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Setting up an offenders' volunteer programme

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Voluntary Action Leeds share their experience of launching the Giving Time project, a volunteer programme specifically for prisoners released on temporary license (ROTL) and ex-offenders.


Sometimes working in a volunteer centre can be frustrating because we know that there are times we could do better and give more. 

It was on one of those occasions that the idea of the Giving Time project was born, and it all started with a true story that seemed to be a bad joke: "A man walks into a volunteer centre and says, 'I was a getaway driver for an armed robbery, got any driving opportunities?'"

Yes, we had opportunities where he could use his driving skills, but we had to also help him deal with some red lights along the way in terms of prejudice and his own self confidence. 

He was also one of the growing numbers of people we were seeing at the centre managing criminal histories and we knew that there must be a better way to help them.

Out of this grew the simple idea of placing a volunteer centre within HMP Leeds; one that would have a standalone database full of opportunities available and accessible to prisoners released ROTL and ex-offenders. 

We knew that if we could help prisoners before being released, so that they had a volunteering opportunity set up for them already, we could help them back into the community, raise their self-worth and chances of employment, and perhaps reduce reoffending.

The issues we faced

The idea was simple enough but I had no knowledge or experience of the Prison Service and how it operated or who to contact. 

What I did have were my voluntary sector contacts: people who worked within organisations already linked to the Prison Service. So I approached them and asked for an introduction.

One thing I have learnt about working in the voluntary sector is that if you have an idea that benefits communities, people will go out of their way to help you get it off the ground. 

The thing we had in our favour starting out was that, at the time, Leeds was going to be one of the new pilot prisons for payment by results, so HMP Leeds was keen to discuss any new and innovative ideas that would help reduce reoffending.

However, we faced two issues: there was no funding available from the prisons for this, and HMP Leeds, at the time, was going through a massive restructure and reduction of staffing.

The actions we took

Because it was something new and at the time unfunded, we started with a lot of meetings to formulate a vision of a project that would work.

What was useful is that the prison was forward thinking and involved prisoners from the start. These prisoners really helped us understand what would be useful to those about to be released and what wouldn’t work.

We realised very early on that, for many, what was needed was an introduction to volunteering and what it wasn’t – not necessarily what it was. 

We needed people from within the prison: peers who understood the benefits of volunteering and who could ‘sell’ the idea of giving time without a financial reward.

The prison already had these and they were keen to help us develop the idea. We then needed a way to deliver it and while we were thinking of how the NESTA innovation fund opened for applicants.

Positive outcomes

The timing of the NESTA fund couldn’t have been better for us. Here was a fund looking specifically at innovative ideas coming out of accredited volunteer centres and the prison project fit that remit. 

We applied with a clear idea of what we were looking to address and, at the time, a clear idea of how we were going to deliver this project.

This, alongside the timing of the payment by results, meant that we were both relevant and cost effective.

We had a simple idea that had been shown to work at a generic level through volunteer centres and, using that expertise and knowledge, refined it to deliver the support to a specific group (or as our contact in the prison kept calling them, a captive audience).

Other outcomes:

  • 316 people with criminal convictions have joined our project and received support to volunteer
  • 0 per cent have reoffended (close links with probation and police databases used to track this as well as self-reporting)
  • £11,376,000 is the estimated saving for the National Offender Management Service, based on average costs of a serving prisoner per year
  • For every £1 invested in Giving Time, the criminal justice system saves £114
  • 89 voluntary and statutory sector organisations have joined the Giving Time Network, receiving support, advice and training on volunteer management skills for working with ex-offenders, and actively offering roles
  • 11 volunteer centres across the UK have received bespoke consultancy days to support them in setting up similar projects in their areas. These Include Scotland, Wales and several in London
  • 55 per cent of Giving Time volunteers are male, compared to the national average volunteering statistic of 37 per cent
  • 25 per cent of Giving Time volunteers are between the ages of 10 and 17
  • Four Yorkshire prisons have worked in partnership with us to support the delivery of internal volunteer centres in custody, with a fifth prison signed up to join Giving Time in 2017.
  • Organisations we support have reported feeling more able to include ex-offenders in their work
  • Organisations highlight our project as a great way to access diverse volunteers, especially volunteers who are male, young or from diverse cultural backgrounds, as our project supports many black and minority ethnic (BME) volunteers, including gypsy and traveller volunteers
  • Our youth programme has enabled young people who are marginalised to engage in social action, build confidence and contribute to Leeds City Council's youth democratic process, and campaigns such as Child Friendly Leeds
  • Around a third of our volunteers move into employment or education after six months' of volunteering.

Of volunteers who responded to our surveys:

  • 90 per cent feel more socially included since volunteering
  • 100 per cent report greater wellbeing
  • 100 per cent report that they have improved their skills.

Negative outcomes

The obstacles that we faced were all out of our control and came from external factors: ROTL was reduced significantly in all prisons across the country due to a couple of incidents.

HMP Leeds' major restructure meant that staffing was reduced significantly and our lead contact was no longer there.

One of the prisoners who was helping us within the prison was moved overnight to another facility.

Lessons learnt

Like many projects, this one seemed simple enough but external factors made it a complex and at times frustrating project to deliver. 

NESTA was an ideal funder; they had actually said that one of the things they liked about the project was its chance of failure. This meant that we were less worried about trying and changing delivery ideas while we settled on the right ones and they were with us each step of the way. 

We recruited a staff member to lead on the project who had prior knowledge of prisons and a passion for volunteering and its potential impact.

Patience and persistence have been our greatest allies and once we embedded the project in one prison it became easier to replicate in others.

Further information

Find out more about Voluntary Action Leeds and the Giving Time project.


Page last edited Nov 11, 2015

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