Involving Volunteers: Background and Planning

Managing volunteers does not require any specialist knowledge. Mainly, you need common sense and the ability to put yourself in the position of a volunteer and ask yourself how you would you like to be treated.

Who is this guide for?

This guide is useful for any organisation that is either involving volunteers for the first time or evaluating how it involves volunteers.

Get support

If you would like support in planning how you’ll involve volunteers, our experienced volunteering team is here to help. We can offer free, confidential advice and support.

1. What is Volunteering?

Volunteering is defined as “An activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or individuals or groups other than (or in addition to) close relatives.”

There are four principles that are fundamental to volunteering:

  • Choice: Volunteering must be a choice freely made by each individual
  • Diversity: Volunteering should be open to all, no matter what their background, race, nationality, religion, ethnic or national origins, age, gender, marital status, sexual orientation or disability
  • Mutual Benefit: Volunteers offer their contribution unwaged but should benefit in other ways in return for their contribution. Giving voluntary time and skills must be recognised as establishing a reciprocal relationship in which the volunteer also benefits and feels that their contribution is personally fulfilling
  • Recognition: Explicit recognition of the value of the contribution of volunteers is fundamental to a fair relationship between volunteers and the organisation they volunteer in

Volunteering is often seen as part of a spectrum of labour and gets lumped together with internships and work placements, but this guide is only about pure volunteering as defined above.

2. Benefits of Involving Volunteers

Involving volunteers takes resources. You need to devote time to recruiting and managing volunteers, equipment so that they can work and funds to reimburse out-of-pocket expenses.

While volunteers aren’t free, your investment in their involvement can yield enormous rewards in the long term.

What volunteers bring

Volunteers can:

    • Enable your organisation to offer more support or services to the people you help
    • Allow you to involve a more diverse group of people and open new channels for local input
    • Give your organisation a new perspective, often this perspective reflects the views of the community
    • Bring energy and enthusiasm to your organisation. Volunteers join your group because they want to be there, not just because it is their job, so they bring a unique energy.
    • Bring new skills and experience that may otherwise be unavailable to your organisation. This is especially useful for smaller groups.
    • Lend your organisation credibility. Volunteers’ giving their time free of charge suggests that your work must be of value.

3. Should you Involve Volunteers?

Although volunteers are not paid for their work, they are not a free gift or a substitute for paid staff.

Before you move forward investing in volunteer involvement, you should be sure you understand why you want to involve volunteers and are setting yourself up for success.

Before you begin

Before moving forward you should:

    • Determine the roles and responsibilities that your organisation will create for volunteers. You don’t need a full role description yet – just an idea of what volunteers might do.
    • Think through how volunteer involvement contributes to your overall aims and objectives
    • Consider how you’ll evaluate whether or not your investment in volunteers is paying off
    • Ask yourself, “If we suddenly had all the funding we could wish for to pay staff, would we still want to involve volunteers?” If the answer is no, you may want to reconsider volunteer involvement

Your volunteer involvement is also unlikely to contribute to your organisations’ long-term success if you are involving volunteers to take over tasks that no one else wants to do.

Getting the most from your volunteers

Volunteering is most likely to work well if:

    • Your organisation has the capacity to manage the volunteers you welcome. If highly skilled staff are spending more time managing volunteers than helping service users, it would reasonable for you to choose not to involve volunteers.
    • You have clear reasons for involving volunteers
    • You are prepared to spend time acknowledging and recognising volunteers’ contributions
    • Your organisation’s leaders and staff are clear about why volunteers are there and committed to supporting them
    • The roles of volunteers are clearly defined so that paid staff do not feel undermined or threatened
    • Your organisation has a culture that values the involvement of volunteers and allocates resources to support them properly

4. Making your Organisation Appealing to Volunteers

People who want to volunteer have a wide range of opportunities to choose from and will choose the opportunity that offers the best ‘fit’ to their personal motivations.

When planning to involve volunteers, you need to make your group appeal to volunteers by identifying the benefits you can provide.

To identify how you can make volunteers more likely to choose your group over another similar organisation, ask yourself the following questions.

What do you do and how is it inspiring?

Many volunteers feel strongly about a cause and will get involved because of your aims. This can be a much stronger motivation than the actual ‘job satisfaction’ from the task you’re asking volunteers to do.

What makes your group unique?

What would make a volunteer choose you rather than another organisation with a similar mission?

What development opportunities can you offer?

While some volunteers will take part because they feel passionately about your cause, others will be more interested in getting practical experience. Ask yourself, what is interesting, exciting or challenging about the volunteer roles that you offer? How could your volunteering opportunity help someone develop professionally? For example, can volunteers access training or have direct contact with your users? This type of benefit is particularly attractive for people exploring a new career or seeking work experience.

How could being part of your organisation benefit a volunteer?

Not everyone wants a challenge. Some people volunteer because they lack confidence, don’t have much structure in their lives or because they want a sense of belonging. Others may be getting back on their feet after a period of illness or isolation. For this type of volunteer, low responsibility activities provide a sense of structure and achievement. Offering a warm, supportive environment where volunteers feel part of a team can really help you attract volunteers.

5. Volunteers and the Law

Few laws specifically reference volunteers, so volunteers have much the same rights as general citizens. However, there are still a few key topics to consider before you start welcoming volunteers.

Employment law

To avoid having volunteering seen as a job and falling under contractual law you should:

    • Avoid paying expenses in excess of the actual costs volunteers incur
    • Avoid mixing a person’s role between volunteering and sessional work
    • Don’t impose an obligation on how long a volunteer must take part
    • Health and safety

You have a duty of care to look after volunteers’ health and safety. You should:

    • Consider what you’ll ask volunteers to do, what could happen as a consequence and how that might impact on your volunteers, staff and service users
    • Ensure you have appropriate insurance in place
    • Ensure volunteers are properly vetted (application forms, interviews, DBS checks, probationary period, etc.) We’ll provide more information about vetting volunteers in our How to Recruit and Welcome Volunteers guide
    • Carry out risk assessments
    • Review your practices regularly

Volunteers from overseas

Not everyone is allowed to volunteer. EU residents can always volunteer, but asylum seekers from a non-EU country may or may not be able to volunteer. You should check volunteers’ visas before welcoming them.

To protect your organisation, you should include a question about whether the applicant is allowed to volunteer on your volunteer application form.

Tax

To avoid tax implications, you should only reimburse out-of-pocket expenses. You should pay out on no more than:

    • Travel against public transport or taxi tickets or an agreed mileage rate plus parking while volunteering
    • Meals while volunteering
      Phone costs
    • Postage costs
    • Care of dependents
    • Costs of protective clothing or other special equipment

When paying expenses, retain all receipts or get signed statements of expenses incurred. Only pay out against expenses that have been documented.

Volunteering and benefits

All major benefits allow the claimant to volunteer. However:

    • Jobseekers must evidence that they are actively looking for work and can begin with one week’s notice
    • Employment and Support Allowance (Incapacity Benefit) claimants can volunteer but are asked to let their advisor know about the role and clarify what level of expenses they get paid

Extra resources

NCVO has a useful guide to volunteering and the law.

Gov.uk has a useful explanation of volunteering while claiming benefits.

6. Protecting Your Organisation and Clients

It is important to develop the best possible procedures to ensure that your organisation protects itself against possible liability and protects its clients.

Before you start welcoming volunteers you should have:

    • Policies or statements on safeguarding the welfare of clients, access to money and property and other matters where abuse, fraud or breach of trust may occur. Work should be planned in a way that minimises risks.
    • Risk assessments of all roles volunteers will fill.
    • Agreed procedures for protecting people, property and the reputation of your organisation.

7. Create an Involving Volunteers Plan

Larger volunteer-involving organisations will tend to have a volunteering policy and written procedures. If your group is smaller, you don’t need a full policy, but it is a good idea to document an involving volunteers plan.

You should work your plan out with your organisation’s entire leadership team.

Your involving volunteers plan should cover the following questions.

What will your volunteers do and why is that work important?

A volunteer will not usually stay somewhere when they do not feel they have a purpose.

How many volunteers do you require?

Remember that if you recruit more volunteers to get a task done quickly you will need to dedicate more time to managing volunteers. You should avoid recruiting too many volunteers as you also don’t want anyone to get bored.

What are the logistics of involving volunteers?

The logistics of involving a volunteer are as important as the role itself. You need to work out where the volunteer will be based and what they’ll need to complete their work. For example, if you’re offering an office-based role you need to decide when and where there is going to be free space for a volunteer to sit at a desk.

How long will you require volunteers?

Consider the actual tasks and time commitment. Will the role be an ongoing weekly task or a one-off, time-limited piece of work? Although there is no contractual agreement for a volunteer to stay with you for any given amount of time, outlining the minimum commitment you would like gives potential volunteers more insight into your expectations.

Who will manage your volunteers?

Volunteers should have a named supervisor who they can approach for support or direction. The person who will manage your volunteers should also keep the rest of the organisation involved in the volunteers’ work. This will help create a culture of appreciation and demonstrate your group’s appreciation of the volunteers’ work.

What support will you offer volunteers?

You should decide how you will support and supervise volunteers. This support can be either formal or informal. You may also want to provide opportunities for peer support such as volunteer social events. We’ll provide more information on volunteer support and supervision in our Managing Volunteers guide.

What expenses will you pay?

It is good practice to make sure that volunteers are not out of pocket. You should be prepared to give your volunteers information on what expenses will be reimbursed and how they can claim them.

Are you prepared to assess risk?

It is also good practice to risk assess each role and put in place steps to ensure individual safety has been addressed. You can use our Risk Management Framework to get started.

8. Planning for Training and Induction

Providing induction and training is key to the success of your volunteer involvement.

We’ll go into training and induction in more detail in our Recruiting and Welcoming Volunteers guide. At this stage, you should just review the broad strokes of induction and training to ensure that your group has the capacity to give volunteers what they need.

What should you cover in induction and training

To assess what induction and training volunteers will need you should ask yourself:

    • What information does a volunteer need to carry out their role? This should be included in induction.
    • What skills does a volunteer need to carry out their role? Will you require volunteers to have these skills when they start or will you offer training? This will help you work out what training you might want to offer.
    • What attitudes or approaches does a volunteer need to carry out their role? You should explain this information during induction.

9. Involving Volunteers with Additional Needs

Many organisations are anxious about involving volunteers with additional needs for a variety of reasons.

While it’s perfectly okay for an organisation to limit who it welcomes, you also shouldn’t exclude volunteers with additional needs because you don’t have the confidence to manage them.

Considering involving volunteers with additional needs

When approaching the idea of welcoming volunteers with additional needs, we suggest that your organisation’s leaders meet to:

    • Discuss the issue amongst yourselves
    • Create a policy around diversity and accessibility if you do not already have one. If you do already have one, review it.
    • Review your practices to make sure they do not work against particular groups. If they do, come up with changes or different routes for different needs
    • Consider what support and supervision you can provide for volunteers with additional needs
    • Consider how you will value each volunteer’s contribution on all levels
    • Consider how you will evaluate the success of your work involving volunteers with additional needs
    • Having a conversation around these points will help you assess whether or not you should involve volunteers with additional needs.