Charity Insurance | Social Enterprises | Voluntary Organisations | Community Groups

Should Charities Treat Volunteers like Employees?

Non profit organisations often heavily rely on the support of committed and talented volunteers to deliver services, often complimenting the efforts of their key staff.  If you are managing a charity though, how do you draw a difference between employees and volunteers?  What differences exist from a liability perspective?

The classification of employee and volunteer does go beyond the fact that one group receives pay and the other does not.  There is no legal definition of a volunteer but this does not necessarily stop the individual volunteer from having legal recourse if they feel badly treated by a non-profit group.  It is also important to ensure that the relationship with a volunteer does not stray into becoming too formalised which would further obligate and expose the charity.  Employees enjoy a wide range of rights and the more a charity exerts in the manner of an employer, the more likely an individual might claim that their relationship was not simply that of voluntary services.

It is a requirement that any employee has a formal contract or agreement to set out terms of their employment, this requirement does not apply to volunteers.  Some charities use ‘volunteer agreements’ to provide clarity to the services a volunteer provides and to add more professionalism to the engagement with volunteers.  It is important that such agreements do not obligate the volunteer.  The aim is to lay out what the organisation hope to achieve with the volunteer and the language should reflect as such.  The closer your relationship with a volunteer looks like being an employer – employee relationship, the more you risk the law (an employment tribunal for example) to see it as such too.

For this reason, it is good practice to never pay volunteers as this is a marked change in the terms of your relationship with the individual.  Paying a volunteer for expenses is reasonable but anything that constitutes a benefit to the volunteer moves the relationship away from the intended ethos and towards one where a volunteer could reasonably claim if they felt mistreated or discriminated against.

Getting these things right in your charity is an important protection.  If volunteers are not in a formal contractual or legal relationship with you then the rights they have to bring ’employment’ proceedings against the organisation are much reduced.

Health and Safety is another area in which it is important to consider your relationship with volunteers.  Health and Safety law does not normally treat volunteers as employees but this does not really diminish your overall responsibilities to the volunteer.  Your organisation would be liable to the volunteer if you did not provide a safe environment to work in.  Volunteers are entitled, as is anyone, to bring civil action against a charity who they feel has caused them a loss or injury.  This does happen and a lot of community groups are surprised when a volunteer does so.  After an accident, the good will that existed when the volunteer came forward might dry up.

From an insurance perspective, there are lots of considerations for any organisation using volunteers.  Despite the nuances of how volunteers are treated in the eyes of the law, insurers usually cover liability to volunteers under the ’employers liability’ section of a charity insurance policy.  It is important to consider the risks of the organisation and how volunteers impact that.  Lots of factors can impact the insurance solutions for charities looking to limit their liability to volunteers or users.

What do the volunteers do?  

The activities of the organisation and those conducted by volunteers are a key factor in assessing risk.  How risky are the activities?  Do they constitute giving advice that could cause an issue if it was incorrect?  Do the activities expose the volunteer to accidents or other health risks?

Another aspect of the activities volunteers engage in is safeguarding.  Organisations that are working with any vulnerable users (young people, people with disabilities or the elderly) have very particular risks associated with abuse that need to be considered and matters like DBS checks become important.

What safeguards are in place to protect volunteers?  

Have volunteers been adequately trained and prepared?  What experience or qualifications do volunteers have for discharging the service?

What data protection issues have been considered for volunteers or users?  Do volunteers work with any vulnerable people (young people, people with disabilities or the elderly)?  How old are your volunteers?

Discussing with an experienced insurance broker, the activities of the organisation and what volunteers do can be a vital step to protecting your charity from liability claims bought by volunteers or users.  Contact us to discuss insurance for voluntary groups and the specific risks your charity faces and what insurance solutions might be appropriate.