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 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.

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