Photo of James Brewer

Volunteer Story


James Brewer: The journey from volunteer to manager

James started volunteering with us almost 8 years ago and has recently moved on to another role in Suffolk. He tells us about how he progressed at Citizens Advice Ipswich from volunteer administrator to Receptionist to debt advice admin to benefits adviser to debt team manager. Phew!

What made you decide to volunteer with Citizens Advice Ipswich?
I’d not worked for a couple of years since moving up to Suffolk and my confidence was pretty low, so I wanted to volunteer to increase my confidence and get used to being in an office again. As for choosing Citizens Advice Ipswich, I’d been a client a couple of years beforehand and the help I’d received had been life-changing for me, and as cheesy as it sounds, I wanted to give something back.
I remember when you started, a client-facing role was not what you wanted. What was it that you did not like about that idea?
Yes – I really didn’t want a client-facing role! I’d struggled with social anxiety and had a difficult experience previously when I’d found the client-facing work overwhelming, so I think I was still licking my wounds a bit from that. I thought my anxiety would hold me back from any client-facing roles in the future. As it turned out though, that wasn’t to be…!

You did a great job as a receptionist when you first joined. What did you enjoy about that role?
Thanks, I loved it. What I didn’t realise until afterwards was that the receptionist at a Citizens Advice office is often the most underrated person in the organisation. Without them, everything grinds to a halt (and when our wonderful Diane is on holiday, this becomes clear!).

It gave me a great insight into how the organisation works, as you’re dealing with all the various project teams as well as the management and business support, and can see how it all gelled together to best support the clients.

Above all else, I was shocked to find that not only could I handle a client-facing role, I enjoyed it and was good at it – that was a huge confidence boost.

You are a great example of someone moving through the roles and picking up skills and expertise as you go along. Tell us about the various teams you have worked with and the projects that you have been involved with.
After my first couple of months on reception, I began training on Adviceline in the Core team, as well as volunteering with the Money Advice team. The work was so varied, I’d create and update budget plans on the system, obtain credit reports for clients, answer the phone (and eventually understand the enquiries!).

I then got a paid role in the Money Advice team, which evolved into the role of Help to Claim Adviser working on the Universal Credit project. This was incredibly fun to work on, as it was launching a project from scratch. There were 3 of us in the team, and we each spent part of the week down at the Jobcentre helping clients to claim Universal Credit (UC). What initially sounded like a relatively straightforward task soon blossomed into something far more substantial, encompassing ‘better off’ calculations to compare legacy benefit entitlement to UC and helping claimants prove their right to claim benefits.
After about a year of that, thanks to Nicky recommending me, I was seconded to several offices around the country – High Wycombe, Aylesbury and Lincoln – advising the staff in the local offices how they could best organise the Help to Claim service. It was a fantastic opportunity and I loved it, unfortunately a pandemic arrived and this programme came to an abrupt end.

During Covid I worked on some IT and telephony project work and an upgrade of our computer hardware. Alongside this, I worked on quite a major process change – the move from paper-based Debt Packs to debt assessment appointments, which reduced the average waiting time for full money advice appointments from 30 days down to 7.

For the past couple of years I’ve managed the Money Advice team, providing technical supervision to ensure we’re maintaining the high quality standards the team achieves, as well as assisting with casework, Debt Relief Orders, and generally helping to facilitate the excellent work the team does.

What have been the challenges for clients with debt in the time you have been managing the debt advice team?
It’s been scary to see how world events have played out and fed into the situations that clients present with. For example, clients having a negative (deficit) budget – not enough money to cover their essential living expenses – isn’t new, but the size of the deficit has increased drastically. It’s now not uncommon for a client to be £500+ short every month. Another challenge for some clients is the continued push towards ‘digital by default’ – sped up since the pandemic, which is leaving a significant number of people behind; either because they struggle with literacy or digital skills, or because they’re unable to afford IT hardware or internet access.

We are all sorry to see you go, James, but we are so proud of what you have achieved in your time with us. Tell us a bit about your next job.
I’m staying in the charitable sector, moving to Suffolk Community Foundation and taking up the role of Sizewell C Community Fund Grants Officer. I’ll be working closely with community groups, social enterprises and charities in East Suffolk, helping them to develop ideas for funding bids for a share of the £2m pot available each year with the aim to minimise the impact of Sizewell C construction work and improve environmental, social and economic wellbeing in the area.

What are you most proud of having achieved here?
Sticking with it! It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s definitely been rewarding.
If I had to pick one thing, it would be helping the organisation move to home-working pretty much overnight at the start of the pandemic by helping move our IT resources into the cloud. As a result, we didn’t have to close to clients for a single day – our amazing team of volunteers and staff were able to provide much-needed advice and support to thousands of local clients throughout Covid. It was very much a team effort, but I’m proud of my part in making it happen.

With all your experience of different volunteer roles with us, what advice would you give someone considering volunteering with Citizens Advice Ipswich?
Do it! I had no idea where my journey with Citizens Advice would take me when I started, but there’s such a variety of roles to choose from – client-facing or back-office – that there’s something for everyone. The support and training you get from the team here is incredible, you’ll make friendships for life, and you get to see the results of the positive impact your contribution makes on the lives of our clients and our community.