Labor laws regarding volunteering vary from country to country. For instance, in the USA, creating a written contract or memorandum of understanding with a volunteer, ensuring there is an agreement on what is expected of a volunteer, is normal and entirely legal, but in the United Kingdom, such can make the volunteer a paid employee, and due for financial compensation.
How should you determine who is a volunteer and who should be paid for the hours they work at your organization, no matter what country you are in?
There are terrific resources on the US Department of Labor web site regarding volunteerism that can help any nonprofit or charity, in any country, think about both why it involves volunteers and how it should talk about the value of volunteerism, as well as the qualities of a well-run volunteering program. Although it’s USA-centric and cites USA law, much of what it proposes regarding volunteerism is based in ethics as much as law.
For instance, there’s this detailed response by DOL staff to someone asking if the time employees spend on volunteer activities outside their employer’s worksite or on activities outside their regular work are compensable working time. For instance, “Does the employer have a duty to compensate non-exempt employees for the time they spend volunteering on a Habitat for Humanity project outside of normal working hours?” Any corporation that organizes volunteering activities for its employees needs to read this document carefully.
Employees volunteering outside of their jobs, at the direction of their employer, is further explored in this response from the DOL, which talks about nurses being asked to volunteer their time, unpaid, to participate in community service activities, such as taking blood pressure at a health fair, teaching child care classes to expectant parents, participating in “career day” at a local school, helping the Red Cross, or helping with the hospital picnic. Other activities in question involve employee attendance at patient care conferences, task force meetings, and committee meetings on their days off or outside regular working hours.
Whether an incentive based pay plan at a company, which includes civic and charitable volunteer activities, complies with the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Both of these are USA-centric as well but, again, the advice is terrific for other countries as well. Of course, you should still check to see what your country’s laws are regarding volunteers, including interns or anyone to whom you aren’t paying at least a legal minimum wage.
In addition, there’s also this Safety and Health Checklist for Voluntary and Community-Based Organizations Engaged in Disaster Recovery Demolition and Construction Activities. This detailed document emphasizes the importance of such organizations promoting the health and safety of their work teams, including volunteers, and provides a checklist outlining some of the hazards frequently encountered during disaster response and recovery operations and what the organization should have in place to support and protect volunteers, including what training volunteer work teams should have. This checklist is great no matter what country you are in.
Having a mission statement for your organization’s volunteer engagement can protect you from over-zealous staff members, consultants and corporate funders who want to push for volunteers to replace paid staff and save money, or to increase volunteer engagement in areas of the nonprofits work that would be inappropriate. It also could help protect you against lawsuits from volunteers who feel they were merely unpaid workers. The US Department of Labor (DOL) and US Federal Courts want to see that the work of volunteers is distinctly different from the duties of the organization’s employees – and their guidelines on how they make the determination regarding who is a volunteer and who should be paid are good guidelines for volunteering other countries as well. To determine whether an individual is truly volunteering, the DOL and US Federal Courts look to:
- The nature of the entity receiving the volunteer services
- The character of the volunteer services (activities) themselves
- The amount of control the employer or engaging organization exerts over the volunteer
- Compensation or benefits provided to the volunteer, or that the individual expects
- Whether the volunteer work displaces paid work by regular employees
You can read more from the DOL here.
If these links ever stop working, cut and paste the URL of any one of them into archive.org, and you should be able to access an archived version of the document.
Learn more about how to talk about the value of volunteers.