Best Practice Guide for Volunteer-Involving Organisations

The following guidelines are a brief outline of some issues you might wish to consider when involving volunteers in your organisation

Please note that the information presented here is not intended to be a full account of the law or the duties and responsibilities that organisations have – seek professional advice about your own specific organisation.

Why Volunteers?
What are the reasons why you want volunteers to get involved with your organisation or carry out a particular task – think of positive reasons, rather than ‘we can’t afford to pay someone’.

However tempting, don’t see volunteers as a way of substituting for paid staff or as the people that will do the jobs that no-one else wants to do.

More than anyone else volunteers have to enjoy and feel motivated by their contribution - if they don’t, there is no obligation for them to stay and plenty of other organisations are looking for help. Involving volunteers also requires time and resources. What procedures will you have in place to screen volunteers and who will do this? Do you have the resources to refund volunteers out-of-pocket expenses? Who will take on the role of training, supervising and supporting volunteers? Have any paid staff in your organisation be consulted about the involvement of volunteers?

Recruiting volunteers
If you have any criteria for selecting volunteers for a particular task, prospective volunteers should be made aware of this. It is useful to have a written task description, which will help everyone in the organisation understand what is expected of volunteers and where they fit into the organisation. It will also help prospective volunteers decide if the role is right for them. It is easier to attract volunteers from all sectors of the community if volunteer roles do not require specialist experience unless this is absolutely essential but rather ‘an interest in…’, ‘a willingness to learn…’,

Once you have heard from a prospective volunteer or their details have been passed on to you, then try and get them onboard as soon as you can - before someone else does. Although the procedure for screening volunteers can take a little time you could maintain their interest by sending an information pack or by inviting them to visit and find out more about your organisation. An application form can help you to get the information you need from a volunteer but try not to make it too daunting or too like a job application.

Meeting with a volunteer can help you clarify what their interests and skills are and what your organisation is offering as a volunteering role. You might want to make it clear what time commitment you are hoping for, the duration, and how long it will be before they can start.

Turning a Volunteer ‘Down’
If they are really not suitable for a particular task, try not to turn down an offer of help – can you find them another role within the organisation? If you are going to turn a volunteer down let them know as soon as possible, thank them for their offer and be as honest as you can about the reasons. It is very demoralising not to hear anything, or to be told that your help is no longer needed when the organisation is still advertising for volunteers.

A volunteer’s first few visits can be crucial in deciding whether or not to stay, so it is important to make them feel welcome and to introduce them to the layout of the building, other members of the organisation or team and any procedures they will be expected to follow. Induction or training (formal or informal) at the beginning of the volunteering, and the opportunity of ongoing training, can help make sure volunteers are clear about their role and have an understanding of the aims and structure of the organisation. It may be useful to have a simple volunteer information sheet or handbook with a guide to what the organisation does, who’s who in the organisation, does and don’ts for volunteers, health and safety information, essential telephone number, etc.

Volunteers and Paid Staff
It is good practice to maintain a clear distinction between the roles of paid staff and volunteers. This can help to avoid tension between the two, so that volunteers do not resent being used to substitute for a role that normally (or used to be) a paid one, and so that the employees do not feel that their jobs are at risk from volunteer replacements. If staff and volunteers are clear about their roles then conflict is less likely to occur.

You also need to be aware that confusion between two roles can result in certain circumstances in volunteers being regarded as employees and therefore subject to employment law, including minimum wage legislation. For example, the existence of a contract (verbal or written) that resembles a contract of employment, or if a volunteer is being paid in return for their volunteering anything other than the actual cost of out –of –pocket expenses (including non-monetary payments or perks). This is a complex area of the law; the VSSH has free copies of the booklet Volunteers and the Law which has been published by Volunteering England and is free to any charity or organisation that we think would benefit. Please call: 01276 707565 for a copy.

Supporting Volunteers
Volunteers need to have a named person in the organisation who acts as their point of contact. For some types of volunteering regular supervision may be appropriate; for others it may just be a case of knowing who they should contact if they need help or support or if they wish to develop or change their role. Some organisations support volunteers in additional ways, such as social events to recognise the volunteer’s contribution; or support meetings for volunteers to attend. You may find it helpful to have some organised way of allowing volunteers to have an input into the running or development of the organisation – such as a volunteer representative at meetings or on committees, or an annual questionnaire for volunteer feedback.

As volunteers donate their time and energy to your organisation free of charge, it is important that they are not also financially out of pocket because of their volunteering. This is particularly important if volunteers are on a low income. Expenses should be reimbursed and the actual cost incurred with receipts (bus tickets, till receipts etc.) kept to show that they are genuinely paid for. In the case of mileage, this should be paid for at the Inland Revenue approved rates per mile and a mileage record should be kept of each journey. Never pay a flat rate to volunteers as this will be seen by the Inland Revenue as taxable income and can also result in a volunteer being seen as a paid employee and therefore subject to employment law (including the minimum wage). It can also jeopardise a volunteer’s State Benefits.

  • Acceptable out-of-pocket expenses you can reimburse to volunteers include:
  • Travel to and from the place volunteering
  • Necessary travel carried out in the course of volunteering
  • Meals/refreshments required while volunteering
  • The cost of child or dependent care while volunteering
  • Any special equipment or phone calls, postage etc. necessary for the volunteering task.

Make sure that volunteer drivers are insured and have told their insurance company that they are using their car for volunteering. Many insurance companies will not change any extra for this, but if they are not told then the insurance cover may not be valid. Ask for a copy of the volunteer’s insurance document and MOT certificate if required, keep these on file and remember to renew them each year.

The Inland Revenue publishes each year the mileage rates at which it will allow volunteer drivers to be reimbursed. Cyclists can also be reimbursed on a per-mile basis. Contact the Inland Revenue enquiry office for more details and for leaflet IR 122 Volunteer Drivers.

Volunteers should keep proper mileage records of the journeys they make in the course of volunteering. It is good practice for these to be confirmed by the volunteer co-ordinator, treasurer or other appropriate person.

Health & Safety
The Health and Safety at Work 1974 imposes a legal obligation on employers to carry out certain procedures to ensure the safety of their employees. While this is not legally binding on organisations without employees it is good practice for them to operate in a similar way. Regardless of whether or not you have any paid employees an organisation also has a legal duty of care to avoid carelessly causing injury to persons. This is a complex issue but the booklet Volunteering and the Law may be of assistance.

Every organisation should check its insurance cover once a year and ensure that it has sufficient insurance to cover its activities. Volunteers are not automatically covered by insurance; check with your insurer that volunteers are explicitly included in the cover you have. The two main types of insurance are;

  • Employers Liability Insurance: Organisations who employ staff are required by law to take out this insurance to cover employees in the event of accident, disease or injury. It can be extended to include volunteers.
  • Public Liability Insurance: The covers the organisation in the event of injury, death and the loss or damage of property of non-employees. It is important to confirm with your insurers that this insurance extends to the acts of volunteers.

Equal Opportunities
Most voluntary organisations now have a written equal opportunities statement or policy, which sets out their commitment to equal opportunities within the organisation, and in their treatment policies, Equal Opportunists included.