Working as a volunteer

Volunteering is normally associated with charities but other organisations and companies take on volunteers. It's important to understand the legal aspects of using volunteers to avoid potential disputes.

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What is the status of a volunteer?

Volunteers normally carry out unpaid work for charities, voluntary organisations or fundraising bodies. Volunteers are generally not considered to be employees or workers and usually will have a role description rather than a job description. However, their employment status is determined not by their designation as ‘volunteers' but instead by a range of factors, including:

  • Is the volunteer under direct supervision and do they need to complete work in a given place during set times?
  • Is the volunteer allowed to work for other organisations?
  • Is the volunteer obliged to accept work?
  • Are materials, equipment and tools supplied by the volunteer or the business?
  • Is the volunteer paid any money?

To minimise the potential for any confusion about the status of a volunteer, it is a good idea to have a volunteering agreement in place.

For further information about the legal status of volunteers, see the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

What are the rights of volunteers?

Volunteers do not have the rights of employees or workers. However, the organisation using volunteers should make sure they have relevant health and safety procedures and data protection policies in place.

Volunteers do not have a contract of employment but often have a volunteering agreement (although this is not compulsory). It should set out details of:

  • level of supervision and support received
  • any training provided
  • whether volunteers are covered under the organisation's employer or public liability insurance
  • any relevant health and safety issues
  • any agreed expenses to be covered by the charity or organisation

Volunteers should have access to appropriate training and development. But, as they are generally not classed as employees or workers, they are not not entitled to the national minimum wage.

What are the rules for volunteers?

  • Age - subject to the rules of the organisation's insurance policy, there is no upper age limit on volunteers. Volunteers under the age of 14 are not allowed to work for a profit making organisation. Councils may have additional rules about child volunteers.
  • Benefits - as long as they are not paid for volunteering (other than expenses such as travel costs) people claiming benefits can volunteer, if they continue to meet the conditions of their benefit payments.
  • Criminal records - in general, people with criminal records are allowed to volunteer - but they may be required to carry out a DBS check (eg if the volunteering work involves working with children).

What are the expenses rules for volunteers?

Employers need to be careful to stick to the expenses rules for volunteers. Volunteers should not be paid for their time volunteering but they can receive money in respect of legitimate expenses (eg. food, drink, travel and equipment required for volunteering). If a volunteer receives any other payment, reward or benefit in kind - including promises of paid work in future - this may lead to them being classed as a worker or employee.

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