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Encouraging diversity in volunteering

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How the Volunteer Centre Dorset started a community credit scheme.


The Volunteer Centre Dorset develops and promotes volunteering to all within Dorset. We are a broker for all organisations within Dorset as well as running the following projects.

  • The Volunteer Centre Help Scheme
  • Guys Marsh Prison Project
  • Company at Christmas
  • Care and Share Community Allotment
  • Community Credit Scheme
  • Prison Volunteering Project
  • Coordinate VCS Networks

In 2012 we realised that more people with additional needs were seeking volunteering and we didn’t have the resources or capacity to support these individuals. The Community Credit Scheme was set up in April 2013 through the Health and Social Voluntary Fund and Dorset county council.

How we set up the Community Credit Scheme:

  1. A credit note was designed, we consulted with groups of people with learning difficulties (LDs) and they decided which design to go with. The front of the note features West Bay and the back features Portland with a map of the Jurassic coast. 
  2. Placements were set up with not-for-profit organisations and when they signed up to the scheme they could collect the credit notes from Wyvern Savings (First Dorset Credit Union) and pass them on to their volunteers (those that had been referred).
  3. Exchange venues were put in place for the credit to be exchanged, at places like leisure centers, art centers, sea life centres, or cafés.
  4. Volunteer mentors/befrienders and ambassadors were recruited, checked, trained, matched and placed.
  5. Referrals for people with LDs were made through social services/providers of care and self-referrals.

The Scheme works like this:

  1. Give one hour of your time
  2. Receive one Community Credit
  3. Exchange your credit for taster sessions at your local gym, or meet for a cup of tea with other CCS members, for example.

Once people start exchanging their credits at local businesses, the exchange venue then returns the credit to Wyvern Savings. 

The issues we faced

In the beginning we thought that the main barriers would be seeking enough exchange venues for our four areas, but in fact this turned out to be the easiest part of the project. Local businesses were really keen to help. The most challenging part we faced were actual barriers put up within local organisations. These organisations were those already raising funds for people who required help and support but were the most difficult to get on board. Although discrimination should not be occurring it was all too evident with some saying ‘we don’t have that kind of person here’. The barriers we faced were:

  • advertising for volunteers was long and wordy, not LD-friendly
  • long application forms
  • difficult training processes that were hard to understand
  • a lack of understanding particularly with regard to autism/Asperger’s
  • use of inappropriate language such as ‘mentally handicapped’!

A number of months into the project we realised that people were not exchanging their credits because Wyvern Savings were running out of them. Some people were holding onto their credits because they liked collecting them and some organisations just forgot to send them back.

The actions we took

We  overcame the barriers by:

  • building up better relationships with managers
  • offering free training in basic learning disability awareness
  • uploading a good practice manual for those working with people who have special needs onto our website
  • offering training through the Dorset Volunteer Management Network on how to write a job description, poster
  • holding events and inviting people with LDs
  • showcasing success stories in our magazine and through videos.

This is an ongoing difficulty which we are trying to change by taking small steps. We are still working with charities to make their processes much simpler and help them recognise the positives in hiring people with additional needs.

We held an event to ask our volunteers what they found difficult and found out that some of them, particularly those with autism, had no one to exchange their credits with. We then set up a befriender service to help support those individuals. We set up ambassadors in each area who go around collecting the credit notes.

Positive outcomes

This project has grown from strength to strength.

  • We were asked by a volunteer centre in Epsom to give a presentation at their open day as they were hoping to do something similar.
  • Dorset county council have showcased our project in Exeter as an example of good practice.
  • We have now been asked by two organisations about how they could start a similar project in Somerset.
  • Other organisations have made many enquiries about the scheme and asked us how they could set this up.
  • Our volunteers’ confidence has risen and had a huge impact on their lives.
  • With the regular groups, outings and meetings we hold, everyone is kept involved and feels part of the scheme.
  • The community has taken ownership and friendships have blossomed.
  • We are working in partnership with local businesses and organisations.
  • People have told us they have learnt so many new skills and that their wellbeing has improved - this is evidenced through audit forms in the beginning and continued six-monthly reviews.
  • We encouraged a young man with high anxieties who never left the house and was very overweight to join our community allotment once a week. We recruited a retired volunteer to drive him into his placement.  He has now lost four stone in weight, has another volunteering role, met new friends and is learning to drive whilst applying for jobs. He is now a mentor himself, helping support people with LDs.

Stories from volunteers, organisations and local businesses

‘On behalf of Swanage Town Council, we are delighted to be supporting the Dorset Community Credit Scheme for 2017. The project recognises the value of the volunteers and volunteer mentors, celebrating their time given to support others. Swanage is a town built around community spirit and we recognise the importance of empowering individuals to share their skills to improve health and wellbeing. We look forward to welcoming your members to Swanage in the near future!’
Sarah Lovett, Visitor Services Assistant Manager at Swanage Town Council
‘This scheme is the best project I have ever seen started in the voluntary sector. As a project officer I really struggle to get the budget to get enough support workers to help young people with learning disabilities access the voluntary activities fully. This scheme provide skilled screened support volunteers already with DBS check done, matched to the needs of the person. It allows one-on one-work so the skills of the young people I volunteer with can be fully deployed and their contributions shine. This makes the quality of the volunteer experience excellent and we have life changing personal progress because of it. Most crucially of all this many more organisations can now offer volunteer roles to people with learning disabilities as they can come with a support worker attached whereas before they did not have the capacity. It is a complete game changer.’
Lorna Johnson, Project Officer, HLF Walking in their Shoes Project at Dorset Youth Association

Negative outcomes

As this was a pilot project, initially we didn’t think there were any negative outcomes as nothing had been done like this before so we were learning as we went along.

In hindsight we would have set up enough placements in the beginning before taking referrals. Referrals were coming in very quickly and some people were left waiting for a certain length of time before a placement was sourced.

We also could have set up monitoring of the notes from the very beginning. As time went on, Wyvern Savings, who manage the credit notes, ran out of them. Although not very expensive, there was still a cost to printing further notes. This is a still ongoing issue with some people who have autism hanging onto the notes and not wanting to give them up. We are encouraging these individuals to exchange them with a befriender but some still hold onto them.

Lessons learnt

We still have some people who live very rurally and which are more difficult to reach than others.

The key things learnt on setting up this project were to:

  • approach businesses first and seek placements before taking on referrals 
  • break areas down into smaller bite size areas so that it is does not become too overwhelming 
  • set up focus groups involving the community movers and shakers 
  • have ID cards and a closer liaison with providers of care.

Not everyone works at the same pace as everyone else and having patience, understanding and a positive outlook supporting people is essential in this project.


Page last edited May 24, 2017

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