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

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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A look back over the last year

It was only when I was putting together some information about our Talking Together project in Birmingham, Coventry and Leicester and saw things ‘in numbers’ that I thought, WOW! We really have achieved so much over the last year.

Talking Together is our volunteering project which offers informal spoken language training to UK residents who have little or no knowledge of English, mostly women from the Bangladeshi, Somali and Pakistani communities. So, what’s been happening  in The Midlands?

·        We recruited and trained 62 volunteers

·        We held 17 volunteer training days

·        364 learners registered for the classes, with 316 completing the course

·        We worked with 19 local community organisations to deliver our courses

Maybe it’s because I really enjoy my job as the Project Coordinator, and it didn’t feel too much like work  that I didn’t realise how much we had accomplished. You go about your job each day, training volunteers, meeting new delivery partners, attending classes, ticking off the to-do list, never stopping to think about the impact the project is having amongst our stakeholders.

We have recruited and trained 62 volunteers – a huge success for our project, as without our volunteers we would not be able to deliver our English classes. We have been impressed by the amount of time and dedication our volunteers have given to us, with many choosing to remain a volunteer and teach extra courses. I am a big believer that this volunteering opportunity is popular because it is so hands on and practical, and really gives our volunteers an experience which increases self-confidence, develops personal and professional skills and provides a sense of achievement.

364 learners registered on Talking Together, with 316 completing the course. Having attended quite a few classes, I have seen first-hand the change in the women who take part. At the first class, learners tend to be quite shy and lacking in confidence. As the classes continue, there is a genuine increase in their participation, enjoyment and improved English Language. I make no secret that one of my favourite classes is the celebration class on the last day. Yes, it is partly that I enjoy the home cooked biryani and samosas the women cook to share, but mainly because I am always so overwhelmed with how far the women have come, and how much they want to talk to me and ask me questions in English.

We have worked with 19 delivery partners, who host and deliver the classes. We work with a variety of partners, including primary schools, community centres and small charities. Their role is crucial to the success of Talking Together, as they link the women to our classes.

And now we are well into the next phase of our project, with a drive for new volunteers and new delivery partners across the Midlands and in London.  Would you like to be a part of Talking Together? We are looking for volunteers in London, Birmingham, Coventry and Leicester so if you are interested take a  look here and  get in touch: for the Midlands project talk to or phone her on 07835300931 and if you’d like to get involved in our London project, contact, tel: 0203 111 7000.  

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Vape shop owners and DJs wanted

The news this week (Prisons Inspector warns of 'staggering' decline in safety at youth jails) made depressing reading for a reason particularly close to home to TimeBank. The Chief Inspector of Prisons reported a “staggering” decline in standards and safety at youth jails in England and Wales. This should be coupled with the fact that the most recent statistics show 69.4% of juvenile offenders released from custody reoffended within a year. Let’s just stop and think about that: nearly 7 out of 10 young offenders leaving prison will have reoffended within a year, with many going back to young offender institutions that the Chief Inspector describes as not safe to hold children and young people.

TimeBank is working with Prospects to pilot a mentoring intervention that can go a small way to address this. Prospects provide the education service for young people in Feltham Young Offenders Institution. In addition to delivering the curriculum, they focus on raising aspiration and providing alternative, positive futures. We have developed a mentoring programme designed to support young men as they prepare to leave the prison, with the aim of reduce reoffending rates and supporting them into work.

Both TimeBank and Prospects believe there should be the opportunity for ex-offenders to have the chance to live a different life on release. To do this we want to nurture and develop the aspirations that many of the offenders have: to be self-employed and entrepreneurial. Having spent time talking to the young people and the professionals that support them, we think we have some insight into the lives the young people want on release.

Like many young men who have grown up in tough inner-city areas their aspirations are, in part, shaped and informed by the places they come from. But that doesn’t mean they lack ambition or should be stereotyped: being their own boss and earning money is the dream – much like any other teenager. So, what do they see as both realistic and attainable? For some it is in the local music industry, promoting events, managing talent or as DJs or producers. For others, it is a career in retail, from the fashion and music they love to vape shops.

But this is not without significant challenges. The inmates are aged between 15 and 21 and the current prison population is about 500. Over 60% of the prison population comes from black and minority ethnic communities and 40% are Muslim. The shadow of gang culture looms large over Feltham. A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons found that over 48 gangs were represented in the prison population with high levels of “unpredictable and reckless violence”. A quarter of the young men with known gang affiliations are on “keep-apart lists”. At all times out of their cells they are escorted around the prison individually by prison officers to prevent any accidental or arranged meetings. Unsurprisingly in a 2017 inspection nearly half of the young people said they felt unsafe in the prison.

So where do you come in? Once again, we are reaching out for some remarkable volunteers – you might own and run your own vaping business, have offended in the past, or maybe you are now working in the music or event management industry. Whatever it is you do, we want volunteers who can connect with some very challenging young men.

You will need to visit the young people up to three times while they are preparing for release and then continue for three visits once they leave prison. Getting in and out of the prison is problematic – you will only be able to go on weekdays and only during office hours. You will be advised to come in the clothes you stand up in but nothing else and very definitely no mobile phone. TimeBank will train and support you throughout your involvement and once inside the prison gates Prospects will support and accompany you always. And now the tricky part. You’ll need to be young, speak their language and earn their trust. Now that’s an odd thought isn’t it? Earning the trust of a young offender? That would put the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” brigade in a lather. But if you don’t, then nothing is likely to bring about the process of change in these young people’s lives.

And one final thing, these young people can spot a fraud or a charlatan a mile off (l wanted to use another word there, but l hope you get the gist) – if you haven’t done it, don’t pretend you have.

If you would like to find out more about this opportunity please email me at

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Slipping through the cracks

This week the charity Refugee Action launched a new report called “Slipping through the cracks: How Britain’s asylum support system fails the most vulnerable”. It highlighted some problems with the UK asylum process, which include:

-        Delays in correctly assessing people’s need for support

-        Overturning decisions on appeal

-        How these delays are having devastating consequences on people’s lives

Through our Time Together project at TimeBank we are meeting asylum seekers every day who face  these very challenges. A number of people we work with have been waiting many months for their initial Home Office interview, which can cause stress and anxiety. This coupled with the persecution and violence they faced in their home country and the often traumatic experience of their journey here can make a bad situation even worse. Often asylum seekers arrive with few social networks and a limited understanding of the UK and its asylum system. This means they have to rely on local services or individuals to support them as they settle into UK life, but these often vary from location to location. Through Time Together, we match refugees and asylum seekers to a local volunteer for a period of six months. Volunteers can have an important role whilst asylum seekers transition and adapt to life in the UK. They can use their local knowledge and signpost individuals to people with expert advice on immigration or housing, or they offer a listening ear when things get tough.

Our Time Together project in the Midlands continues to go from strength to strength. We’ve already recruited 20 volunteers who are supporting 14 refugees and asylum seekers as they settle into life in the UK. On our original Time Together project which ran from 2002–2010, 90% of beneficiaries said they felt at home in the UK and 98% reported an increase in their English language proficiency after mentoring. It’s clear that there is a real need for more services like ours.

You can see a copy of the report here and if you’d like to find out more about our Time Together project, take a look here.

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Volunteering with you changed my life - thank you!

Katie tweeted us out of the blue to say: ‘I trained with u 10 years ago! Now I host #refugees.  The experience changed my life for the better. Thank u!’  So of course, we wanted to know more - and she wrote back to tell us her amazing story:

In 2002 I moved to Harlesden (Brent) and wanted to get more involved in the local community. I was also looking to develop more skills than my marketing job at Sky TV could offer so I found a volunteer position on, working for the Director of Drama Workhouse, a charity giving vulnerable/disadvantaged children and adults access to arts. This led to several things:

Within 12 months I had handed back the laptop, phone, company car and AmEx card  to my boss and became self-employed (much to the distress of my parents who thought I was making a terrible mistake!). Drama Workhouse became my first and longest standing client.

I gained tonnes of experience and had responsibilities I never would have held at a large corporation. Plus I had the flexibility and more time on my hands to do complete courses and extra training so in early 2005 I took part in a 3-4 day training as a volunteer at TimeBank, on its Time Together project supporting asylum seekers and refugees. The training itself, as well as the experiences shared by the other participants opened up a whole different world to me.  I realised there was far more to life than one revolving around London social drinking – as fun as that may be! Within a few weeks after the training I was partnered with a Palestinian woman. Sadly we only met a few times before she was rehoused elsewhere. 

Sometime afterwards I decided to move to Berlin and so didn't get paired with anyone else in London. But the training wasn't in vain because almost exactly 10 years later to the day, I embraced the opportunity to continue what I'd started at TimeBank. In 2015 a million refugees arrived in Germany and I felt compelled to do everything possible so in June 2015 we offered our spare room as emergency accommodation. Almost immediately, Alyssa, a young pregnant Nigerian woman, arrived on our doorstep with just a carrier bag. It was an experience that included learning about the best of Nigerian culture (gizzard, Nollywood and dancing!)

She was then sent to another area of Germany, leaving a huge gap in our household that was soon filled by a Syrian English teacher who has since become like a brother.

When Alyssa from Nigeria stayed with us she wanted to learn to cycle. A few other women I met asked me about lessons too. Finding none, I set up a cycling group in 2015. Since then I have built up a pool of over 100 (female) volunteers who have trained over 100 women to cycle. Participants who learned to cycle now attend as volunteers training other women. I also organised a crowdfunding for my 40th birthday to give out bikes, helmets and locks.

The cycling groups soon led to communal picnics, and then when we were wondering what to do in the winter months we hit on the idea of preparing and cooking food for homeless people. You can see our video here:

Around the time I started the cycling lessons I decided to stop being self employed and was rather unsuccessfully job hunting. It was one of my cycling ladies from Damascus who recommended me for a job at the German Red Cross where I then gained a six month contract working in a refugee camp.  I was then able to springboard to my current position, my dream job setting up refugee projects at Friends of the Earth Germany back in Berlin. So yet again, one way or another, volunteering leads to paid employment!

However in January this year I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I truly believe that I am able to cope with all that has been thrown at me since then because of what I have learned from all my new friends. Their strength and ability to be resilient has inspired me and helped me to remain positive and determined.

Our thoughts are with Katie and all best wishes for a full recovery. And if she has inspired you to get involved in our Time Together project, take a look here.

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Are we ready to change how we care and how we die?

I went to a funeral a couple of weeks ago to support a friend whose father had died – always a sad experience, and more so as it’s the first I’ve attended since I lost my own dad nearly two years ago. There was a whole pew of friends there and afterwards over a drink in the rather quaint hotel frozen in the 1970s that hosted the wake I started reflecting on who would arrange and attend our funerals.

It struck me that only one of us in that pew had children – and our job as we reach middle age is increasingly to care for our parents and to be there to help organise a funeral and support the parent left. But our population is changing. It is ageing rapidly and many people are choosing a different lifestyle:  single, straight, gay, married, childless, divorced, living together – the structure of our society is very different to how it used to be but are we ready to change how we care and how we die? 

A combination of Father’s day and Carers’ Week made me muse further about how we should start thinking not just about how the NHS will cope or whether any of us will be eligible for a State Pension when we retire – but how society will cope with this change as we all age. Isn’t this the ultimate ‘early intervention’ agenda item: who cares for those who have no one to care for them when there is little chance, economically, of the State being there? Because the number of people without family or friends to step up and care is only going to increase.

For example, assuming I power through to old age will it be my equally ageing friends i.e. my life long support network who organise my funeral or a distant relative who rocks up out of the blue in the hope I’ve left to them what the Government hasn’t taken in dementia tax? A person therefore who doesn’t know my views on people wearing black and making sure there’s plenty to drink afterwards?!

So is this a new place for volunteers to step in? Will the face of volunteering adjust to support our changing population? Will we have a new role for the volunteer, not just as a befriender combatting loneliness but slowly stepping in to the role of ‘traditional family support’?  At TimeBank we talk a lot about putting volunteers into places previously the preserve of the professional – not replacing but complementing their roles.

Here though they might be needed to replace the familiar family support, not just in the caring role, but in those very challenging areas that as a child you dread mentioning to a parent however grown up you are: ‘what about power of attorney’, ‘what hymns do you want at your funeral’, ‘cremation or burial’?  It’s never easy to bring up these questions with a loved one - would it be any easier for a volunteer, one step emotionally removed to do so? And is it a role that anyone would want to take on? Is it one we need to start to develop to accommodate our changing society?

We talk in the charity sector about joined up thinking, we talk about the importance of learning from our failures in early intervention for mental health, integration, homelessness and all the other contemporary challenges in our society that we have allowed to become problems rather than intervene first - simply because funding comes in silos and solutions would cross budget responsibility. I think we need to start to consider right now our changing society and what the ‘ageing population’ that we bandy around really means to us on a practical, volunteering, societal and human level, not just in terms of our economy.  

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