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

Celebrating diversity and football in Leicester

On Friday I was in Leicester to visit the Shama Women’s Centre, one of the delivery partners on our Talking Together English Language project and celebrate with the participants their successful completion of the course.

Although a few days before the parade everywhere in the town was blue or had flags or pictures of footballers flying! It’s incredible how something as simple as football can unite a city as diverse as Leicester. It’s diversity,  of course, and the desire to integrate that makes our English Language project so popular and such a success.

As Chief Executive I don’t get out to our projects as often as I’d like but when I’m invited to attend something like this I always say yes and I’m always blown away by how incredible they are and the phenomenal difference something we take for granted can make to an individual’s life. Our volunteer-led English language courses have been funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government to help support predominantly Muslim women to learn basic, functional, pre-ESOL English – to enable them to talk to their child’s school, make a doctor’s appointment or go shopping on their own. Not speaking the language of the country in which you live is hugely isolating and can leave these women living and communicating within a tiny community, almost all family. Learning just enough English to do the basics has truly empowered them and fundamentally changed their lives, enabling them to take a train into the city for the first time, or help a child with their homework.

It’s a huge privilege to meet them and see their faces light up as you present the certificates – excited and grateful that the CEO from London has come to their class to say well done! The truth is it was me that was excited and grateful to be there and have my photograph taken with them, to see the impact that our classes have had, to meet one of our incredible volunteers who had worked with them to give them the confidence to speak English and to enable them to change their lives through  a simple, and crucially, free 12 week course.  Of course as always when I go to one of our grassroots partners the welcome and hospitality was fantastic and I certainly never leave hungry!

We very much hope we will be in a position to run more of these courses over the coming months and change more lives, so do keep an eye on our website for volunteer opportunities.

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Volunteering helps Birmingham's young people into work

A second group of young people have now taken part in our Engage project, designed to support them to plan and deliver a community project, helping them to develop new skills that will hopefully lead to employment.

They had sessions in project planning, budgeting and developed personal plans to give them the skills, confidence and experience to be able to design and deliver their own social action projects in Chelmsley Wood. We also offered the young people the chance to volunteer for a local community interest company (CIC) to enhance their work experience and employability skills.  Once they complete the two weeks with TimeBank we will match them with a volunteer mentor for a further six months to support them to gain employment, start a training course, launch their own business or return to education.

This group of young people was referred by Standguide, a training and recruitment company, as part of the Destination Work programme. All the young people brought different experiences, skills and abilities to Engage, but still worked really well together as a team. I took time to get to know each of them and find out what they wanted to gain from being part of Engage so I could tailor their experience to ensure they got the most out of it.

During the first week they were offered a day’s volunteering with our partner Gro-organic. Gro-organic is an award winning social enterprise specialising in design and construction landscaping, outdoor education and community land based projects.

The group jumped at the chance to support Gro-organic and helped host a fundraising coffee morning in aid of Dementia UK, built a bug hotel to assist local primary schools to learn about conservation, created wind chimes from recycled materials and planted a garden with sensory plants which we hope people with additional needs will find inspiring. It was a really busy day, but all the staff at Gro-organic were really supportive and helpful and were always on hand to explain how to undertake a task or answer questions. 

The young people went above and beyond on their volunteering day and instead of finishing at 1pm asked to stay until 3pm. The weather was not the best as we experienced sleet, hail and almost zero degrees temperatures, but none of the young people complained and they stayed enthusiastic and engaged throughout the entire day. Gro-organic were really impressed with everything they achieved.

Following the volunteering day, one of the young people was offered a role with Gro-organic working with their adults who have additional needs.  Gro-organic said: “She definitely showed potential and seems a practical person; she has knowledge of building and creating things outdoors, and also showed a flair for caring for people.”  Had she not had the opportunity to volunteer with Gro-organic her potential would never have been recognised. This is just another example of how volunteering is a vital ingredient in supporting young people to gain employment.

I am really inspired by each group of young people that I meet and firmly believe that a volunteering opportunity should be offered to every young person as I have seen how much they gain from taking part. I have seen them gain confidence and skills that are relevant to work and offered jobs just from undertaking a day’s volunteering. I feel that Engage is one of the best programmes around and hope we can help as many young people as possible in the Birmingham area. 

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Top tips for getting started with employee volunteering

Last week, volunteers from global company Edenred spent the day planting hedges and cutting back overgrown nettles in Southwark Park nature reserve. Although all the volunteers work in the same building, a few had never actually met before. By the end of the day, they were happily chatting and working together as a team.

This demonstrates how fantastic volunteering can be at helping to build teams. Research shows that employee volunteering also helps staff develop leadership, decision-making and negotiation skills. It has important business benefits too, such as boosting morale and improving staff retention. It encourages engagement and social awareness across your organisation and has a vital role to play in change management, enhancing internal communications and demonstrating active citizenship. Volunteering offers all of this while also making a big impact in the community; it’s a win-win.

Over the last 15 years TimeBank has become expert in connecting workplaces with communities, offering a specialist and professional brokering service to make sure employees get the very best and most enjoyable volunteering experience possible. It delivers employee volunteering that really works - engaging staff, helping them develop confidence and skills, and making them proud to be part of your organisation and tell your story. We introduced the enormously popular idea of Christmas Party volunteering – getting together with work colleagues for a few hours volunteering in the community before heading off to a work social with experiences to share and stories to tell.

With the Government’s commitment to employee volunteering, now is the time to prepare and develop your employee volunteering programme. 

Having worked with companies as diverse as EE, Google and Balfour Beatty and with Government departments including the Cabinet Office here are our top tips for ensuring effective employee volunteering:

What do you want to get out of it?

364 Think about what you as an organisation want to get from volunteering. We’ve worked with companies that want to become more cohesive after merger, build teams, bring together people at all levels or develop staff. You may have seen a need in your community that staff would love to help out with. You might want to grow your public profile – if you’re an energy company for example you might want to be seen as green and promoting energy efficiency. So give careful thought to the key areas you want to enhance and promote and how employee volunteering aligns with your business priorities.  

What do your staff want?

It will be important to think about what your employees want to do, too. They might like to use their professional skills to help others, by helping older people get to grips with technology, mentoring young people in interview skills or preparing a CV. One of our clients, a design company, wanted to use their creative skills to help a neighbourhood school and successfully transformed a drab corner of the library into an inspirational reading corner.

366 But other employees might want to do something completely different to their day jobs – and we’ve set them to work clearing an adventure playground or planting a community garden on a housing estate.  Consider a staff survey asking them if they would be interested in volunteering and if so what kind of volunteering they’d like to do – they may come up with new and interesting ideas that can benefit your organisation.

At TimeBank, we offer an interactive, two-hour workshop that provides your staff with insights into current volunteering opportunities and the different ways they can give their time and share skills with the community.  Delivered at your place of work, such a workshop can provide your organisation with the foundations to starting your own employee volunteering scheme.

Budget for volunteering

For it to function well, volunteering needs just the same sort of organisation, management and support as paid work. Remember that charities invest substantial resources in their volunteers and there may well be the cost of tools and materials to take into account too. If you use a broker like TimeBank, bear in mind that there are of course costs involved in providing this service. TimeBank has to pay its staff to research and source volunteering opportunities, to organise the day and be there to coordinate the activities.  We will work with you to arrange a date, make sure health and safety checks are in place including a risk assessment if needed and provide your team with all the information they need for the day.

What do charities need?

And finally, do think about what the community needs and how your organisation can make a difference. It’s important to consider not only what you want to accomplish, but also what the charity needs are and how these two aims can be combined most effectively. That’s the most important part of a successful employee volunteering programme.

It will be vital to talk to prospective charities, to be honest about your organisation and what you’d like to achieve. And remember to ask the charity what it needs and what your volunteers can help it accomplish.

Discuss how many employee volunteers you have and how many the charity can take. Allow enough time to put your plans in place. It can take a while to match your employees with the best and most appropriate volunteering experience to ensure they have an enjoyable and rewarding experience. We’ve had companies come to us and say they have 200 employees looking to volunteer in their community next week. That’s an offer that no matter how welcome, can be overwhelming to a small community organisation facing the challenge of hosting so many enthusiastic but untrained helpers.

What next?

Many organisations find it difficult to engage with the communities they’d most like to support. Often small charities and community organisations just don’t have the resources to provide an effective, properly structured volunteering experience.

Outsourcing can be a helpful solution for many businesses. And that’s where TimeBank comes in, offering a cost-effective brokering service to provide the skills and expertise to make successful employee volunteering happen. As a volunteering charity, one of TimeBank’s aims is to encourage people into volunteering. If they enjoy their first experience of volunteering and find it has been managed well and professionally, they often go on to volunteer for a wide range of causes.

If you’d like more information, take a look at www.timebank.org.uk/employee-volunteering.

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Penalised for volunteering? That's just WRONG!

In my lunch hour I had one task to get done other than eating my sandwich - and that was to renew my car insurance.  I’d decided that the renewal fee from my current insurer was just too high and I’d go to a compare website to get a better quote. And I did -  significantly better as it happens -  with the AA. I’ve been an AA member for years so figured it was a trusted brand and I’d call up so I could tick yet another thing off my personal to-do list.

“Just a few questions madam…….Do you volunteer?” Well, given that I’d just told her my day job was Chief Executive of a national volunteering charity it’s not surprising that my answer was yes – “right ,I’ll just recalculate your premium quote”. Naively I thought that this might mean the AA had an ethical policy of rewarding people for giving back to their community – but no, I was informed that my premium would now be increased by about £50.

I was utterly astounded – I pointed out that as I live in London and my current volunteering is as a trustee and mentor I go to meetings by tube and don’t use my car, only to be told: “Well some people do - they use it for church events and things.” Apart from the fact that I don’t, I can’t begin to imagine why someone like my Mum for example would be asked to pay an extra £50 out of her pension for insurance so that she could deliver her church newsletters around the rural community in which she lives.

Surely volunteering should be seen as something wholly positive. In freely giving your time to do something good in your community you should be able to do it without having an increased premium from your car insurer. I can understand that there may be instances where volunteer drivers might be using their car in an increased capacity which might increase risk but surely you can’t have a sweeping policy that doesn’t define what type of volunteering you are doing or what that actually means. Or perhaps insurance companies could swallow that extra risk against their profits as part of their own CSR policy and contribute to society like those of us who volunteer.

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Could volunteering help close the gender gap?

The last couple of weeks have seen a lot written about women’s right to equal pay or how the ‘old boys network’ is still stymieing women in the top companies in our country.

And then we read that in our own sector, the charity world, where 73% of employees are women, only 32% are chief executives.

It makes you wonder what we can do to give women the confidence and self-belief to put themselves forward for senior management roles. Last week I read that men will go for a job even if they feel only 60% qualified to do it whereas women will only go for it if they think they are 100% qualified and how many of us ever feel 100% qualified for our next role? By definition it’s going to involve things you haven’t done before in ways you haven’t done them with people you’ve never worked with – taking the next step up the ladder is always scary but I ask myself why we, as a sex, are less able or willing to take those risks?

I’ve thought long and hard about this and I’ve been wondering if volunteering might just be the answer to giving us the confidence to take that next step into senior management or the chief executive role of a larger organisation. Allow me to explain:  employee volunteering has also been much in the news with the Prime Minister’s pledge to give all public sector workers three days volunteering each year. Now the pros and cons of that announcement can be debated elsewhere (my synopsis:  great idea but where’s the money to make it happen? Volunteering isn’t free!) But if companies and our public sector are to take volunteering seriously and have the budget to make sure they do so, then surely we can use it as a tool to support women as they develop in their careers.

The benefits of employee volunteering are much documented:  team building, morale and confidence boosting, leadership skills, time management and much more. So just for a moment suspend your belief that it’s all about environmental opportunities, getting down and dirty and clearing out a bog, and think about mentoring - think about using your skills to support someone else in their career journey by mentoring a leader in the third sector where your business skills or mind-set might just make a difference to the way they approach the challenges facing charities right now.

Our Leaders Together programme, which recruits volunteer mentors to offer their business skills to small charities and social enterprises, could be adapted to suit companies’ needs. Who and what do you want to develop? Could  the women in your middle management benefit from the confidence that mentoring someone in a different sector can give them? I know I come away from sessions with people I mentor having learnt as much as I have given, feeling happy and confident that I had skills I had forgotten or didn’t know I had that were useful to someone climbing up the ladder behind me.

So here’s my call to action this Spring as you look at new budgets and new training needs and the desire to support people in your company– think about a bespoke mentoring programme. By supporting charities with mentoring  you could have  a phenomenal effect not only on that charity and its beneficiaries but throughout the voluntary sector at a time when it is facing cuts in funding and increased demand for its services. You could help us to do more with less while developing your staff team with new skills, new confidence and self-belief.  And maybe have the added bonus of encouraging more women to take a punt on that next role that’s just a little bit outside their own perceived skill set … it’s a win-win for everyone.

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Volunteering helped Ben find a career he loves

Ben took part in our Engage project last month.  He had sessions in project planning and budgeting to give him the skills, confidence and experience to be able to design and deliver his own social action project in Chelmsley Wood in Birmingham.

Ben was with Engage for two weeks and was one of the quiet ones in the class in the first few sessions. He appeared to lack the confidence to speak up in a large group, but was always very polite, always ready with an answer if asked and managed his time really well. 

During the first week I took the group to Gro-Organic, one of our community partners, as Engage had a volunteer day set up for them. Gro-Organic is an award winning social enterprise specialising in design and construction landscaping, outdoor education and community land based projects. They provide a comprehensive range of services to schools, businesses and third sector organisations that are looking to improve their outdoor space or utilise local land for skill development, training or community cohesion.

361 Gro-Organic asked the team to help clear a space in their new community garden. The team were given the tools to complete the job and were supported by the site co-ordinator Lee. The team worked really well together, but Ben really came into his own and got stuck in. He also supported other members of the team and gave them clear instructions on what to do.

Ben spent the second week designing a social action project which aimed to give Gro-Organic’s team of volunteers suitable workwear. He used Gro-Organic and the Dig It Crew  logos to design some polo shirts which will hopefully make the volunteers feel like a team.  The T-shirts were a huge success and will be delivered this month.

Ben asked if there was any way for him to carry on volunteering with Gro-Organic as he had really enjoyed the experience and felt  he had found a possible career, so we are working with him. to sort out a suitable schedule.  We’ve also provided Ben with a volunteer mentor to help him access local apprenticeships in horticulture so that he can pursue his new found passion. He has already been supported in applying for one apprenticeship.

Ben says: “Volunteering has helped me determine what sort of career I want to do and to gain the necessary experience. It has also helped me boost my confidence and gain better social skills.”

Ben is a classic example of a young man who had gone through the education system and got ok results, but had no clear idea of what he wanted to do. We’re thrilled that volunteer experience through our Engage project provided  him with such inspiration.  

Engage is our exciting new project that matches volunteer mentors with young people living in Birmingham who are seeking employment under the 'Destination Work' programme. If you’d like to know more, or could volunteer a few hours to help these young people develop business skills, take a look at www.timebank.org.uk/engage

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Free workshops for carers in Dudley

An estimated one in eight adults across the UK acts in some kind of carer role or capacity. In other words, at least six and a half million people as well as an estimated 700,000 young carers are devoting their time and energy, and putting their own needs on hold, to support the people they care about. Given our ageing population this figure is expected to swell to nine million over the next two decades.

Yet not only is there an army of carers but many are hidden, whether as a result of the stigmatic nature of their loved ones’ illness/condition or because they do not consider themselves to be carers.

Unconditional love is often used in the context of caring for the people we cherish in our lives. However we are only human. When family and friends start to need more and more help to maintain their quality of life, the reality of providing support day in, day out, can take a very heavy toll.

Carers UK say that over 60% of carers have faced depression as they find themselves unable to maintain a life of their own, while 49% of carers find they struggle financially, only adding to their general stress and anxiety. At the same time, 45% have found themselves having to give up their jobs after being unable to juggle the competing demands of work and caring.

Carers are undeniably the unsung heroes of our health and care system, which is why TimeBank is rolling out a series of volunteer led events for carers across the borough of Dudley in March through its Be Well project.

These free workshops are designed to help carers be more aware of their rights, to explore ways to improve their own wellbeing and to provide information about the support available through local networks.

We are working with partner organisations to deliver Be Well and we warmly welcome anyone who is a carer or cares for others, to attend. We’d also be grateful if you could spread the word as widely as you can, to your friends, networks or through social media.

For more information contact Nick Roslund at nick@timebank.org.uk, or 07751 636 674.

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The bravest decision - to start talking

Author Andy Owen describes the challenges that veterans face when they come home and have to deal with memories that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

When I look back to my time in the military the first thing I remember is the people. Of course I remember the places and the experiences, but it is the people I always think of first. The big characters, the good friends and those who you were just glad they were on your side.

Many years before I had even considered joining the army, I remember walking through the empty corridors of my school in the early dark of a winter evening after a parents’ evening – the same bricks and mortar that I would see every day seemed completely alien. 

Walking back into the Mess now would seem a bit like that after hours school visit, as although the physical building would be the same, the faces and voices would be different. When you leave both school and the army, you cannot just walk back in; you need to be invited. You don’t just leave; you become excluded. You become excluded from a family that shaped your sense of identity and gave you purpose. You can lose touch with the only people you know who have shared the same experiences as you – experiences you are struggling to come to terms with.

While some leaving the Armed Forces rarely pause for breath while spinning tales of their heroism, others find it difficult to share their stories. It may be because they feel others either won’t understand, will judge them harshly, or it may be they just cannot find the words. This can lead some to stop interacting with those closest to them, leading them to finding themselves sitting alone in the twilight of a familiar, yet alien empty building.

In 2014, 22,530 personnel left the regular Armed Forces. Some estimates predict that of these over 27% will have a mental health disorder. The Ashcroft Review (The Veterans Transition Review, February 2014) found that for Early Service Leavers the struggle after service life can be even more difficult – only 50% were in employment after six months. For some this can lead to offending, dependence on alcohol and drugs, homelessness and mental health problems. This is where TimeBank’s Shoulder to Shoulder project steps in.

Since leaving the military I have written two novels. The first looks at why people go off and fight by re-interpreting Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The second, East of Coker, looks at what happens when those who have been involved in conflict come home, as it moves through a London and an Iraq that shadow TS Eliot’s Waste Land.

After looking at a number of charities, I decided to donate all the proceeds of East of Coker to TimeBank’s Shoulder to Shoulder project. Amongst others, one of the themes East of Coker looks at is what makes us the people we are through the interactions we have with those closest to us. In East of Coker the main character, Arthur, a veteran of The Second World War, moves to a point where he sees he has the power to change how he feels about the past and realises that because he has walled himself off from the world, in an attempt to preserve the memories of those he has lost, he has denied himself one of the key things that makes him a person - interactions with others. He becomes determined to be brave enough to share his story and determined to convince a new friend who has fought in a more recent campaign to do the same and avoid the mistakes he has made. When we do nothing and do not interact, we cannot become all that we can become.

TimeBank recruits and trains volunteer mentors to befriend and support veterans and their families. They try to help veterans lead independent lives, with the confidence to identify goals and lead their own recovery plans. They help them to try and take control of their lives, lives that may have felt out of control since leaving an environment that provided a time and a place to be for much of their adult life. The volunteers can also help family members identify isolation, signpost them to services to help and aid them in building supportive social networks.

The first step on this journey can be making the bravest decision some will ever have to make; the decision to start talking. As one of the characters in the book resolves: to ‘try to use those late night whisky soaked words I don’t usually use in the sober daylight hours, and be better than the man I once hoped to be’. Shoulder to Shoulder ensures that when someone makes that brave choice there is someone there to listen, someone there to interact with, someone who can help them to start becoming the person they once were again.

Both Invective and East of Coker by Andy Owen are currently available on Amazon as e-books. East of Coker will be published by the War Writers’ Campaign (a non-profit independent publisher in the U.S. supporting Veterans) in March 2016.

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