Buddy, can you spare some time?

Give time, not money. Comic Relief's founder wants us all to donate a few hours of our week to others. By Yvonne Roberts

TIME, IN the western world, is fast assuming the value of gold dust. Spending time on yourself; finding time for others. Squeezed, rationed, stretched - can we be persuaded to give just a little of it away? More precisely, might we be seduced into volunteering 120 minutes of the average working week? Donate it on the chance that it might restore a rotting sense of community; fill a spiritual void; generate some fun and help ourselves by helping others?

The virtue of doing things together doesn't sound like the most alluring activity on offer, but Jane Tewson is accustomed to transforming the rusty into the feisty. In the early Eighties, when charity was viewed by many as a genteel activity for retired middle-class housewives, Tewson decided a seismic change was in order.

She was 26, with little in the way of contacts - and absolutely nothing in the way of cash. In 1984, she persuaded PR man Sir Tim Bell (and later Richard Branson) to give her pounds 12,000 a year. She used it to establish Charity Projects, co-founding Comic Relief and launching Red Nose. Now, three out of four of us become involved in Red Nose madness. Over pounds 112m has been raised.

"Jane opened up fundraising to a whole new audience," says Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. "She altered our view of charities," agrees MT Rainey, co-founder of the successful advertising agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe and a Charity Projects trustee. "Now with Pilotlight, she's breaking new ground again."

Eighteen months ago Tewson, now 40, left Comic Relief and established a new charity, Pilotlight. Its aim is not to raise money but to "ignite social change by opening up new thinking, new channels of communication and new resources."

Pilotlight already has a number of schemes under way including land rights in Africa and work with the young disadvantaged. What Tewson also intends to do is to shake up the world of volunteering. "We're talking about a very big idea," she explains. "A social revolution."

For months now, she and her staff have been in consultation with the voluntary sector and influential networks acquired during the Red Nose era. Presentations have also been made to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. The aim is to launch late in the autumn. Tewson assesses that it may be several years before the results become unmissable.

The name of the new project is ONE2O. That and its slogan, "Take Time, Give Yourself" have been created by MT Rainey and a group of trustees. The message, she explains, is intended to be classless, not overtly cool and far removed from worthy. "We want to give the idea such a buzz that those who don't participate think they're missing out," she explains.

"It's early days for ONE20 yet, but time having value has a particular resonance," says Alan Yentob, director of BBC television, originally recruited to Charity Projects by Tewson in 1984 and a supporter ever since. "As is the idea that you, as an individual, can make a difference. What is also crucial is that Jane is inspired and inspiring."

The battered municipal grandeur of Canning Town Hall in Newham, the most deprived borough in the country, initially appears an unlikely site to examine the radical impact of volunteering and its potential for regenerating the community. But for five years, this has been the home of Community Links, a network of projects run by local people for local people, one in four of whom lives on benefits. From this centre, and 60 satellite sites, such as schools, 400 volunteers and a paid staff of 60 offer help to several hundred adults and 2,000 children and young people every week. Community Links has been one of the schemes Jane Tewson says has moulded her thinking on the importance of giving time. David Robinson, its director, born and bred in the neighbourhood, explains the philosophy that drives it. "Individually, our groups offer limited support; together, they build a ladder out of poverty. After practical help comes a chance for training to assist others, then, perhaps, the opportunity of a paid job. Ideas come from the ground up. Our view is that everyone has something to offer."

Walk through the town hall and the scale of activity is outstanding. Among those offered support are children at risk; teenage parents; truants; Asian women experiencing domestic violence, and youngsters with next to nothing.

"Most boys around here, by 12 or 13, see themselves as hard little geezers," says Jan, a youth worker. "But as soon as we take them camping, they're playing cowboys and Indians just like other kids."

Advice is also given on housing, debt management and benefits. Self-sufficiency is encouraged. Eighty per cent of the help is given by those who have been helped.

Community Links (whose motto is "Believing we can, we do") constantly monitors its results. One example: nationally, four of our five young offenders given a custodial sentence reoffend within a year. At Community Links, the figure is one in five.

The project is, of course, no overnight sensation; big ideas often require long-term germination. David Robinson, 42, established Community Links in a lock-up shop in East Ham in 1977, with no money and the help of friends. "Why did we start?" he says. "Because we could not bear to see the waste in talent."

Jane Tewson is banking on the fact that the spirit of co-operation that has worked so well for Canning Town may begin to move middle England (and Scotland and Wales).

The hurdles are huge, though. Surveys tell us that young people in particular loathe the term "volunteer". While half the adults in the country give their time to voluntary work, on average, for four hours a week, the commitment of the young has diminished significantly. It has declined from over two to only half-an-hour a week in a handful of years. The young say they are deterred by the inflexibility of the voluntary sector, its image and the complaint (expressed by over 70 per cent of all volunteers) that their time is not best used.

"We need to find a new phrase for `volunteer'," Jane Tewson argues "And a fresh definition of philanthropy - one which makes the exchange in volunteering a matter of mutual benefit, not of doing good to others."

"We need to devise new ways of recruiting volunteers and building confidence," Tewson explains. "So, for instance, the homeless person who can play an instrument, is encouraged to teach it to children in school."

She says there is also the imminence of the millennium with its connotations of a fresh start - and, of course, the continuing if indefinable Diana factor. "She made us remember those on the outside," Tewson comments. "And the importance of making connections."

Paul Jackson, BBC controller of entertainment, a Tewson volunteer since 1984 and a Pilotlight trustee, is excited by what lies ahead. "Like all strong ideas, ONE20 is simple," he says. "It's rare in one's life that something comes along which has the potential to make such a massive impact. Red Nose changed the nature of giving," he adds. "Exponentially, ONE20 could change the fabric of society itself."

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