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

The vulnerability of those we work with - and the tragedy when things go wrong

I often write about the power of volunteering, the impact it can have and the difference people can make to one another’s lives. I don’t often write about the downside, the vulnerability of those we work with and the tragedy when something goes wrong.  

A few weeks ago I took a call from one of our co-ordinators first thing one morning.  She explained simply that one of the mentees on her project had died and she needed to tell his volunteer mentor. She wanted to make sure she was doing the right thing because of course we have a process for all eventualities – there has to be when you are dealing with the most vulnerable people in our society.

What had happened was that the mentor had called in to say he couldn’t contact his mentee and was worried about him. She then called his emergency contact - in this case the sheltered accommodation where he lived - and discovered that he had passed away that weekend.  We talked through how best to tell his mentor and decided it had to be face to face so a meeting was arranged that evening.

When you take on a volunteering opportunity it’s for lots of reasons but for a mentoring project it’s because you want to help people turn their life around, make a difference and empower them to move forward. The reality of working with vulnerable people is that they may have a range of issues including dependence on alcohol and drugs, homelessness and mental health issues that can affect their ability to take control of their lives.

I checked in with the co-ordinator the next day. She said our mentor had been shocked and upset; she comforted him and he left her as positively as he could given the circumstances. She said: “I’ll call him later and we’ll both go to the funeral together. It’s so sad because after everything the mentee had been through he was starting out on a positive pathway and he really enjoyed his mentoring.”

We are a small organisation and are all affected by good and bad news – this reminded us that we are working with those least able to help themselves. Mentoring can be transformational for individual lives and at our darkest moments as we think of this very special mentoring pair we must hold onto that.

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Twentieth Century Fox brings children's characters to life

We’d promised a primary school in Stratford that we’d brighten up their school and had a group of volunteers from Twentieth Century Fox lined up for the day.

The run up to the event didn’t start too well, with a mix up from the store delivering the paint and the prospect of having to create a mural without our main materials; however after a mad dash across town to pick up and deliver the paint, we were ready and set to go!

The day itself was cold but bright and I arrived at the school to find a group of volunteers huddled together at the entrance, apprehensively discussing the task ahead. They faced a big challenge - painting a school dining hall, corridor and classroom with recognisable characters from children’s fiction. No wonder they were nervous!

The volunteers began by tentatively using projectors to outline their pictures before mixing up different colours. Luckily they all worked well as a team from the go and their confidence grew quickly as they began to see their images take life in front of them. Before long, the halls of the dining room began to fill up with identifiable pictures from children’s stories - Winnie the Pooh, the BFG and Dumbledore among them.

They were making such good progress that we decided to move onto the other rooms earlier than intended. Some were so engrossed that a planned stop for lunch didn’t happen, even though they were actively encouraged to take a break!

Half-way through the day, the headteacher came to review the progress and to thank the volunteers. She was moved by the efforts they had made and felt that they surpassed anything that she’d expected.

The highlight, however, came towards the end of the event, when a group of children, having secretly witnessed the progress on the dining hall, came to thank the volunteers in person and present them with a card. Seeing the looks on the faces of the pupils as they viewed their new eating area was a moment that all the volunteers appreciated.

In all, it was a fabulous day for everyone involved. The volunteers loved being creative and doing something outside of their normal work-life, whilst the teachers and children alike were thrilled by the transformation of their school. A day that definitely confirms why this kind of event is so important and why I enjoy working in this sector so much!

Every year we help hundreds of companies to get involved in really rewarding employee volunteering like this. If you'd like to do something similar, take a look at

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Employee volunteering from the other side

Let’s be frank—as much as any of us love our jobs, we are always thrilled when an activity comes along that will take us out of our daily routines and away from our desks for a few hours.  Sometimes, even just the occasional fire drill is enough.  So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I got the opportunity to leave the office early to participate in an employee volunteering event at my previous job. “Wow,” I thought, “several hours outside of the office and away from my computer during the work day!”  Amazing.

My team and I spent a productive morning weeding and clearing rubbish from a park in New York City that was greatly in need of some TLC. However, while getting away from the emails piling up in our inboxes was great, in the end, it was the feeling of satisfaction at having spent our time doing something positive for the community, as well as the new people from the office we had a chance to meet (Steven from Finance! Jeffrey from IT—what a guy!) that made the day a huge success.

Since I’ve recently joined the staff here at TimeBank as Employee Volunteering Administrator, I’ve been excited to see employee volunteering from the inside.  From the initial inquiry we get from corporate clients, to tracking down the perfect opportunity that will make them feel useful and fulfilled, the process is far more nuanced than I had ever given it credit for as an employee volunteer.

Now that I can truly appreciate it from both sides, I’m eager to get as many Christmas volunteering events in the calendar as possible this holiday season. Christmas volunteering is a great way for employees to get to know their colleagues better in a relaxed, informal setting (in jeans and t-shirts!) whilst providing a great service to the community. Also, Christmas volunteering is a wonderfully inclusive activity for the whole team to participate in, and as such, it makes a great complement to a company Christmas party. While holiday parties can be a lot of fun, it’s easy to forget that not everyone is up for a boozy afternoon. Volunteering is a fun, productive activity that everyone can partake in as lead up to the remainder of the festivities. And for those of us going on to the holiday party afterwards, it provides good fodder for chatting over a pint.

As far as I can see, it’s a win-win for everyone!

On a final note, let’s keep in mind that volunteering isn’t just for Christmas and charities have year-round needs for volunteers. If you’d like to get your team volunteering now or at any other time during the year, take a look here and if you'd like any more information call me on 0203 111 0721 or email

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The joy of working with inspiring volunteers!

I started as the Project Co-ordinator for our Talking Together project in Birmingham and Leicester in August. In previous jobs I have worked with volunteers but not to the extent that this one requires. I have quickly found that meeting and getting to know my volunteers is a real highlight.

I have been overwhelmed by the calibre of volunteers who have wanted to give their time and skills to become voluntary English Language Trainers. We have had a range of volunteers from various backgrounds, cultures, religions and education history but they all have one thing in common – they are passionate about supporting marginalised women in their communities.

I usually meet with volunteers after they have submitted their application forms, for an informal chat about the project, the role and to get to know more about their motivation, skills and experience. This could be a quick chat, but it often takes an hour over a coffee, as I find myself impressed each time by just how genuine and passionate they are about volunteering for TimeBank.

When I started recruiting volunteers, I didn’t anticipate the level of dedication I would come across. Many of our volunteers are in employment, and given that the Talking Together classes take place during school hours on weekdays, many have rearranged their work pattern, used flexi-time and even taken annual leave to ensure they could attend training and deliver the course. 

Birmingham volunteers are due to start teaching in the next couple of weeks, however the classes in Leicester are fully underway and I have had the pleasure of watching the volunteers in action! It has been amazing to see their personal development, increase in confidence and the relationship they have built with their students. I have watched them develop their teaching abilities, and this reflects the developing English skills of the learners.

We are half way through the course, and it has been lovely to hear that all of the volunteers are eager to continue teaching on the Talking Together project in the New Year. I truly feel privileged to have the opportunity to meet, and work alongside these wonderful volunteers!

Talking Together is TimeBank’s exciting volunteering project in London, Birmingham and Leicester. It offers informal spoken language training to long-term UK residents who have little or no knowledge of English. Our practical input really can help transform someone's life, open doors and contribute to community integration. If you'd like to know more, take a look here.

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Sharing our learning

At TimeBank one of our fundamental beliefs is sharing our learning – both good and bad so that wheels aren’t reinvented or things tried again that we know haven’t worked before.

We do this by ensuring all our projects are externally evaluated following an open tender process and that when those reports are written we share them (warts and all!) as widely as possible.

These last two weeks have seen the launch of a report we are really proud of, for our Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine project which supports veterans with mental health issues in Scotland.

As the project was based in Scotland we decided we really needed to share our learning there first which we did last week in Edinburgh, bringing together key decision makers, military charities and other stakeholders to hear what we and our evaluator, Lorraine Simpson for the Lines Between research consultancy had to say.

I love events like this because of the interaction with others and really enjoying the questions that come from the audience at the end. Of course it’s very satisfying to talk about the project when the evaluation reports that on the whole it was hugely successful. But what we really wanted to do by talking about it was to find a way to fund this fantastic project to continue.

A week later in the fabulous Thames Pavilion room in the House of Commons we held round two of our evaluation launch, this  time hosted by long term TimeBank supporter, Sir Kevin Barron MP (pictured above) alongside our funder the Forces in Mind Trust. Here we were speaking to the military charities again but also MPs and other funders and stakeholders that TimeBank works with. The report on our project which supports ex-service men, women and their families with mental health problems transition to civilian life with the help and support of a volunteer mentor came up with 12 key recommendations which can be found here.

Of particular importance for me to highlight was the fact that volunteers being involved in the project made such a massive difference to beneficiaries as pretty much the only person in their life who didn’t have to be there but wantedto be there – and for people who were dealing with profound physical, domestic and psychological problems it was isolation and loneliness that were the biggest source of distress for many.

The other issue I felt was important to underline was the need for better partnership between military charities and their colleagues in civilian charities. At TimeBank partnership is in our DNA - we always work closely with other organisations with all our projects and we found it particularly challenging at the outset of this project to break down barriers with military charities who were suspicious of a civilian charity working in their space. We were lucky to partner with the Scottish veterans’ charity Erskine on this project which gave us credibility and support but nevertheless challenges remained and being able to speak directly to the military charities about this was really important in moving forward together to the benefit of our beneficiaries.

Having shared our learning, Ray Lock, Chief Executive of the Forces in Mind Trust – an organisation set up by the Big Lottery to fund research into veterans with mental health issues - spoke out on the importance of funding proven successes like Shoulder to Shoulder to roll them out UK wide. He also talked about  the vital need to work together in collaboration and to share our learning as widely as we could.

It was a fabulous event made better still be by having most of the TimeBank team and our trustees there who are always our greatest ambassadors and I am hopeful that we will be able to get funding to continue this great project in Scotland and hopefully beyond.


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Teambuilding, swans and rhubarb - the perfect combination?

If you are reading this blog you’ll know that TimeBank is a national volunteering charity and we definitely believe in walking the talk. So every opportunity we get, we volunteer.

As we’ve brought on three new staff members over the summer and not everyone across our offices in Scotland, Birmingham and London had met, we decided the time had come to take a day out of our working lives and volunteer together to get to know one another, do something fun and live and breathe the TimeBank ethos.

I won’t lie - the day started off with a few challenges. The staff member organising it was sick so we had to arrange to pick up all our kit (you can’t volunteer unless you’re wearing an orange TimeBank T shirt!) and in the midst of sorting this half of the team went ahead leaving me and a colleague to get the next train – which unbelievably was delayed and then cancelled because of ‘a swan on the train’ …

But once we eventually arrived and started volunteering at Organiclea, a workers cooperative growing vegetables and fruit in Chingford, the day properly got going. There were endless roles for all sorts of volunteers around the huge site like picking apples or planting winter salad – our job though was clearing a rhubarb patch of thistles and bindweed. It may sound a little dull but I can’t tell you the satisfaction of looking back across rows of rhubarb released from its stranglehold of weeds and empowered to grow! What was even more fun was that we could all do it together and spend time with different people – weeding is a levelling experience - you are all doing the same, challenged by the same depth of root issues and trying to work together to finish in time. And of course we could all chat while we did it.

Once we’d finished and cleaned our tools we headed off to Walthamstow to have a pint and a Thai meal to celebrate our day of volunteering.  Small as it is, our organisation is split across three offices so being able to put a face to a name makes picking up the phone to each another so much easier. It makes us feel like colleagues and it ensures that we truly work as a team and see ourselves as TimeBank employees who can step up to cover and support one another’s jobs as necessary whatever the geographical distance.

What heartened me most was that by the afternoon the conversation had turned to what we would do for our Christmas Party volunteering in December – the Birmingham team decided they’d organise it and we would source something ‘Christmassy and meaningful, hopefully working with one of our community partners in the West Midlands’. We always volunteer at Christmas and lead from the front, encouraging companies to volunteer before their parties and then go out and celebrate with their colleagues – a shared experience to talk about and a feel good factor to head home with, in the sure and certain knowledge that you’ve done something amazing by serving dinner and chatting to an elderly person, packing Christmas boxes for children overseas, or decorating a school or hospice. If you’d like to know more about Christmas volunteering, do take a look here.

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The difference a volunteer mentor can make

Ali is project co-ordinator for our Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine project, which supports veterans and their families in the often difficult transition to civilian life. Here she tells of the impact the project has had on one veteran and his volunteer mentor.

It’s a lovely summer day at Erskine Home in Renfrewshire, Scotland, and I’m sitting outside Harry’s café with Dougie, a veteran, and Cathy, his volunteer mentor. They have been meeting twice a month for nine months and with all the banter going around, it’s easy to tell they know each other well.

I first met Dougie when I dropped in at Gardening Leave, a charity which provided horticultural therapy for veterans, now Glen Art.  Dougie still attends horticultural activities based at the Erskine Home gardens twice a week where he has been going for seven years.

Having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been difficult for Dougie and horticulture at Erskine is his safe place. We all know how easy it is doing the same routine, but Dougie was in real need of a change. He needed that bit of extra support to enhance his confidence, self-esteem and reduce his anxiety.  As he says: “It’s hard to get out of your comfort zone.”

I introduced Dougie to Cathy, and with a good sense of humour, I knew she would be good to lift his spirits. “Cathy and I clicked. I can say anything I want and she listens. It is easy to talk to each other,” he says.

Dougie wanted to focus on goals for the days he wasn’t at Erskine. They first got to know each other by going for a coffee and a chat, going to different museums and setting a plan of action.

Driving his own car is fine for Dougie, but he is anxious about being in crowds and noise, which means using public transport can be an issue, as well as shopping at the local supermarket. This is where Cathy has been a great support as a mentor. With her help, Dougie has set goals to reduce feeling anxious. They will both go on the same train – sitting in different carriages so Dougie can call if in need of help.

They also go to the local supermarket with the aim of Dougie sourcing a few items, while Cathy stands outside. They’ve also built up the length of time spent shopping. Dougie says: “Goals were difficult at the start, however Cathy is good at pushing me; my confidence and self-esteem have improved and I can now go to shops on my own and not feel as anxious going to new places.”

Dougie is also enjoying finding new activities with Cathy, such as swimming and trail walking. “It works both ways,” says Cathy. “I’m surprised I enjoyed places I never thought would interest me. I see things from a different point of view and it’s been a lot more interesting than I expected.”

Goals have been going so well for Dougie that he has been able to move home, he’s gained skills in budgeting from the local money advice centre, and he is increasing his physical fitness and contacting old friends. He is also looking to get back into employment after Cathy told him about Employ-able, a project she had learned more about at a TimeBank Mentor Information day. Employ-able, funded by Poppyscotland and run by the Scottish Association for Mental Health, provides one-to-one support, workshops, training and advice to veterans in search of a job.“It’s important as a mentor that I signpost Dougie onto others types of support too,” says Cathy.

Dougie came along with me to speak at a focus group about the importance of asking for help and the way support from a mentor can help with the transition to 'Civvy Street'.  But it was his last comment that really got me. He said “You know, Cathy made me human again. We are going to stay friends.”

If you would like to find out more about Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine, call Ali on 07437 437 867, or email You can also find out more here.

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More than 2,000 people have learnt English thanks to volunteers on our Talking Together project

Over the last two and a half years an amazing 2,158 people have completed English classes taught by volunteers on our Talking Together project.

It’s given these learners the confidence to visit their doctors without taking a family member to translate. It’s taught them how to speak with emergency services in the event of an accident. It’s enabled them to talk to their children’s school, their neighbours, and the bus driver. And ultimately it’s helped them to become a stronger part of their community.

On a personal level, working as Project Co-ordinator, I have been inspired and moved by both our learners and volunteers. At the final class of one of our courses, I sat with a small group of Somali women who told me and the volunteer teacher what it’s really like to fast for Ramadan. They also shared harrowing stories of their experiences of war in Somalia. Some of these learners came to the class knowing only a handful of English words.  Though their stories were told in broken English, the fact they were able to tell them at all shows the wonderful progress they had made in just 12 two-hour long classes.

Our volunteers are equally inspirational. Most come to volunteer for the project having no teaching experience. They are often visibly nervous, even to the point of shaking, ahead of their first class. But when I visit later classes, I see them standing confidently at the front, sharing jokes with their learners. Many of our volunteers have enjoyed the experience so much that they have continued teaching, either in the UK or abroad, after their classes have finished. Some have even gone on to gain qualifications in teaching and turn their new found passion into a career.  

We're now excited to be starting the next phase of Talking Together in London, Birmingham and Leicester, and we're looking for more volunteers to teach English. After attending our three day training session, you will be teaching two 2-hour long classes each week to a group of up to 10 adults, using our specially designed curriculum. All our learners speak very limited English (if they speak any at all!) and most are Muslim women, predominantly from Somali, Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds.

If you would like to apply or find out more about the role, visit the Talking Together page on our website where you can find our contact details and download the application form. We’d love to hear from you!

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