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

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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Getting down and dirty with our employee volunteers

I’m always banging on about the importance of CEOs making a regular appearance at the coalface – seeing their work in action and drawing down from that when they go back to their day job. Such was my unexpected experience recently.

Our Employee Volunteering Co-ordinator was ill and without thinking through the fact that we had an event the next day, the only possible thing to do was send her home to bed. It transpired my diary was the most flexible the next day as I’d blanked it out to write board papers so I ‘volunteered’ to run the day. 

Hence at 5.45am when the alarm went off I donned my hugely unflattering orange TimeBank T-shirt, picked up the bag of kit packed for me by a somewhat wary Co-ordinator (first aid kit, cups, pens, forms, maps, contact details, list of supplies to purchase, water, biscuits, insect repellent etc etc) (thought bubble - *I’m only going to Kingston*………….)

I arrived at Canbury Gardens just on time to meet our volunteers from BMT Group, an organisation which regularly undertakes volunteering opportunities so they were prepared and full of anticipation. Andy from our partner organisation Quadron joined us and gave a briefing on the day – what to expect, what we were doing, why and how, along with health and safety – and how best to use the tools we had.

He then took us to the garden where we would be working. The team from BMT had been lulled into a false sense of security as the park on the river where we met was beautifully kept, and I think they wondered why they were there. But Andy led us to Canbury Community Garden, formerly known as the gardener’s yard.

It was essentially an overgrown plot at the heart of the park where pretty much everything that could have been dumped had been over the years since the hut became dangerous and then left to grow over. Recently discovered and procured from the Council for the community by Marilyn Mason, the space needed clearing before any plans could be made for its use within the community.

The team set about their task straight away and I popped to the supermarket for supplies, water, biscuits, fruit, chocolate etc. to keep everyone going and make sure they stopped for a well-earned break.  

It’s incredible what eight people can achieve in a day - nine if you include my inadequate contribution! The thing is, you can’t just sit around taking pictures and tweeting or hovering next to the First Aid kit in case someone hurts themselves - you simply have to take part and start hacking away at brambles! A huge amount was chopped, cleared, swept and ‘discovered’ – all carefully watched by a series of birds, mostly robins, watching out for worms and bugs to be revealed for lunch! When Marilyn returned later that afternoon she just couldn’t believe what had been unearthed nor the size of the space that had now been created. I’m sure that with only one or two more days like this the community will take over planting and cultivating their very own secret space.

We finished off around 4pm just before the rain started, with a huge sense of achievement, a team enthused by what they had accomplished, and a day enjoyed away from the office with colleagues they don’t always work with. Off I trundled back home – frankly shattered and with new respect for the TimeBank team who run these days throughout the year across London.  

 If you’d like to learn more about Canbury Gardens take a look here: And if you’d like your company to volunteer and make a difference to your community contact Calley on 020 3111 0701 and take a look here.

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A brilliant team-building event

Almost 50 volunteers from The Copyright Licensing Agency, Publishers Licensing Society and Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society arrived at Nunhead Cemetery for an environmental volunteering day. We couldn’t have hoped for better weather - the sun was shining, not a rain cloud in sight!

After being introduced to me and representatives from Quadron Services, a specialist green space management company, Southwark Council and Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, the volunteers were divided into teams.  One set to work in the Lewisham View area of the cemetery. It was so overgrown with brambles, you could no longer read the gravestones. By the end of the day, the entire area was clear and a huge pile of cuttings was ready for the bonfire.  

Another team laid 100 metres of anti-slip matting on a footpath to make it safer for visitors and prevent erosion.  Other volunteers cut down thin trees to create a hedge to preserve the wetlands meadow. By the end of the day, the volunteers had created an impressive 50 metres of hedging.

After a well-deserved lunch, Jeff from Friends of Nunhead Cemetery told us all about the history of the cemetery. This helped the volunteers to see the significance of their work in maintaining a historic and important London landmark.

The teams who manage the cemetery were hugely impressed by the amount of work the volunteers accomplished. With limited resources and time, this kind of work would take much longer without the support of volunteer groups. The volunteers worked incredibly hard; all felt a sense of ownership over their team’s area and were eager to ensure that the work was completed by the end of the day. I see this motivation and hard work at every employee volunteering event we run, and I’m continually impressed by how much can be achieved in just a few hours.

Nicola Girling from The Copyright Licensing Agency said: “We all thoroughly enjoyed our time at Nunhead Cemetery - it was a brilliant team-building event, with a great sense of achievement at the end of it.”

Many of the volunteers said they had never volunteered before, and many others had never done this kind of environmental work. I heard some say with surprise that the day had been much more enjoyable than they’d expected. As well as being beneficial to the local community and natural environment, volunteering really benefits the volunteers themselves. These activities help to develop team-building, communication and problem solving skills, not to mention the practical skills gained!

If you’d like to get together with your workmates for a day of environmental volunteering, do get in touch at or give me a call on 0203 111 0700.

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Is a trustee a proper volunteer?

If you work in volunteering it is, to some degree, expected that you do some volunteering yourself.  If you don’t it’s kind of like being a barista but never drinking coffee.  

Anyway, and without wanting to perpetuate the myth that people simply don’t have the time to be volunteers these days, I simply don’t have the time to be a volunteer.  Or, to be more accurate, I don’t have the time to be what I’ve frustratingly heard called a “proper volunteer”, that person who gives hours a week, week in week out, to their chosen cause. 

But, BUT! in my defence, and sticking with the labels, I am an episodic volunteer (as many of us increasingly are) as I have volunteered for organisations in the past, helped out at various somethings-or-others where needed and volunteered at a variety of events.

Nevertheless, I decided that I wanted to do a bit more and so looked into how I could have a more regular volunteering experience that I could commit to with the confidence that I would have the time to fulfil my duties.

I had wanted to be involved with a charity for some time and took care to find one where my voice would be heard, where I could contribute something useful and where I knew my values were reflected.  TimeBank is that charity.

I’ve been a Trustee for about a year now and genuinely love the experience.  The Board is a fascinating mix of Trustees from various backgrounds and our work in helping to steer TimeBank and support our amazing CEO is teaching me new perspectives and proving useful in my day job, previously as the volunteering lead for a government agency and currently as Head of Volunteering for a major charity.

This Volunteers' Week I would urge anyone who thinks they don’t have time to be a volunteer to think again.  Volunteering doesn’t have to be something you do every day, week or even month.  Also, volunteering isn’t a purely altruistic act – I can assure you that you will get something out of it too.  Getting involved with a cause or organisation that you care about is incredibly rewarding – not just for the people you are supporting but for yourself.  Personally, I have gained knowledge, increased my confidence and honed skills.  Deciding to support a cause for whatever reason that is – to meet people, gain experiences, learn skills, give something back – is the first step, then it’s about making sure that the time you give fits in with your life.  As modern life becomes busier and more chaotic, it might seem like people have less time to “give” but episodic volunteering needs to be embraced.  Volunteers' Week is a great time for organisations that use volunteers to reflect on whether they welcome and support episodic volunteers like me. 

So to answer my own question, “Is a Trustee a proper volunteer?”- very much so!

Volunteers’ Week is an annual celebration of the fantastic contribution millions of volunteers make across the UK – and it’s taking place from 1-12 June 2016.

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