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

Make the Christmas spirit last by volunteering all year round!

'Tis the season… for a lot of Christmas volunteering! Christmas undoubtedly brings out the charitable side in most of us, so it is only natural that this is also the season when companies want to give back too. But what about the other 11 months of the year?

For companies which give their employees one or two days off a year to volunteer, it makes sense that they would opt to choose one of those days to fall around Christmas. Giving employees time to volunteer in December is wonderful, as it reinforces the giving spirit.

Despite all this holiday cheer, the focus on Christmas volunteering, I believe, has its pros and cons. On the one hand, this is an important time of year for many people. For those who are struggling during the holidays for whatever reason, receiving extra help goes a very long way. On the other hand, what about the rest of the year?

I recently talked to a volunteer who mentioned watching an episode of the TV show, “How I Met your Mother”. Ted and Robin (two of the main characters) want to volunteer at a homeless shelter providing food to those in need. They are told that they should go home, that the charity already has too many people volunteering. I was asked if this really happens.

The answer is, of course it does. While many charities are still looking for volunteers for Christmas events, there are also many which are simply at capacity and are having to turn away volunteers. They have to plan well ahead so by this time many have already organised all the volunteers they need.  

So why not spread the cheer all year round? Giving your time for others isn’t something that needs to or should happen only at Christmas. It could be even more valuable to reinforce this mind-set as a company as well. Being a part of a responsible company doesn’t mean being responsible only during a set time of year, but throughout the year.

I do not mean to diminish the amazing work by our volunteers or their companies this Christmas. We’re working with lots of companies and their volunteers at this time of year, and they are making a huge difference to the lives of others. Nothing should lessen the importance of their contribution.

Corporate volunteering can be a fun, productive and insightful activity for employees. So, why not look into New Year’s volunteering, Valentine’s Day volunteering, Earth Day volunteering, or everyday volunteering? Companies and their volunteers can make an impact at any point in the year. So my recommendation is to make the Christmas spirit last by volunteering year round!

Thank you to all of our wonderful volunteers this Christmas season, you really do make a difference.

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I'm getting much more out of the experience than I put in ...

This week is Trustees Week 2017! At TimeBank we are not only celebrating the great work that the one million or so trustees do for the UK charity sector, but also preparing to welcome new recruits on our Board. So there’s really no better time to reflect on my two and half years since joining TimeBank as a trustee – and, as I turned 25 last week, to share my perspective on the role young trustees can play on boards.

I was just 22 when I became a trustee at TimeBank. I applied for the role because I had read a lot about ‘young trustees’ - those 0.5% of trustees aged 18-24 who don’t let their age stop them from contributing to issues they care about, and I felt compelled to give it a go.I had already benefited hugely from mentoring programmes at work and volunteering experiences at university, so I felt like my values were completely in sync with those of TimeBank. About two and a half years on, here’s an overview of some of the key things I’ve learnt.

The power of stupid questions

My first ever board meeting was a pretty terrifying experience. I was the youngest in the room and the only person without experience of working in the charity sector (or any sector, for that matter!). I couldn’t come up with anything of value to say and hadn’t dared to say anything at all. I left the meeting wondering if my presence was the result of an unfortunate administrative mistake! But I had watched and learned a lot about the role of the CEO, Chair and trustees; how board meetings run; how charities manage their finances; comms and fundraising strategies… In fact I was so busy taking it all in that I didn’t say anything at the second board meeting either. By the third meeting I finally managed to take part, though I spent about 60% of my speaking time apologising for asking stupid questions.

Today I still see my role on the Board as the Asker of Stupid Questions, except I now think it can add plenty of value. It gives the Board an opportunity to take a step back and avoid classic issues such as group-think or over-optimism. It has also been a very effective way for me to learn from others. Today I actively encourage my team to go back to basics and interrogate our thinking. I am still yet to receive negative feedback for asking stupid questions!

Start with Why

The last few years haven’t been a walk in the park for charities. The uncertain political climate (to cite just one thing) has made it tough for the whole sector and we have had to ask ourselves difficult questions in some of our board meetings. Through thick and thin I’ve learnt a lot about risk management, which has helped me structure my own approach to risk and difficulties at work.

But what has stood out for me is watching our Board keep its focus on our “why” – a concept made popular by Simon Sinek back in 2009. In our case, it means that we have kept our focus on the impact we want to have, the people we want to help, and the social changes we want to foster. Thanks to our shared sense of ‘why’, we work as a super-motivated, cohesive team to work out the ‘how’ without shying away from our ambition. In my view it’s this attitude that has kept us so successful as an organisation; delivering our mentoring programmes across the UK and landing volunteering projects with the likes of Google, The Telegraph, CEB and EE.

It’s about building the next generation of trustees

I could go on and on. Reporting directly to TimeBank’s beloved CEO Helen and playing a part in TimeBank’s many achievements have also hugely contributed to building my own personal resilience and confidence, which have boosted my career progression in the last few years.

Nearly two and a half years after my first board meeting, I still think I’m getting more out of the experience than I bring. Our trustees and CEO are mentors and role models to me. And that’s where perhaps TimeBank shines the most for me: as an organisation with a long-term vision for a more supportive social fabric, my presence on the board is no admin mistake, but rather TimeBank’s investment in the next generation – allowing me to learn and grow under its wing so that one day, I may become an experienced trustee with plenty to give back to the charity sector.

If you’ve been inspired to become a charity trustee, why not think about joining our Board? We have a vacancy for a trustee who is as passionate as Raphaëlle about our work and our ambitions:

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At TimeBank we rate volunteer mentoring above all else ...

It seems that there’s a day for everything these days and today it’s National Mentoring Day! Who knew that was even a thing?! I’m pleased that it is though because at TimeBank we rate mentoring above all else and we’ve been doing it for a long time, usually alongside some of the most vulnerable groups in our society.

Back in 2002 before even I joined TimeBank we were awarded a large Home Office Grant (remember the heady days of Government Grants?!) to run a volunteer led mentoring project for refugees – a huge piece of work which resulted in over 2,500 refugees matched with volunteer mentors across 24 locations in the UK and working with a vast range of local refugee community organisations. Each relationship aimed to support a refugee to integrate more effectively and more quickly into UK society. How life comes full circle because we’re running a new version of that project 15 years later – but more of that below.

From this first and most successful project stems pretty much our entire volunteer mentoring model and one we have developed and honed over the past 15 years and remodelled to work with a wide variety of complex social issues. These have included young people with mental health problems transitioning from child and adolescent mental health services to adult care, veterans with mental health problems trying to cope with civilian life, carers struggling with the stresses of caring for a loved one, young care leavers transitioning into the adult system and into employment, young people not in education, employment or training, Muslim women to enhance their digital and English language skills, and back full circle to two of our contemporary projects working with refugees, both supporting them into UK society and into sustainable employment.

In a successful mentoring relationship the mentor supports the mentee to identify their skills, build on their strengths and their interests to empower change. The beneficiary identifies the goals they hope to achieve and the role of the mentor, in addition to being a sounding board and holding the beneficiary to account, is to encourage resilience and fortitude in pursuing those goals. Effective mentoring skills include; building trust; active listening; establishing boundaries; safeguarding and confidentiality and to break down the mentee’s goals into achievable targets. The mentoring is finite because we do not want to create dependency. Our aim is to empower individuals to make decisions, act and move forward with their goals.  

I think our model is so successful because it’s volunteer-led and our volunteers bring with them a wealth of skills and experience from their own lives. Plus it’s not always easy working with people with big problems in their lives so it’s a meaty volunteering opportunity that you really have to be dedicated to.  

One final thought on National Mentoring Day is that you don’t have to have big problems to benefit from the value of a mentor. For example, I both mentor someone in our sector at a different stage in their career to me and have a mentor - someone outside my world and circle of friends or networks who listens to the challenges of charity chief executive life – who helps clarify my thoughts about what’s good and bad and how best I can move forward – someone whose sole role for the hour or two that we spend together is to listen to me musing about life and that’s a real treat in a world where taking time out to think and create some head space is a rare but very much needed commodity.

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Carers - and their amazing capacity to keep on caring

Being a carer to a loved one, friend or neighbour can be stressful for many reasons.  The constant worry about that person not having their basic needs met, whether or not they are getting enough social interaction with others, getting them to their health checks and hospital appointments … the list is endless. 

Couple that with feelings of guilt, frustration and sometimes resentment for having to give up your identity or livelihood to care for your loved one and it makes for a very unsettling and difficult period in your life.  Caring can become very isolating and lonely. 

The Catch 22 is that many carers neglect themselves and risk not being fit to take care of the person who has come to depend on them.  Our Hidden Carers project aims to help carers understand the importance of their own wellbeing, offers access to services, support and social interaction.

Since I became the project co-ordinator for Hidden Carers I have come into contact with more than 100 carers, some of whom have been carers themselves and decided to pass on their experience. They act as volunteer facilitators at the workshops we run to support those caring for family members or friends, who for social or cultural reasons don’t identify themselves as carers. The facilitators lead  on a day of interactive tasks, exploring the role of the unpaid carer, what they do and who they care for.

Everyone at the workshops contributes to the list of things a carer does and that’s when it hits them.  They realise how much they do as well as trying to balance and meet their own needs.  At one workshop carers came up with the phrase: ‘Struggling and juggling’, which really illustrates the difficulties they face, especially those who are miraculously holding down full time work at the same time as caring. 

We listen to the story of Julie, a teacher who gave up her career to care for her elderly mother and husband, both diagnosed with Parkinson’s, whilst raising two boys.  It’s this part of the workshop where the tears are most likely to come.  Participants and volunteers identify with Julie and the challenges she faces.  Although there are common themes of financial disadvantage, decline in social interaction and sometimes psychological despair when you become a carer, all carers have very different needs and requirements.  The workshops aim to unpick those needs and put a plan in place to support our carers.

There comes a point when the carer stops being a carer.  This can be for a variety of reasons: the person they have been caring for may have recovered and no longer require the same level of support, they may have a professional care plan in place, moved into a residential care facility or sadly died. 

Whatever the reason, there can be a void or sense of redundancy and a feeling of what now?  Some of our volunteers and participants have been through the caring process yet still have the capacity to want to care for others, to share their experience and wisdom, and offer support to other carers in a similar situation.   Their abundance of empathy, compassion and kindness is exceptional.   Sometimes it’s hard to sustain the day to day care and responsibility of someone with complex needs close to you.  Yet with support and understanding from others we as carers can carry on caring in so many ways. 

If you'd like to know more about our Hidden Carers project, take a look here.

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We're working to address many of the issues raised in today's Race Disparity Audit

The Prime Minister launches the Government's ‘Ethnicity Facts and Figures’ website today. It highlights the disadvantage experienced by Britain’s ethnic groups in their interactions with public services, drawing on information about health, education, housing, employment and criminal justice. It is perhaps unsurprising in the bleak picture it paints of the outcomes and experiences of many from BAME communities, particularly women.  

In response the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, argues that the data would not provide the answers to why disparity existed, but said the Government wanted to work with outside groups to come up with ways it could tackle the injustice. 

At TimeBank our Talking Together programme goes some way to provide a solution. Our volunteer-delivered English language project across London and the Midlands offers informal spoken language training support to long-term UK residents who have little or no knowledge of English. Our practical input really helps transform lives, open doors and contribute to community integration. Talking Together works with women learners from the Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Somali communities. Research shows that it’s women in these communities who make up the largest proportion of non-English speakers. 

Working with groups at grassroots level we have been careful to consult and work with the women who are our learners to make sure we tailor the lessons to their needs. The most consistent response was that they wanted to improve their English for use at school with their children, attending the doctors, communicating online or by telephone and attending the Job Centre. They also mentioned the need to improve self-esteem, independence, well-being, autonomy and broadened horizons. We have worked on our curriculum with our learners to ensure that the lessons and activities focus on their children and education, moving closer to the job market, supporting them in their journey towards independence, well-being and integration. 

The programme of classes finish with a celebration of their achievements – often with shared food or a trip out to an unfamiliar place to practice their skills, something that is particularly valued by our learners, volunteers and TimeBank staff. And that is where the programme  adds even greater value - integration is not about one group of people having to do all the hard work to integrate and the other as passive observers. Our volunteers come from many different communities and backgrounds and in delivering the classes they learn about different cultures and experiences and challenges which can also break down barriers. 

Our knowledge and experience of delivering Talking Together since 2013 to over 3,000 learners from the South Asian community is that there is a real passion for learning and greater integration – they just need to be offered the opportunity at a local level and asked to be involved.


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Nine months - and a new focus

For nine months I followed the progress of George, a veteran who was eager to change his life for the better, but just didn't know where to start. George was referred to Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine by Veterans First Point to work with a mentor who could provide support. Here's his journey. 

George came out of the Army in 2004 after 13 years of service. He then worked in many different jobs: in security, as a parking attendant, life guard and a waiter. This wasn't the path he wanted to take. George lost focus and became socially isolated and depressed. With the help of Christine, a TimeBank mentor, George was able to identify some goals to help him move forward. He needed someone to talk with, to help enhance his confidence and self-esteem.  

Christine discussed with George his past interests to encourage him to take up a hobby as a goal to help him out of the home. He took up yoga, completed a course in meditation and mindfulness and attended the River Centre, which helped with coping strategies and positive thinking. His mentor also encouraged George to keep a diary of positive events.  

To help with focus and structure, George began volunteering at a local farm and with support by Employ-able delivered by the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH), he was able to look at his skills with a view to moving on to employment. He decided he was very interested in a career in alternative therapies and completed courses in Reiki and Indian Head massage.  

George's plans for the future are to set up his own business in alternative therapies, to see family members more often and he is planning to travel with a friend to Africa with a view to helping local people in need of support.  

George says: 'It's been good having someone to chat with. The support of a TimeBank mentor has enabled me to keep positive and focus on goals, helping me to feel less anxious. I don't feel as though I require any further support now and I'm happy to move on with my life. I'm excited about travelling and setting up my business in alternative therapies.'

Our Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine project supports ex-servicemen and women and their families who are struggling to adjust to civilian life. If you'd like to know more take a look here.

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The real issue isn't about paying trustees but of funding the volunteering infrastructure

I attended the All Party Parliamentary Group for Charities and Volunteering yesterday – the first of the new Parliament. It focussed on what next for Charity Governance so I invited TimeBank’s new Chair, Peter Beeby, to join me.

Governance is an age old issue thrust once more into the spotlight by the seemingly never ending fall out from Kids Company – having been to see Committee, the musical based around the select committee inquiry into Kids Company, I’m not going to lie - I was a tad disappointed that no one burst into song!!

On a serious point as Peter and I left we discussed what we could bring to our organisation – a starting point being to compare our existing strong processes with  the Codes of Governance highlighted by Rosie Chapman at the APPG.  It set me thinking about Governance and trustees and the current debates around volunteers. 

The irony is not lost on me that part of the discussion at the APPG was about whether  trustees should be paid.  Ironic because as a volunteering charity we are constantly standing up for the purity of volunteering and arguing that volunteers should not replace paid roles to plug public sector cuts and now we are suggesting paying volunteer trustees  would solve all our sector’s problems! I am intrigued to understand why paying someone makes them a more dedicated trustee – if you look to our commercial counterparts there are both good and bad non-executive directors who get paid – would we have had the banking crisis if some of them had been better? Does that mean we should just have paid them more? Or is it simply that we should have monitored and supported them to do their job better, ask the right questions and challenge those leading their organisations?

Paying someone won’t necessarily make them better or more committed – most people who volunteer to be a trustee do so because of a passion for the cause, a desire to understand what it’s like to sit on a Board or even improve their own job prospects. They don’t do it in the expectation of payment and I don’t think we would suddenly get better trustees if we paid them. We’d just get more, less dedicated to the cause.

I do think though the culture of not claiming expenses which is prevalent across many Boards should be addressed so we don’t exclude people. No one should have to pay to volunteer and the old school attitude that it’s your donation to the charity is outdated. And if you really want to donate it to the charity – claim your expenses and donate them back with Gift Aid and we all win!

Which brings me to diversity. There was a very strong argument for diversity on Boards and bringing in young trustees. I absolutely agree with this and the importance of different voices, but as a Chief Executive with a Board who all work full time I sometimes want more time from them, which I can’t have in working hours. So are we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water by sneering at the traditional “male, pale and stale” model of retired professionals? We should value their skills and knowledge, their expertise and more importantly the time they have available. We could, as one person suggested, invite them to mentor the future generation of trustees – not only on their own Boards but beyond.  

Retention was the other big discussion point. How do we keep and enthuse our trustees and bring diverse people together? My question on this is two-fold: What about those you don’t want to retain who’ve been a trustee for ever and hold back the charity with their ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mindset? A simple solution is to have defined maximum periods on the Board. At TimeBank our trustees commit to three years and an option for another three – of course when you have someone who you want to go that’s fine, but when there is someone you like and value it’s harder to wave goodbye – so shouldn’t we be capturing these people and asking them to mentor and support new trustees coming onto our boards?

Maybe as a national volunteering charity specialising in mentoring TimeBank should look at this – but then who would pay for the administration? And that’s the real point. It’s not the volunteers who need paying, it’s the infrastructure around them that needs to be supported. That is something that successive Governments have failed to address since they embraced the ‘Big Society’ and simultaneously cut the budgets of the volunteering infrastructure organisations meant to deliver it.  

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Tolkien, goats on tables and dusty warehouses

In August it fell to me to organise one of our twice yearly staff volunteering days.

I took it on assuming it would be a) relatively simply to find somewhere and organise and b) easy to accommodate everyone’s needs, including the charity offering us the opportunity to donate our time to them. Having not organised a staff volunteering day before, l revisited the excellent blog by my colleague Calley on getting started with employee volunteering tips for getting started with employee volunteering. It’s well worth a read if your company or staff team are thinking about a volunteering day. In her blog Calley suggests you consider four things:

What do you want to get out of it?

As a volunteering organisation, this was perhaps the easiest to address. We have an organisational commitment to staff volunteering that goes to the very heart of our work. In addition to the two days a year we volunteer together as a team, we offer all staff five days paid volunteering leave. Part of the thinking behind this is that we want to share our skills and experience with other organisations. But we also want to understand the reality of volunteering in the not for profit sector to inform our thinking and practice as a volunteering organisation.

On a more practical level we have staff in three different locations over 400 miles apart. Some of the team had spoken to, but never met some of their colleagues. The opportunity to meet up, do things that make real difference, that are completely outside of your usual job roles, teams and hierarchies really helps staff get to know each other. It’s not often that a Programme Manager gets to discuss the relative merits of a donated t-shirt with the Finance Director!

What do your staff want?

Our team (as l’m sure pretty much any other team) all wanted to do different activities, from “…anything as long as it’s inside…” to “…anything as long as it’s outside…”  What united them is that they wanted to do something where they felt they were making a real difference, that was interesting and fun. Thankfully, this is something that TimeBank really excels at. In the last 15 years we have organised team volunteering opportunities for companies large and small (if you’re interested in getting your organisation volunteering there is a link at the end of this blog).  

Budget for volunteering

Even though this was our staff volunteering, it still required a budget. We charge our corporate clients to organise volunteering days because we are only too aware of the costs involved. Suitable opportunities have to be identified which takes time (l contacted and discussed our needs with five different projects before identifying one that met both TimeBank’s and the charity’s needs). The project was visited and roles discussed. Can the numbers be accommodated? Can the task be delivered in a day? Are there opportunities to undertake a number of tasks in different teams? Are there opportunities for those with disabilities or restricted mobility? Then there are practical issues: will our team need to bring their own lunch/drinks? Are there secure storage facilities etc.? Once all of that was agreed l then had to undertake a thorough health and safety and risk assessment.

What do charities need?

For all of the charities we work with their aspirations are often not matched by their resources (and this is true whatever the size of the charity). There is much that they would like to do but are simply unable to. We wanted to find a charity where one day of our staff team’s time would make a difference that would otherwise not happen. I found lots of opportunities that were really interesting – from environmental volunteering in a Bronze Age bog – thought to have inspired Tolkien - to an urban farm, rebuilding climbing tables for goats which were too old to climb on the existing furniture.

But we settled on a charity that runs a food and clothes bank. We did this because we thought we could make the most meaningful impact in one day (although l was very tempted by the thought of building goat’s furniture!) The charity had recently taken over a warehouse space on an industrial estate which was full of donated food and clothing. They were trying to run their service, delivering food and clothing parcels, while trying to sort out the warehouse, which was neither practical or achievable in the short term.

With TimeBank’s support for one day we were able to clean storage areas, take down old shelving and put a new storage system in place. Meanwhile other colleagues emptied and sorted good donated clothes while another team folded clothes into men’s and women’s sizes. And thanks to careful planning and working closely with the charity we completed all of the tasks we set out to do. And just as importantly, we had great fun and the chance to socialise together afterwards over a curry and beer.

If you would like to find out more about how to get your company volunteering please visit or contact Sarah Bonoff on or 0203 111 0721 

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