Volunteers or Something More?
As recruitment and staff budgets are often tight for charities, resource needs are sometimes met by using volunteers, interns or work experience placements.
Sometimes however charities can run into trouble in employment law terms when the lines between volunteers and other categories of staff become blurred. This article considers how, and gives some tips for keeping any volunteer arrangements watertight.
The starting point when looking into this is to consider what the relationship between a charity and a volunteer is, in reality. A contract (written or otherwise) is helpful, but not conclusive. Other factors will be relevant. For example - what is the purpose of the arrangement? Are any payments being made and if so, what for? What obligations (if any) are each of the parties under? Is the arrangement flexible or not?
The reason the contract and surrounding circumstances are relevant is that they help determine status. The status of any volunteer is critical as it determines what rights and entitlements that person has in law. Generally speaking, true voluntary workers fall outside employment law, and aren’t entitled to receive the national minimum wage. However, even if you call someone a volunteer, the reality of the arrangement might in fact be more complicated. Your volunteer might be an employee, and enjoy the full suite of legal protections that employee status brings. They might be a worker, a status which attracts some but not all of the protections afforded to employees. They might be an individual “in employment”, a wide category covering employees, workers and others, which protects the individual from discrimination, victimisation and harassment in the workplace.
Whilst there’s no legal obligation to have volunteer agreements in place, they can be very useful - they focus what the charity’s and individual’s intentions are, and also what the parties can expect from one another. Whether or not you choose to use one, the following tips should help to preserve volunteer status:
- Language which is suggestive of a contract should be avoided in favour of more flexible wording. For example, “we hope you’ll give us as much notice as possible” rather than “you should give no less than a month’s notice.
- Try to minimise the obligations placed on the volunteer by, for example, allowing them to choose what tasks to do and when they can work.
- Ideally, expenses should be reimbursed only on production of receipts.
- Exercise caution when offering volunteers perks (however small) including for example paying for training. Such payments might be construed as wages which could confuse the question of status.