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Working as a volunteer

Volunteering is normally associated with charities but other organisations, like companies, take on volunteers. It's important to understand the legal aspects of using volunteers to avoid potential disputes. Read this guide to find out more about working as a volunteer.

Last reviewed 23 November 2022.

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Volunteers normally carry out unpaid work for charities, voluntary organisations, fundraising bodies or other organisations. 

Volunteers are generally not considered to be employees or workers and will usually have a role description rather than a job description. However, a volunteer’s employment status is determined not by their designation as ‘volunteers' but instead by a range of factors. These include whether:

  • the volunteer is under direct supervision

  • the volunteer needs to complete work in a given place during set times

  • the volunteer is allowed to work for other organisations

  • the volunteer is obliged to accept work

  • materials, equipment and tools are supplied by the volunteer or the business

  • the volunteer is 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. While a volunteer agreement is not a contract between an organisation and a volunteer, it sets out what both parties can expect from the volunteering experience.

Ensuring that your volunteers do not have an employment relationship with your organisation is important to avoid giving volunteers the rights and benefits that employees are entitled to (eg minimum wage, dismissal rights and rights regarding parental leave).

For more information about the legal status of volunteers, see the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).  If you have any questions, do not hesitate to Ask a lawyer.

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 an employment contract but often have a Volunteer agreement (although this is not compulsory). A volunteer contract should set out details of:

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

Certain rules about volunteers to consider relate to:

  • 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) 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)

Employers need to be careful to stick to the expense 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 benefits in kind - including promises of paid work in future - this may lead to them being classed as a worker or employee.

You should consider putting in place an Expenses policy to set out what reasonable expenses can be recovered and how. Ask a lawyer for more information.

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