Woman pensive holding penWhere do you look?

Whether you are looking to occupy a few flexible hours a week, or offering more of a commitment you can discover the opportunities in your area on the volunteering site DO-IT where there are a huge range of inspiring ideas. You might want to join forces with friends and co-ordinate a group effort. Just enter your town or postcode and the type of volunteering you are interested in or the charity you want to support.

Visit your local volunteer centre, which co-ordinates and advertises volunteering opportunities in your area. You can find your nearest volunteer centre on the DO-IT site.

If community projects interest you contact your local council to find out what is happening in your area. Your local library will also have information about local groups, charities and events.

Woman in office smilingWhat can you gain?

As a volunteer you will be giving your time to help charities and community groups improve people’s lives. Volunteering can also provide you with many benefits including:

  • the chance to have fun doing something you’ve never tried before
  • increased confidence
  • a sense of satisfaction and achievement
  • the opportunity to make new friends and contacts with diverse backgrounds and experiences
  • increased job and career prospects and new skills – over 70 per cent of employers would hire a candidate with volunteering experience over someone who has never volunteered

Go to Volunteering England for a huge range of suggestions.

Such roles can involve training, and at the same time offer a way of making a valuable and worthwhile contribution to your local community.

Public service volunteering

If you want to gain new skills and experience that will stand you in good stead for getting a job, then you might want to consider this area of volunteering. For example becoming a

Citizens Advice Bureau Advisor,
School Governor,
Member of the prison Independent Monitoring Board
Community Service Volunteer
Parish Councillor.                                                Click on each for a brief outline of what these involve.

Become a Magistrate

Being a magistrate is challenging but very rewarding, and the application process for becoming a magistrate is straightforward.

If you think you might like to become one then go and sit in on a few sessions in a magistrate’s court, to give you an idea of what it will be like. You need lots of common sense and a good memory. Magistrates (or Justices of the Peace) are volunteers, aged 18-70 in They come from all backgrounds and walks of life. You will not be paid but can claim expenses, and you must dedicate 26 half days each year to sit in your allocated court. You will also have to attend training days. Applications are welcome from all sections of the community, and you don’t need any qualifications – full training is provided. The selection process takes 6-12 months.

Magistrates sit on a bench of three – an experienced ‘chairman’ and two other magistrates. Responsibilities include (in less serious criminal cases and civil matters) deciding if the defendant is guilty or not and passing the appropriate sentence, deciding on applications for bail, and committing more serious criminal cases to the Crown Court.

If you are interested, you need to fill in the form available on the website and obtain character references. Once the application is submitted it is reviewed by the local bench to which you have applied. If you make the first cut, they then carry out your first interview to decide if you have the requisite skills and character. The interview panel is made up of three people, at least one of whom is a lay person, not a sitting magistrate. If you pass this first interview, you will be asked back for a second and longer interview. Here you will be given sample cases to analyze, and you will be asked to defend your decision before the interview panel (usually a different panel from the original, but also consisting of three people, including one lay member).

If you pass both these interviews and there is a vacancy on the bench, you will be appointed to sit as a magistrate. Once you have been appointed, you will be sworn in, usually at Crown Court, by a judge.

Shortly after, you will have an intensive three day training session, which covers all areas of the magistracy, from sitting in court to sentencing. You will be assigned a mentor, who is a more experienced member of the bench, to whom you can go during your first year for any guidance or support you need. You will do three days of observation in court, both your home court and other courts within your area, to see how different courts are conducted. Once you have done all this you are ready for your first sitting! This is done with your mentor, with whom you will sit six times throughout your first year. From your first sitting you are regarded as a fully fledged member of the bench, whose opinions and ideas hold equal weight with the other two magistrates who make up the bench and with whom you sit.

Magistrates are expected to sit for 26 half days per year. This amounts to a requirement to sit approximately one day a month. In practice, magistrates sit around 45 half days per year, or closer to two or three days per month. As a sitting magistrate you will hear cases where the facts are disputed (a trial) or where the defendant pleads guilty at the first opportunity, in which case you will be required to sentence appropriately. Sentences can be as great as six months in jail or £5000 or as simple as a small fine or conditional discharge. Each day in court is different, but you are always guided by a legal advisor on points of law. You may hear cases of traffic violations, assault, fraud, domestic violence, theft, beating, or anything in between. Experience is the best way to get a clear idea of appropriate sentences, so sitting as a bench of three is a huge advantage. There is also ongoing training. During the first year you might visit a prison or young offender institution, as well as spend a day observing the work of the probation service. In addition there is follow up training and an ongoing appraisal scheme. After a suitable period, you can apply to hear family or youth matters, or to become a chair of a bench.

With 30,000 sitting lay magistrates, all volunteering their time, the magistracy is a hugely important part of the judicial system. It is also very rewarding and interesting work, intellectually stimulating and an opportunity to work with all walks of life.


Become a Citizens Advice Bureau Advisor

There is a Citizens Advice Bureau office in most towns. It offers a free drop in service manned by volunteer advisors to help people resolve a wide range of problems –principally housing, debt, employment, and benefit issues. The CAB provides free, independent and confidential advice.

You do not need any qualifications, but you should be a good listener, be able to elicit relevant information from a client, and apply a common sense approach to problem solving. As an advisor you would interview clients, help them negotiate with people such as creditors or service providers, draft letters for them and make telephone calls on their behalf. The work is interesting, wide ranging and satisfying – you might help an illiterate person fill in a form or help someone pursue a claim against a supplier of faulty goods. You might work with a client to sort out his debts and reach an agreement with his creditors, or support someone claiming unfair dismissal or trying to resolve a dispute with a landlord.

The initial training is a mix of self study packs which you work on one day a week in the bureau, and some full day training courses on interview techniques. You will also sit in on actual client interviews as an observer. It takes around 6 months to become an advisor. Then you work on simple cases to start with to build confidence, but you always have the back up of an experienced supervisor to help and guide you.

Regular on going training is provided in the form of further study packs and subject specific day courses for the first year, but most of the training is from practical experience After that there are refresher courses that you can chose to attend, or you might develop a particular interest in one area of advice, and decide to specialise. You don’t actually have to learn all the rules, regulations and legal framework as they are set out on a very comprehensive data base which you use as your source for advice. Generally a CAB office will want you to do about 46 days a year, so it is a commitment of one day a week. Travel expenses are paid.


Become a Samaritan

‘Want to change someone’s life – how about your own?’ This was the headline question used in a recent volunteer recruitment campaign for Samaritans and it highlights quite neatly the fact that when we help others, most often we help ourselves. If you’re wondering what your role in life will be now that the children have moved out, volunteering with Samaritans will give you ample opportunity to use all those life skills you’ve acquired along the way. Your maturity and experience really will be valued.

Samaritans was founded over 50 years ago and now has over 200 branches and 18,000 volunteers in the UK and Ireland. There are also affiliated groups around the world further information for which can be found at www.befrienders.org. The service offers a 24 hour, 365 days of the year helpline service to anyone who is going through a crisis.

You can become a listening volunteer and respond, by phone, email, text and face-to-face to some of the many thousands of people who contact the service annually because they are seeking a safe, confidential and non-judgemental place to talk about why they are distressed. Some callers may be suicidal but many others simply need a place to offload and someone to share whatever they are going through. You won’t be required to give advice – Samaritans believe that given the opportunity to talk through their problems, callers can usually discover for themselves what is the right course of action – but you will be asked to open your mind and heart to the suffering of those around you. In the process you may well find many reasons to give thanks for what you have and to gain a better understanding of yourself and your loved ones.

There also many other opportunities to support the valuable work of Samaritans including helping with administration, fund raising, generating local publicity and talking to local groups, including schools.

There is an excellent training scheme and you will be fully supported every step of the way through this by your colleagues. There is no upper age limit and expenses are reimbursed.

For further information about how you can volunteer go to The Samaritans or phone the Volunteer Recruitment Line on (for UK) 0870 562 7282.


Become a School Governor

Enthusiasm, commitment and an interest in education are the most important qualities to become a school governor.

You don’t need to have a child at the school. Many schools particularly welcome new governors who have transferable skills developed at work. You will need to dedicate about 8 hours a month. You should have a desire to contribute to the community and of course to the school. In the state sector schools are keen to have local residents, as they will most probably better represent the community.

The governors of a school are responsible for ensuring that it is run to promote pupil achievement. Its duties include setting strategic direction and objectives, approving and monitoring the school budget, and appointing and supporting the head teacher.

You would be part of a main committee of about 12 people which will probably meet 3 times a year, then there are subcommittees such as staff, curriculum, premises, or finance which meet 3 to 6 times each year.

Being a school governor requires the ability to ask searching questions to get to the root cause of an issue. Your role is to challenge whilst being supportive – to be a critical friend to the school and its head. You will be making important decisions, but with professional back up. It isn’t your role to comment on the quality of education offered, but rather to investigate in a constructive manner – for example to identify why reading scores are low, why so many leave before the 6th form, why there are changing trends in exam results and so on. Your committee will then present an over view of the issue, and offer strategic directional advice which the head then implements.

You might be asked to focus on vulnerable groups, like those with special educational needs, to identify barriers to learning, or the impact of certain school policies on the children. And of course there is also the need to market the school and manage parental expectations.

How much time is involved? Other than the committee meetings, you will need to get to know the school by visiting it, sitting in on a few classes, maybe helping someone to read etc. so you should expect to allocate ½ day per week

To offer your services you simple apply to your Local Education Authority, or phone the school to find out whom to contact. Obviously you then need to research the school and education issues generally in your area.

What will you get out of it? Well, it’s an interesting and sometimes challenging role. It’s also a very good life skills experience – you will gain experience in managing both meetings and people with differing agendas, persuasive skills, information & data analysis skills, implimentation and monitoring skills. All really useful if you want to use it as a stepping stone to other roles.


Join the Independent Monitoring Board of a prison

You may not realize, but inside every prison there is an Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) – or what you might remember used to be called the Board of Visitors. IMB members are independent and unpaid and are not to be confused with Official Prison Visitors, who as their name implies visit prisoners who otherwise may have no contact with family or friends.

IMB members monitor the day-to-day life in their local prison and ensure that proper standards of care and decency are maintained. As a member you would have unrestricted access to your allocated local prison or immigration detention centre at any time. You could talk to any prisoner or detainee you wish to, if necessary out of sight and hearing of prison officers.

Prisons life is a mystery to most people, but being on an IMB gives you a chance to take a close up look at life ‘inside’ and make a real difference to the lives of some pretty damaged people. Your visits to the prison will involve listening to the issues that concern the detainees and as every person is different, each with their own problems or complaints, the work is never boring.

In a typical month you would attend your allocated prison’s Board Meeting, which is held once a month and lasts around two and a half to three hours. You would also carry out your allocated ‘rota visit’ every eight to ten weeks, which involves visiting all the different areas of the prison, noting any areas of concern and listening to any requests or complaints made by prisoners. Members of the Board take it in turns to carry out rota visits, which usually take four or five hours. You will be given induction training and will have the opportunities to go on other training sessions with prison officers. It probably averages out at 2 days a month.

There are currently over 1,850 IMB members attached to prisons, immigration removal centres and short-term holding facilities throughout England and Wales, and vacancies arise on a regular basis.

The IMB are not looking for any special qualifications, but you would be expected to demonstrate you have the personal qualities, enthusiasm, commitment and time to make a full contribution to the work of a Board.

To find out more visit the IMB’s web site www.imb.gov.uk which is a useful source of information and research if you want to apply for the role.


Become a Community Service Volunteer

The government’s promotion of its “Big Society” strategy has led to many councils encouraging volunteers to contribute to and enrich public services. The idea is simple, and you really can make a difference. Trained and screened volunteers are brought into health, social services and education sectors, and the results have been astonishing. In Bromley for example, one of the south London boroughs, volunteers now work with families who have children on the ‘At Risk” register, ensuring children go to school each day, helping the parents talk to social workers in a calmer and more constructive manner, and offering other support as required. That council alone has saved over £1m a year. The volume of problems has decreased to such an extent that it no longer needs to organize so many case conferences for the children.

Community Service Volunteers (CSV) is a volunteering charity that is focusing a lot of its efforts on youth crime, providing mentors to young people. The results have been surprisingly successful in areas where CVS operates, with about 50% diverted from crime, and the gravity of youth crimes generally reduced.

Becoming a “Grandmentor” is another option, again through the CVS. The aim is to get teenagers into a long term job, or training leading to one. You might give help to fill in application forms and attend interviews and to boost confidence. You may need to provide motivation to attend a course, encouragement not to drop out of the course and give practical advice with budgeting. You would see your mentor for a session each week, with a back up team to support you, and you would receive training. The impact on these youngsters lives can be huge.

For the old and frail at home, CVS organises small teams of neighbourhood volunteers. You could also be a “dinner partner” in hospital, to help and encourage those who are frail to eat. Results show that where this system operates those patients are discharged one day earlier on average. Or you could provide transport to appointments at doctors surgeries and hospitals.


Become a Parish Councillor

Being a parish councillor allows you to act positively on behalf of your community, and gives a very interesting all round knowledge of the area in which you live, how your parish money is budgeted and spent, traffic issues, proposed planning applications etc. The main eligibility criteria are that you live within the parish you are representing or an adjacent parish, and that you are available to attend the meetings.

There are about 8,500 Parish Councils in England, although London and the other metropolitan areas don’t have them. The Parish Council is a civil body and is completely separate from any church or religious body. New councillors are either elected at election time, or when there is no competition for new positions they are co-opted on. Vacancies may appear in the local paper or parish magazine, or you may find out by word of mouth. If you are interested just let the chairman or one of the councillors know.

The Council is a tier of local government. Some councillors represent a political party and others are independent. The task of the parish councillor is to bring local issues to the attention of the Council and to help to make decisions on behalf of the local community.

No qualifications are necessary to become a councillor. Initial and ongoing training is provided by the District and County Council and paid for through parish funds.

There are an average of six main meetings a year, plus committee and sub-committee meetings on particular areas, for example planning applications or parish finance. Most meetings generally take place in the evening and last about two to three hours, and will be held in parish rooms. They are open to the public who will have the right to speak.

The position is unpaid although limited expenses may be available. There is a Clerk who is employed by the Parish Council and who is remunerated in accordance with government pay guidelines. The Clerk is responsible for minute taking and correspondence but is not a sitting member of the Council.