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Volunteering and benefits

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People in receipt of state benefits can volunteer without their benefits entitlement being affected.

People are allowed to volunteer while claiming state benefits, including means-tested benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), incapacity benefit, income support, employment and support allowance (ESA), and Universal Credit.

A person can volunteer as many hours as they like while they are in receipt of benefits, as long as they keep to the rules for getting them.

However, there are some rules that benefit claimants need to be aware of, to make sure that volunteering doesn’t have an impact on the benefits they receive.

Common misconceptions

Misconceptions about volunteering whilst receiving benefits include:

  • that there is a 16 hour per week limit to volunteering
  • that claimants can only volunteer for registered charities
  • that people who receive benefits because of illness or disability are not allowed to volunteer.
  • asylum seekers and refugees cannot volunteer.

Misunderstanding or lack of awareness can mean that some people encounter problems or unnecessary barriers to volunteering, so it’s useful to understand of the rules and regulations. Benefits are handled by Jobcentre Plus, part of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

This section touches on issues relevant to benefits and volunteering but there is more information on GOV.UK, or from specialist advisory organisations such as Citizens Advice or the Child Poverty Action Group.

Definitions of volunteering

voluntary work’ means work for an organisation the activities of which are carried on otherwise than for profit, or work other than for a member of the claimant's family, where no payment is received by the claimant or the only payment due to be made to him by virtue of being so engaged is a payment in respect of any expenses reasonably incurred by him in the course of being so engaged.

If ‘volunteers’ get more than out-of-pocket expenses, they will be treated as if they are in paid work and subject to the relevant rules on employment for the benefits they are claiming. They should not get payments in kind, such as luncheon vouchers.

Expense payments must be for the actual cost of the expense. Typical expenses include:

  • travel to and from the organisation (or wherever the voluntary work is taking place)
  • travel while volunteering
  • meals while volunteering
  • post and phone costs
  • care of dependants (eg children or elderly parents) while volunteering
  • the cost of protective clothing or special equipment needed for the role.

The cost to a volunteer of using their own vehicle can be worked out by using the HMRC’s mileage allowance payment rates. Receipts, public transport tickets etc should be shown to the organisation before they pay back the expenses. The organisation should keep these (or a photocopy if the volunteer needs the original).

Volunteers can be given a payment in advance to use for expenses. It can be difficult for volunteers on low incomes to come up with money for travel and food, even if they’re going to get it back later. Organisations giving volunteers expenses in advance should still make sure they see and keep receipts. Any unspent amount should be returned or taken from the next payment.

Volunteers should not receive any payment other than to reimburse out-of-pocket expenses.

Universal credit

People who get universal credit (UC) are entitled to volunteer. They will be in one of the following work-related activity groups.

  • ‘No work-related requirements group’ for people who are unable to work
  • ‘Work-focused interview group’ for people who are being prepared for work through regular interviews with a work coach
  • ‘Work preparation group’ for people who are in a more intensive work preparation group, but who are not required to actively look for work
  • ‘All work-related requirements group’ for people who must do work preparation activities, be looking for work and be available to start a job straight away.

People in the ‘all work-related requirements group’ have to do ‘work search activities’ for as much time per week as they have to be available for work, usually this will be 35 hours per week. Volunteering counts as a ‘work search activity’ for up to half of this time[1]. This is not a time limit on volunteering, but a limit on how much of the volunteering is seen as work search activity. However, people must leave enough time for the rest of their work search hours, which may limit how much time they can spend volunteering.

This means that:

  • if you are required to spend 35 hours a week looking for a full-time job, half of this time (17.5 hours) can be spent volunteering
  • if you only volunteer five hours a week, then you will be required to spend 30 hours looking for work
  • if you are looking for part-time work, eg 16 hours a week, you can volunteer for up to eight hours and spend the rest of the time looking for work.

Jobseeker’s allowance

Jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) is paid to people capable of, available for and actively seeking work. Volunteering should not stop people from meeting these requirements.

Available for work means being able to start work immediately. However, people who are volunteering don’t have to be available to start work straight away, but must be able to start within a week, or go to an interview for work within 48 hours.

The Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996 say that they can also take part in residential volunteering for a period of up to 14 days. JSA claimants must be easy to contact while volunteering if the chance of a job comes up.

Actively seeking work means that people usually have to take more than two ‘steps’ to find work each week. Examples of steps include applying for advertised posts, speaking to potential employers, writing a CV and signing up with an employment agency.

There are also terms in the person’s jobseeker’s agreement that they must agree to. This explains the type of work the person is looking for and what they’ll do to find it.

The rules for jobseeker’s allowance come from the Jobseeker’s Act 1995 and the Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996. 

There is no limit on the number of hours that people on JSA can volunteer for, but it’s important that they can demonstrate that they are taking the required steps to actively seek work, and are available for work and interviews.

Employment and support allowance/Incapacity benefit

People who get these disability benefits can volunteer.

The Social Security (Incapacity for Work) (General) Regulations 1995 and the Employment and Support Allowance Regulations 2013 put volunteering in the category of ‘exempt work’. This means that claimants are allowed to volunteer.

However, volunteers on disability benefits can face problems, particularly if Jobcentre Plus staff do not know the rules about volunteering. You can support your volunteers (or prospective volunteers) by:

  • supplying clear and accessible information about their right to volunteer
  • providing a copy of the role description and information about volunteering with your organisation, so they can share this with Job Centre Plus.

You could even write a letter explaining the nature of the volunteer role they are performing, distancing it from paid work and explaining the flexibility that volunteering offers. You might talk about how the role will be adapted to suit the individual’s needs – for example, that they will be able to take days off or leave early if they need to, given that there’s no obligation for the volunteer to attend at all.


  1. This will not apply to people in the no requirements, work-focussed interview or work preparation category.

Last reviewed: 19 May 2022

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 19 May 2022

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