How clear are you on legal issues concerning your volunteers?

Last month I delivered a free NCVO webinar on volunteering and the law, giving an overview of the legal implications volunteer managers need to be aware of when working with volunteers.

During the webinar we ran some polls with our attendees to find out more about their work – the results were interesting and I thought it might be useful to share these and clarify some important information for volunteer managers more widely. Thanks again to all of our attendees for taking part in the webinar and polls.

Legal status

We asked our attendees whether they thought that volunteers have a legal status in one poll:

  • 71% thought that volunteers have a legal status
  • 15% thought that volunteers do not have a legal status
  • 14% were unsure.

I hope by the end of the webinar everyone was clear that volunteers do not have a legal status.

Unlike employees, volunteers are not entitled to the national minimum wage and they are not covered by employment legislation. Employees work under a contract and are obliged to turn up, whereas volunteers are free to come and go as they please. Of course, this is not to say that volunteers don’t have a relationship with the organisation they volunteer for, they do. But it’s a relationship based on expectations rather than obligations.

If you treat people like employees when in fact they are not, and if they can prove that you are treating them like an employee, they may be entitled to the national minimum wage and legally entitled to employment rights. This could have far reaching consequences for your organisation, particularly if you engage a high number of volunteers. NCVO Knowhow Nonprofit has useful tips on how to manage the risk.

We recommend you support and train the people who manage volunteers, so that they understand how volunteer management is distinct from managing employees. Watch our video training course on good practice in volunteer management, free for NCVO members, for guidance on this.

Rewarding volunteers

Part of good volunteer management is also knowing how and when to reward volunteers. Another poll we ran with attendees revealed:

  • 26% said they don’t reward volunteers
  • 39% said they reward volunteers with small gestures, for example with flowers or chocolates
  • 35% said they reward volunteers regularly or when the mood takes them.

Whilst it’s encouraging to see that over a third of webinar participants reward volunteers with small gestures, it’s not a good idea to never reward them or to reward them regularly or do so on a whim.

Volunteer motivations run deep; people rarely volunteer for freebies or because of material gain. Whilst incentivised volunteering such as RockCorps and Spice Time Credits are popular ways of supporting broader cross sector partnerships, you need to think about your organisational context and whether rewarding volunteers on an ad hoc basis or whenever the mood takes hold may be seen as favouritism, unfairness or even distort the reasons why people volunteer with you in the first place. There are also tax implications, as gifts may be seen by HMRC as income.

There are a multitude of ways to say thanks to your volunteers that do not involve offering them material gifts. This was magnificently proven last year when organisations posted 924 events on the Volunteers’ Week event map, all aimed at thanking their volunteers.

If you found the webinar useful and you need detail on how to apply every aspect of the law to your specific volunteering situations, particularly around data protection, criminal records and reward and recognition, NCVO is running one day training on volunteers and the law on 16 March 2018.

You can also keep an eye out for upcoming NCVO webinars, on a range of topics, on our events listing.


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Jarina Choudhury Jarina is our volunteering development consultancy officer. Jarina develops consultancy and training services with the aim of improving volunteering practice across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

2 Responses to How clear are you on legal issues concerning your volunteers?

  1. Lynn thompson says:

    Jarina, thank you for the notes. I’ve found them helpful to a point but find they don’t help to clarify for me the one recognised “legal status” that volunteers do seem to have, unique to the third sector, that of voluntary worker. As now, I have been informed by many advisors that if we treat people like employees, when in fact they are not, and if they can prove that we are treating them like an employee, they may be entitled to the national minimum wage and legally entitled to employment understanding though is that we can effectively hold “contracts” with voluntary workers. There are many instances of voluntary sector organisations effectively creating a contract with volunteers and using the status of voluntary worker to define those volunteers. Contracts are, in my opinion, created by providing accommodation for volunteers and then expecting them to provide voluntary work in return for the accommodation or by providing bursaries to “volunteers” to help with living expenses. In practice those volunteers, often volunteering full time, are clearly in a contractual relationship with their organisation. This is explained away by defining them as voluntary workers. Given this recognised status why do we worry so much about the creation of contractual relationships. What is special about this status that as a provider of voluntary trainee positions I need to be aware of?

  2. Tafazal says:

    HI Lynn,

    There should not be any ‘contract’ in place with volunteers, rather a Volunteer Agreement that outlines the hopes and expectations of both the volunteer and the organisation. A contract is more of a legal document outlining the offer of services and the acceptance of reward (I’ll do the work and you remunerate me accordingly). There should be nothing provided to volunteers in exchange for their time (you rightly cite the examples of accommodation and bursaries).

    It is important to be extremely careful when utilising volunteers. If a volunteer is obliged to do something, then this is the behaviour of an employee. If a volunteer ever took a complaint (discrimination for example) to court, a judge would look at the ‘behaviour’ of the volunteer and if it mirrored the behaviour of a paid employee, would rule in favour of the volunteer. See here for example: