Volunteering – what to do if things go wrong

Most people’s volunteering experiences are positive. If things do go wrong, it’s important to work out a course of action.

NCVO is unable to investigate individual cases, but we have included details for some organisations that may be able to offer you further assistance.

See if you can work things out together

NCVO recommends that complaints or problems should initially be discussed between a volunteer and their supervisor or line manager through an ad hoc discussion or in a supervision meeting. If this is not enough, organisations should have a ‘problem solving’ procedure or should be willing to consider mediation.

Training

More training, support or supervision may be enough, especially if the issue is related to a volunteer’s performance, attitude or behaviour.

The person or organisation responsible for the volunteer may set a time period in which they can monitor the volunteer to find out if the problem or concern has resolved itself.

The organisation’s ‘problem solving’ procedure

For problems which cannot be solved informally, organisations should have a ‘problem solving procedure’ to follow. This should deal with complaints, problems, issues or concerns (either raised by or about a volunteer) in a fair, consistent and equitable way.

These procedures often has several stages. This gives volunteers the opportunity to appeal to higher levels of management, usually including:

  • their own supervisor
  • their supervisor’s manager

· the board of trustees or other governing body or a regional/head office representative (where appropriate).

Getting outside help – mediation

Mediation can be a good solution for disputes and can be appropriate for some matters involving volunteers. This can be a helpful approach to helping to maintain a positive relationship between volunteers and the organisation whilst the problem is being dealt with.

It is a confidential process, generally completed through discussions between the parties, over the course of one day and some organisations are able to provide this service in relation to matters for volunteers.

More on mediation from ACAS

Do I have any rights?

Paid employees have employment contracts, which usually include grievance and disciplinary procedures. An employment contract also gives you other rights, such as the right to take your employer to an employment tribunal.

As a volunteer, you won't usually have a contract. This means you won't have the same legal status and protections that paid workers have in the UK. Volunteers don't usually have the right to have an organisation follow proper investigative procedures when things go wrong. They also don’t have the right to appeal a decision made by the organisation.

In a small number of cases, the courts have found that the terms of a volunteer's agreement with an organisation did amount to a contract. In these cases, volunteers were able to establish employment rights.

Who can I complain to?

Volunteers are not covered by employment legislation but, as members of the public, they are covered by legislation covering health and safety law and data protection.

Concern relating to the governance of the organisation, health and safety, data protection or harassment, can be referred to external agencies.

Governance

The Charity Commission is the independent regulator of charities in England and Wales. Its website explains that its primary focus as regulator ‘is to work closely with charities to ensure that they are accountable, well run and meet their legal obligations in order to promote public trust and confidence’.

The Charity Commission is not able to act on complaints related to disagreements between individuals, but it will investigate if a volunteer’s concerns relate to the organisation's wider work or the fulfilment of its charitable aims.

Health and safety

If you have concerns regarding health and safety issues that you feel are not being addressed by the organisation, you can contact the Health and Safety Executive .

You could also contact your local council.

Data protection

The Data Protection Act sets rules about the way organisations collect and use information about you (your personal information). If you have a complaint about the way an organisation has handled your personal information, you can contact the Information Commissioner’s Office, who may be able to help.

Discrimination and harassment

Anti-discrimination legislation applies to employment and the provision of goods and services, so doesn’t cover volunteers because they are not employed under the relevant legal definitions.

NCVO advises organisations to reflect the spirit of such legislation in the way they involve volunteers to help ensure that volunteers are treated fairly and equally.

Volunteers may have some form of redress against the worst forms of bullying or similar behaviour, but does this does not give them protections against discrimination as such.

In legal terms harassment differs from discrimination, and so although the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 doesn’t specifically refer to volunteers, it appears that anyone found guilty of harassment could face imprisonment and/ or a fine, as well as civil action by the person subjected to the harassment.

If a volunteer were found guilty of harassment then they could face legal proceedings as well as civil action (although their status would be that of an individual, rather than a ‘volunteer’). Similarly, if a volunteer were subject to harassment, then they (as an individual) would be covered by this legislation.

The case of Majrowski v Guy's and St. Thomas' NHS Trust (2006) UKHL 34 suggests that it may not just be the abusive or threatening staff member who may be liable – their organisation may have vicarious liability as well.

Trade unions

Some volunteers join trade unions and have sought union representation in cases of disagreement with the organisation they volunteer for.

Trade unions that accept volunteers as members include:

However, this can be difficult where volunteers are not a member of a trade union before the dispute occurs, because trade unions may not be able to offer representation for a case which precedes someone’s membership.

Lack of legislation can make representing volunteers a complex process.

The role of Volunteer Centres

Volunteer Centres provide local support for individual volunteers and organisations that involve volunteers. This includes promoting good practice. If things go wrong, your local Volunteer Centre may be able to intervene and help to suggest possible solutions to the issue or problem and help signpost to good practice.

Ultimately, if you do have a negative volunteering experience, try to remember that this is the exception rather than the rule, and that many people view their volunteering in a positive light. If the organisation you volunteer with is unable to provide a suitable solution, remember that you are under no obligation to stay. There are numerous organisations, ranging from charities, voluntary organisations, community groups and statutory agencies, such as hospitals, schools or museums, which are actively seeking volunteers and would welcome an addition to their volunteering team.

When looking for another volunteering opportunity, don't be shy about asking if the organisation has a good set of volunteer policies in place, because this will indicate how committed they are to managing their volunteers as well as how prepared they are for with any difficulties that may arise in future.

Your local Volunteer Centre should be able to help you find a new volunteering opportunity.

Find your local Volunteer Centre

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