people all around me face.

And then there are all the positive feelings associated with doing one’s bit to make the world that little bit better. It is, quite simply, a great experience. Here I am reminded of the school-age children I mentor regularly. My role has been to encourage them to write stories by letting their imaginations run wild. I have found the experience very rewarding so far – particularly when I succeed in drawing out the creative potential of those kids who are naturally shy at expressing themselves. It also reminds me how great it is to be a child again.

If you’re in the position to do something different with your time, do give volunteering a go. Chances are that what you’ll learn and gain from the experience is beyond belief.

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Employee Volunteering - Do you dig it?

Ask most people to define employee volunteering and you hear verbs such as building, digging, planting and painting. It’s just the way it has always been done.

I’m not saying charities don’t appreciate some sweat and muscle but here at TimeBank we like to look outside the (just assembled and painted) box and try to offer a more rewarding kind of Employee Volunteering: an experience that inspires and motivates and leaves both volunteers and beneficiaries with lasting memories and new skills.

At TimeBank we are granted five days per year volunteering leave which is way above the national average of two but because we are passionate about volunteering we like to be able to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. In previous jobs, volunteering for me has been defined by how dirty my clothes were, how many cuts adorned my hands and how much my back ached. However this was all about to change……

Recently I attended a digital workshop for AgeUK in Hackney. No training was required and the only brain cells I needed were the ones I needed every time I use my computer or check my phone (which is a lot!) It was only two hours of my time but I could tell that for the ‘silver surfers’ it was an opportunity to interact and learn and spend some quality time with a fresh face. I helped someone to sort out the contact list on their phone, reducing the list from over 100 down to a manageable 30. I also spent 30 minutes checking for security updates on a laptop. It wasn’t a lot to me but it was very important to them. The best part was chatting over a cuppa about the joys of London, the best pubs to go to and being shown a Facebook page with a picture of one of my companions as a three-year old, dressed as a sailor for the Queen’s Coronation! It was one of the most satisfying afternoons I have spent in a long time and left me with a warm fuzzy feeling inside my digital soul.

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The impact of our Futures Together project

TimeBank's Futures Together project in Birmingham supported older Muslim women to increase their English and computer skills. As it draws to an end, project co-ordinator Shaida Riaz assesses its impact.

Our Futures Together project in Birmingham has been lucky enough to build a great partnership with Bordesley Green Girls School; a beacon of success in the local community. With this work coming to a close I’d like to share the project’s story…

The school provides excellent services for the local community and working with the Community Support Officer, Michelle Hughes, we were able to use their fantastic computer suites in the newly built state of the art sixth form, to offer our basic IT workshops.  We started off with one session a week but later introduced another session which enabled more beneficiaries to attend. 

With the school having a great standing in the community and being a female environment it was certainly easier to recruit beneficiaries.  However, I soon found out that being interested and confirming attendance and actually turning up were two very different things! Many of the women who we were keen to attend had family or childcare commitments which meant that a lot of my time was spent working around these and persuading the women to make time for themselves even if it was just for one session.  It was a bit of a struggle to get the women to actually attend, but this is a common problem engaging with the older Muslim women’s community in the area, and one I knew I would come up against.  However, the sessions themselves were so engaging that once the women attended one session they often returned for another couple of sessions, sometimes bringing a neighbour along too. 

It was important to incorporate English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) into the computer sessions as many of the beneficiaries either had no English speaking and writing skills, and some were attending ESOL lessons at other times.  This meant many of the ladies learnt to spell their names and addresses for the first time in our sessions, which was an amazing accomplishment, especially for women who have been in the country for many years. 

The sessions utilised the skills and enthusiasm of local volunteers, and used TimeBank’s tailored computer toolkits, and there was often a real sense of pride from the women once a section was completed. 

The volunteers were great and found the sessions extremely inspiring; I think this quote from a volunteer says it all...  “I really feel that I am giving something back to the community and it only takes a few hours a week!  I think doing something like this will give these women a sense of pride and a lot of confidence, and the best thing of all is that I have learnt so much from the women too.  I have heard stories about the struggles they faced and how they overcame being illiterate, something as simple as going to the doctor’s surgery was a big issue for many of these women, something we take for granted today.  When I spoke to one of the ladies I realised that although they have become accustomed to life in England now, learning to use a computer is even more important for them as they realise how it has become a big part of society and they don’t want to be left behind.  I have heard some amusing stories too and have  learnt new phrases which I will be taking away with me, it’s just a great way to spend my time and I am glad I was a part of this great project, thank you TimeBank.”  (Sofia Ali – Futures Together Volunteer)

The Futures Together project has been a great success here in Birmingham, short but inspiring for many.  With more time dedicated to outreach work and working with key players in the Muslim community such as Mosques and local community centres, I really believe the Futures Together project could be a great permanent fixture in these local communities and that there are many women in need of such a great and worthwhile project.

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