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Volunteering – do something meaningful with your spare time

Anyone can volunteer, Freelancers and Contractors too. All types of organisations regularly need volunteers and Freelancers can often offer specialised skills that ‘traditional’ volunteers cannot.  You may be short on time and short on income and not at all inclined, but if you think more about the concept you may be able to provide help to organisations that focus on issues you feel strongly about and by volunteering you may gain new skills and contacts and also useful show-case examples of your work.


However, so you don’t confuse your tax position with the HMRC you need to know what a volunteer is and that there is a difference between a Volunteer and a Voluntary Worker. In the confusing world of employment law they both have definitions, so we’ll explain them here!


In English law there are 3 main ways of being employed (i.e. paid for work) as an individual – as a worker, an employee and a freelance (self-employed / sole trader / contractor). Here we explain the two unpaid categories – Volunteer and Voluntary Worker.  If you are interested in Internships (whether paid or unpaid) see our recent article on Internships.


We need to start by defining what a ‘worker’ is as this is key to the legal definition of a Volunteer and a Voluntary Worker.


If you have a contract of employment (a contract of service) – whether written or not – then you are a ‘worker’ (or an Employee).  You can also be a Worker if you don’t actually have a contract but you:



  • Do work personally for someone else and are not genuinely self-employed.

  • You are obliged to do this work and your Employer is obliged to give you the work.

  • You are rewarded for the work by money or benefits.


Workers are entitled to receive the National Minimum Wage (NMW), plus other benefits like holiday pay, sick pay, the Agency Workers Regulations (that come in October 2011) and other benefits – see our full Guide to your Employment Rights here.


A Volunteer, however, will not have any form of contract of employment or contract to perform work or provide services. They are under no obligation to perform work or carry out an Employers’ instructions and can come and go as they please. They have no expectation of and do not receive any reward (pay, benefits) for the work they do. They can receive reasonable expenses if they incur costs in the course of their work. They are therefore not workers and are not entitled to any workers rights. Volunteers can offer to provide their services free, to any Employer (not just organisations in the voluntary/charity sector). They must be genuine volunteers though and not just called a ‘Volunteer’ to remove the need for the NMW to be paid.  It’s important that Freelancers/Contractors keep this in mind if volunteering.


However, Voluntary Workers are different – and it is a term used in the National Minimum Wage Act which allows Voluntary Workers to be a class of ‘Worker’ but who are exempt from having to receive the NMW. They may consider themselves to be Volunteers but may actually be ‘workers’ due to the arrangements under which they work – they can work under a contract of employment or a contract to personally work or provide services. This exemption is provided to allow people who genuinely wish to work for good causes, without profit/pay, to continue to be able to do so without qualifying for the NMW.  This exemption only applies to Volunteers/Voluntary Workers who work for Employers:



  • In the Charity/Voluntary sector

  • In associated fund raising bodies e.g. a charity shop

  • In statutory bodies that are set up by an Act of Parliament to carry out certain functions, e.g. local authorities, many schools and hospitals, organisations like English Heritage


And this exemption also only applies if, as well, the Volunteer/Voluntary Worker does not:



  • Receive any payments, except reimbursement of expenses (although the organisation does not have an obligation to reimburse expenses).

  • Receive any benefits, except for the provision of reasonable subsistence (e.g. food, drink) and accommodation necessary for their duties.


Keep these distinctions in mind and have fun volunteering!


If you are an Employer and need ongoing professional help with any staff/freelance issue then talk to Lesley at The HR Kiosk  – a Human Resources Consultancy for small businesses – our fees are low to reflect the pressures on small businesses and you can hire us for as much time as you need.


Please note that the advice given on this website and by our Advisors is guidance only and cannot be taken as an authoritative or current interpretation of the law. It can also not be seen as specific advice for individual cases. Please also note that there are differences in legislation in Northern Ireland.

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