Blog

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

Helping Birmingham's young people into work

Our Engage project has now started in Chelmsley Wood, where we are working in partnership with Standguide and Gro-Organic and hope to make positive changes in the local community.

Thirteen people aged 18–25 spent the day with us learning how to plan a social action project to help their local community. The participants got tips on how to plan their projects including managing budgets, working to time lines, managing stakeholder expectations and marketing.

Each brought different strengths to the day and we got a huge amount done. They have already begun to look at improving the health of the local community by building a sensory garden, herb garden and vegetable plot. Some of the young men designed a project which would allow the local football pitch to be used at night and they went a step further to see if this could be built with as little environmental impact as possible.

Some of the group looked into designing and hosting a website while others spent the afternoon developing marketing items like T-shirts and caps. Each member of the group contributed to the development of around five basic projects and we hope to build on these as the weeks progress. The rest of this week is already planned and I am excited about what else we are going to achieve. We’ll be looking at in-depth budgeting for their projects, developing resources, managing volunteers and managing risk, as well as spending time with Gro-Organic at one of their sites where we’ll put some of the ideas into action.

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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Inspiring unemployed youngsters to gain work skills and confidence

Engage Birmingham has launched this week and I am really excited about this new volunteering project from TimeBank. I feel we are going to be making a real difference to Birmingham and offer a unique opportunity that is different to any other local initiative.

Engage Birmingham is working with Destination Work providers to support people aged 18-25 into employment, but we are going a step further by recruiting volunteer mentors to help the participants to find work or set up their own businesses. 

The project won’t patronise the participants or offer day long PowerPoint presentations, team building exercises and “motivational speakers”.  We want to find out what is important to the young people and give them the skills and confidence to carry out their own social action project. We are offering them the chance to create something meaningful in their communities while enhancing their employability.

TimeBank has already run successful Engage projects in London, Sunderland and Merthyr Tydfil where young people delivered exciting projects, from children’s sports activities to a clothes-swap, that inspired them to return to education or start their own small businesses.

To achieve success in Birmingham we are creating partnerships with relevant charities in the local areas, for example: Gro-Organic in Chelmsley Wood. Gro-Organic is committed to improving the places where people live and work. They empower communities to be strong, resilient and proud of where they live. I hope that our partnership with Gro-Organic will allow us to make a difference to Birmingham and give the young people the chance to try something different.

I am really thrilled to be working with Gro-Organic and look forward to empowering the local communities, supporting local 18-25 years olds and developing some unique social action projects. 

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We need to break the silence around mental health and show that talking about it needn't be difficult

It’s Time to Talk Day and we’re joining the campaign to get people talking about mental health. One in four of us will be affected at some point in our lives, so being able to talk about mental health is important for us all. Talking is also the first step towards building greater awareness and acceptance.

Here at TimeBank we are specialists in providing mentoring support to young people with mental health issues. We started our ground-breaking project Back to Life back in 2008, offering emotional support to young men and women recovering from mental health issues.

The results were overwhelming – the young people who took part said they built confidence, improved their quality of life and felt more ready to engage with society after taking part. They told us that having a volunteer mentor made them feel less isolated and brought new hope for the future.

One said: “Before, I’d be in agony, I’d be in bed, and that is what my mentor helped me with. She got me out of the house, talking about it and it helped me get some ideas of what I wanted to do and put them in place.”

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We built on that experience with further projects - The Switch, which supports young people making the transition from children’s to adult mental health services, and Shoulder to Shoulder, the first peer mentoring project in the UK to support ex-service men and women recovering from mental health issues. We’ve recruited and trained volunteer mentors to help carers improve their emotional well-being and cope with the stresses and strains of caring. And we’ve recently worked with the Institute of Psychiatry to assess the effectiveness of volunteer mentoring as a preventative measure to support young women leaving care who are at higher risk of developing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.  

Our volunteer mentors spend a few hours each month with their mentees in a range of social activities, but crucially they listen and talk.  Not everyone feels comfortable talking about their mental health problems, but over time trusting relationships develop with the ability to confide about various issues, including mental health diagnoses, relationship problems, or general feelings of anxiety or insecurity.  

It is important to remember that mentoring is not right for everyone, or a panacea to all mental health problems – it is a complementary intervention alongside professional services which can be transformational if done well, with skilfully matched volunteers and expert training.

The results have been overwhelming, showing that support from a mentor can make a huge difference to emotional well-being and building confidence. The young people who took part in The Switch said they felt more able to face challenges, try something new and make friends.  A quarter were able to make the move into education or employment.

“When I saw her last she was just an entirely different person. She was so painfully shy to start off with and now she’s so much more confident. If I’ve achieved anything for her it’s really helping her with her confidence,” said one of our volunteers.

Volunteers are uniquely placed to support people recovering from mental illness; they are not professionals or from social services and can therefore provide a complementary, unique and fresh perspective.  The very fact that they are volunteers has a tremendous impact – it sends a powerful message that they are choosing to be there, not because they have to, but because they want to.

We’ve been delighted that our volunteers felt they had benefited from taking part in the project too.  More than half reported an increase in their understanding of mental health issues. They also said their communication skills had improved, particularly in terms of communicating with vulnerable or unresponsive people.

So let’s carry on talking about mental illness. We need to realise that it is much more common than most people think, break the silence and show that talking about this once-taboo issue doesn’t need to be difficult.  

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English language is the glue that holds society together

David Cameron’s announcement this morning that the Government is to allocate £20m to English language classes for Muslim women was welcomed here at TimeBank, as it followed on the back of our hugely successful Talking Together project teaching functional English language to this exact cohort in a hugely innovative volunteer-led way. It is perhaps unfortunate that this fantastic news has been linked to the Prevent and Extremism agenda and that it pre-empts the much anticipated ‘Casey report’ on segregation.

Our experience of working with this group of women and the grassroots community organisations with which we partnered was that there was huge enthusiasm for free, functional English Language classes, which were  often oversubscribed. The most common feedback, and greatest compliment, was what next? Where can we carry on learning in classes like this?

These aren’t the women that the press have labelled as disinterested in learning English and being part of the community. They have been excluded from doing so only by lack of money or opportunity. The volunteers who taught them also gained enormously from the project. The tangible changes for them came from being able to connect across communities for the first time, learning as much from the learners as they were offering. This is key to breaking down barriers and myths about different communities in our society. TimeBank’s, Government funded, programme provided value to volunteer and beneficiary and with a social return on investment of £9.31 for every £1 spent it was real value for money.

The classes took place in ‘safe’ environments that the women used anyhow which, importantly, provided crèche facilities. Crucially it wasn’t about learning grammar or reciting complex language, it was about being able to go to the doctor, talk to their child’s school, buy a ticket and get on a train for the very first time or what to do in an emergency – all key elements to empowering them to be more involved in their local community.

Perhaps a by-product is that these women will now have a better understanding of what their children are doing online and prevent them being influenced by extremism but combatting extremism wasn’t the reason they joined the course – and indeed,  labelling it as such may sadly put them off. Our learners joined Talking Together because they wanted to be able to talk to their neighbours, go alone to a hospital appointment, learn to drive and get a job – it’s because they want to be part of British society and English language is the glue that holds that society together.

To learn more about our Talking Together project watch our video or read our evaluation here.

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What a huge amount we've achieved!

Whenever I sit down to write my end of year blog I think not much has happened. Then I start to flick through my diary and realise what a huge amount has been achieved!

This one started with our office move. It wasn’t  without its challenges - IT is never a friend in such circumstances - but we are very happy in our new home with our friends at the YMCA.

In early January I was in Leicester to visit one of our delivery partners, the Shama Women’s Centre, with Lord Ahmad, then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) who was fascinated by the work being done there.

347 The impact of our Talking Together project never ceases to amaze me. One lady told me that for years she’d been a victim of domestic abuse from her brother-in-law. He started to attack her again but the week before she'd learnt on our course to call 999 in an emergency and ask for the police. The attacks stopped. A simple English language project – not just life changing but life-saving.

In February I was once again invited to speak on the Charityworks programme.  I absolutely love this project, supporting graduates into a career in our sector. This year one of the tutors was ill so I was asked if my session could be Skyped to their South West cohort.  It was  quite an experience but I’m told successful!

It was Charityworks too that introduced us to one of our most interesting potential partnerships. At a lunch encouraging different charities to take a graduate I met the Chief Executive of Acorns Children’s Hospice and a conversation about our respective organisations sparked an idea for a new way to use our mentoring model – working with young people with life limiting illnesses who are transitioning from children’s to adult services. We held focus groups in November, the funding bids have been submitted and we can’t wait for this exciting new partnership to begin.349

The beginning of the year also saw the start of a new iteration of Engage, our volunteer project supporting young people in Newham who are not in education, employment or training.  In March we celebrated the success of our Carers Together project in partnership with Carers UK with a Westminster launch, which to our delight was hosted once again by TimeBank supporter Sir Kevin Barron MP.

Not long afterwards the DCLG asked us to extend our English language project into London, to harder to reach groups in Birmingham and to pilot an IT and Hidden Carers project – a huge reflection on our reputation for delivery and our ‘fleet of foot’ ability to quickly upsize and deliver when required.

April saw me speaking at ECF 2015, a gathering of the world's leading campaigners, fundraisers and communicators using digital media for achieving social change. I’d never stayed overnight at an Oxford college so thoroughly enjoyed the experience and having the opportunity to talk about how we can harness the power of a new generation of volunteers. We were also thrilled to secure funding from the John Ellerman Foundation. Core funding is hard to come by but vital to empower innovation, partnership building, funding diversification and programme development so this made a huge difference.

Our volunteers of course also make a huge difference and this year I’ve been delighted to join some of them at events for our mentoring projects The Switch and City Opportunities to celebrate with them, hear their stories about volunteering with TimeBank and of course to thank them – definitely one of the best bits of my job. As it was when one of our volunteers, Sean, persuaded his company Swift to donate 5,000 euros to TimeBank and I was lucky enough to attend their annual conference to accept it.

We’ve hosted several overseas groups this year from the Netherlands, South Korea and one, Common Purposes, a group of international leaders. It gives us a chance to share our knowledge and experience, learn from others and harness the incredible power of volunteering internationally.  

359 April saw us Christmas volunteering!! I know it was a tad out of season but we had postponed it due to the office move in December and true to my word I hadn’t forgotten. Plus it was a little warmer for outside volunteering! We headed to Birmingham en masse to join our colleagues there and volunteered at the Ackers Adventure Centre – a charity that provides access to open space and adventurous activities in over 75 acres of diverse landscape in the centre of Birmingham. 

Part two of my Windsor leadership course also took place this year, six months after the first course. It was another opportunity to learn from and spend time with leaders across sectors and take time out to think – something as CEOs we rarely do but which is so very important.

Our first Talking Together project came to an end in June and in October we launched the external evaluation report in Westminster. This was one of the best and most successful events we’ve run with lots of partners, funders, stakeholders and volunteers together. It was also one of our most successful projects ever - delivered on time, above target and under budget – 1,571 women taught by 144 volunteers in 18 months with a calculated social return on investment of £9.31 for every £1 spent.352

Another part of my job that I love is bringing new people and skills onto our Board  and this year saw another round of recruitment and induction for four fantastic new trustees.

In October our Board approved a very ambitious five year business plan,  designed to ensure our long term sustainability and maximise  the value we give to our beneficiaries and volunteers. As ever I am hugely impressed by the calibre and engagement of our trustees and consider myself and TimeBank very lucky to have such incredible governance and quality volunteers at the very top of our organisation.

Last week, this time in season(!) we did our Christmas party volunteering and how amazing it was to spend time with colleagues at a care home making mince pies,  Christmas cards and decorations with the residents – and sharing our experiences afterwards over a curry and a beer! This year lots of companies have taken up our Christmas volunteering challenge and we are excited about the potential for future years.

355 Finally, I was absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to join Carers UK CEO, Helena Herklots, on the Isle of Wight for one of her 50 hill walk challenges to celebrate 50 years of Carers UK. As I mentioned, Carers UK and TimeBank partnered on our Carers Together project which finished earlier this year and the partnership and indeed friendship has continued. Caring has been a subject very close to my heart this year as I supported my Mum caring for my Dad at home during his final seven months. It made me realise the huge challenges and pressures of caring full time that many millions of carers do on a day to day basis. So I was proud to join Helena in memory of my Dad and in awe of my Mum and of every other carer who puts their life on hold for a loved one.

In 2015 we were proud to celebrate our 15th birthday. 358 Who knows what 2016 will hold but I am confident that TimeBank will move forward taking on new challenges and new volunteering programmes and may I take this opportunity of saying thank you to our incredible volunteers, staff team, trustees and supporters and wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year. 

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Christmas volunteering - a win win for businesses, staff and community organisations.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve organised festive volunteering opportunities for a number of companies who were eager to do something different to their usual Christmas party. Volunteers have packed shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, shared their digital skills with the older generation, and even dressed as elves to throw a Christmas party for Anchor care home residents.

All the volunteers found that by taking just a few hours out of their busy work schedules, they could make a meaningful impact to the lives of others, from bringing a smile to the face of someone who may be lonely at this time of year to helping someone learn to use Skype so they can talk to far away relatives on Christmas Day.

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I was impressed by the enthusiasm and dedication of the volunteers. Bericote Properties organised an incredible Christmas party at the British Museum for residents from a number of Anchor care homes. Dressed as elves, the volunteers greeted the residents and brought them into the museum. Throughout the day there was a range of entertainment including a magician and a performance from the Salvation Army band, as well as a delicious Christmas dinner. At the end of the day, the elves presented each guest with a small gift hamper. Their generosity was particularly appreciated by the Anchor staff who remarked that, for some of the residents, this would be the only Christmas gift they would receive.

Other teams of volunteers spent time in Anchor care homes across London baking mince pies, making Christmas decorations and doing puzzles with residents. 

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The most important aspect of these days was the time spent socialising with residents. In a busy care home, staff aren’t always able to have lengthy one to one conversations with the residents. Volunteers from Informa, Novo Nordisk and Workroom chatted to residents about everything from football to their experiences in World War II. A volunteer from Informa made a Chelsea themed Christmas card for football fan Charlie at one of the care homes. Charlie loved the card so much that he didn’t put it down even when eating his lunch. This really shows how valuable volunteers can be.

What struck me most when working with our volunteers is how kind-hearted and compassionate they were. It’s easy to become cynical, even at Christmas. But seeing volunteers making Christmas decorations and baking biscuits for care home residents and carefully packing shoeboxes with gifts to be sent to disadvantaged children across the world was truly heart-warming and a reminder of the true spirit of Christmas.

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As well as being a fantastic way to give back to the community, Christmas volunteering offered a chance for the volunteers to socialise with their colleagues in a totally new setting, whilst also utilising a wide range of skills including team work, problem solving and empathy. Importantly, volunteering is also really great fun! From the minute the volunteers stepped into any of the Anchor care homes that we worked with this Christmas, there was always laughter to be heard. It’s a win-win situation for volunteers and our community partners.

But remember, volunteering isn’t just for Christmas. If you’d like to get your team volunteering contact Calley on 0203 111 0700 or calley@timebank.org.uk

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Speaking the same language and building more inclusive communities

It’s been nine months since the Talking Together adventure started in London. After being a great success in Birmingham for 18 months, in March we started a pilot programme across 10 London boroughs.

Throughout these months I have had the pleasure to work with amazing colleagues and volunteers and inspiring and exceptional learners. In London, Talking Together recruited and trained 42 volunteers to hold basic and informal English language classes to long term UK residents with very little or no English.  35 classes later, an amazing 302 learners have completed the course.   

Talking Together has been all about a holistic approach to sustainable development - a ‘win win’ for everyone involved.   For our volunteers, their time has been used doing something really meaningful, and that has further developed their skillsets and employability. Our delivery partners have been able to offer an extra service to their users, as well as gaining some additional funding at a time when the charity sector is being stretched beyond its means. And our learners can now communicate and have basic conversations in English. Most importantly, they now have the confidence to speak.

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Being a national volunteering charity our focus is on creating great, meaningful and sustainable volunteering opportunities. Talking Together has been just that.  Ten of our volunteers have continued volunteering with the organisation they were matched with, delivering English classes the way we trained them. Four are pursuing careers in teaching after being inspired by the programme; one has already completed his CELTA qualifications.

Two inspiring young women - both victims of domestic violence - have gained confidence and experience to enter the job market. We haven't pictured them here to protect their privacy but one said: “I will never forget about you, especially after giving me the opportunity to gain my confidence again after nine years of domestic violence. Only you and the three days of training woke me up from my nightmare and made me see life in a positive way and look forward.  You gave me opportunity to start from scratch, built a career and feel worth in this life.”

Every class has been different; we have worked with 23 diverse organisations who support refugees, get people into employment, support victims of domestic violence or link schools and mothers. The learners are from many different backgrounds, but what is common for all is that they want to be a part of British society and they want to be able to communicate.

Talking Together has been all about creating more inclusive communities. About overcoming boundaries and providing support to volunteers, organisations and learners. Some of our learners have been in this country for many years, but had no friends outside of their immediate family.  One told me that she had made her first friend since moving to this country on our course.

Talking together is about improving people’s English, but a truly great side effect of the programme is its social impact. How it helps people out of isolation, be it volunteers or beneficiaries, and how it builds friendships and understanding of different cultures. The project empowers our learners, beneficiaries, partner organisations and local communities as a whole. We all have something to learn from each other, speaking the same language and building more inclusive communities.

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I’m so proud to have been one of two project co-ordinators on Talking Together London, and that the project as a whole (including London and the Midlands) has reached 2,011 learners via nearly 200 volunteers.  Thanks to everyone involved making this a truly great project! 

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A trip to the British Museum

"I have lived in this country for 16 years, but never been to the museum. I always wanted to go, just been afraid to go on my own.”

As a part of TimeBank's Talking Together programme, offering informal English language classes to UK residents with very little or no English,  I taught a class at an Islington Primary School in co-operation with one of our delivery partners Renaisi, an award winning social enterprise.Ten mothers completed the course and they were truly exceptional learners with great drive and a keen interest in learning. One had just moved to the UK and didn’t speak a word of English; she spoke three other languages, but not this one.

In the beginning we communicated through miming, and let’s face it, me looking like an idiot most of the time, but in the end we could actually have a small conversation (almost without reverting to comical moves). After a class covering public services I found out that none of the mothers had ever been to a museum in the UK. They didn’t know it was free and some of them were afraid to travel alone.

An idea started to form in my head and I spoke to Emma Brech, head of schools and communities at Renaisi, and together with their bilingual advisers we organised a class field trip to the British Museum.  I joined the mums after they had dropped off their kids at school and gave them each a printout of a map, directions and bus information and they guided us from the school all the way there.

As we reached the Museum one said: “I am taking my kids here, it’s so easy. Just one bus and you’re there!”  It’s all about helping people take that little step outside their comfort zone. Here was a lady who had not even entered the Museum yet, but had felt empowered by being able to direct us and had crossed an internal boundary doing so.

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We checked out the Egyptian section, Greek artefacts, South East Asia, Africa, and the Islamic world. Throughout the day we were constantly using our English vocabulary, unless some descriptions were too difficult and then the translators from Renaisi would step in and explain more complicated aspects of world history. After a long informative day I turned to one of the learners and asked what she had liked the best.  She told me that her favourite part was seeing the mummies and that she hadn’t known that they existed.

We do field trips with children all the time in school to expand their learning and to make it interactive. Why don’t we do the same with adult learners? The people I have come across have specifically enjoyed the informal nature of Talking Together which makes learning fun and less intimidating. 

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Our learners have hopes and ambitions and want to be a part of British society. They want to learn English to speak to their child’s teacher, to go to the doctor alone, to be able to get a job, to have the confidence and ability to ask for directions or travel on their own.  I have never come across people that are so dedicated to their studies and it has been a pleasure to be a part of their journey to learn the language and integrate better into their communities. 

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