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What is volunteering?

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Volunteering is when someone spends unpaid time doing something to benefit others.

Helping your close friends or relatives isn't volunteering. But doing something to benefit the environment (and through that, other people) is.

Volunteering can be formal and organised by organisations, or informal within communities. It should always be a free choice made by the person giving up their time.

What volunteers do

Volunteering is well established in the UK. Most charities and voluntary organisations involve volunteers in some way.

Some of the things volunteers do include:

  • raising funds
  • being a trustee (a voluntary role with legal responsibility for a charity)
  • supporting or running events
  • campaigning
  • giving tours
  • befriending
  • giving advice, guidance or information
  • monitoring and conserving wildlife
  • giving first aid
  • providing legal help
  • driving or transporting people
  • administrative support.

Public sector organisations also work with volunteers. Their volunteering roles can include:

  • school governors or parent and teacher associations
  • magistrates
  • parish councillors
  • supporting library services
  • special constables with the police force
  • helping the NHS
  • campaigning and lobbying for MPs
  • coastguards for the coastguard rescue service.

Volunteering can also be informal and not organised through an organisation. For example, driving a neighbour to a hospital appointment or tidying your local park. 

Who volunteers are

Everyone has the right to volunteer. Volunteers can be any age and from any background. They can be studying, working or retired.

They might be employees of a company given time off to volunteer. They might have a specific skillset – for example, they could be medically trained or a legal professional. They could be looking for work or seeking asylum.

Every volunteer has their own reasons for volunteering. These include:

  • getting experience to get into work or change career
  • supporting a cause that's meaningful to them
  • meeting other people
  • representing others, as a union rep for example
  • contributing to the local community
  • changing something for the better
  • using their skills or experience to help others
  • doing something completely different or new
  • learning new skills
  • continuing their professional development.

To learn more about what motivates people to volunteer, take a look at our Time Well Spent research on experiences of volunteering in England .

Volunteering is not employment

Volunteers aren’t employees and aren't covered by employment law.

It's important to keep a difference between paid staff and volunteers. It should always be clear that:

  • volunteering is the volunteer's choice
  • volunteer roles are not the same as employee roles
  • volunteers are not a replacement for paid staff.

To make sure you're not treating volunteers like employees, you should:

  • avoid language that suggests employment (for example, refer to a volunteer agreement rather than a contract)
  • have separate processes for recruiting and supporting staff and volunteers
  • talk about what you expect from volunteers rather than saying they 'must’ or ‘have to’ do anything
  • not sanction volunteers for not meeting expectations
  • avoid perks that could look like payment (for example, training not needed for the role)
  • treat unpaid interns as volunteers and paid interns as staff
  • not ask volunteers to book or apply for holiday or time off
  • pay out-of-pocket expenses instead of a fixed amount.

Read our guidance on volunteers and employment rights.

Last reviewed: 12 April 2021

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 12 April 2021

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