Volunteering vs Unpaid Work: What’s the Difference?

23 July 2020

If you are stepping into the world of volunteering for the first time, using your skill and experience, you may be wondering where the lines between unpaid work and volunteering are drawn.

You may have heard it said that the main difference between unpaid work, such as a work experience placement, for example, and a voluntary position, is the intention of the participant. But this definition can lead us into pretty murky waters.

The intention of a person doing an unpaid work placement is clearly to gain experience that will eventually lead to employment. However, while this may not be the main motivation for volunteers, professional development is often a benefit of volunteering.

Using intention as a definition just isn’t clear enough!

So, how do you know where you stand? Is the support you are providing a legitimate volunteering activity, or are you doing someone’s job for free?

You will be glad to hear that there are actually some pretty clear guidelines on this from the UK Government.

What’s the difference?

In the eyes of the law, it all depends on whether you are classed as a worker, a volunteer, or an employee.


You are classed as a worker if:

  • You have a contract or even a verbal agreement to do work for a reward
  • The reward is money or benefit in kind (eg. the promise of a job in the future, or gifts such as free merch that has a monetary value)
  • You have to turn up to work even if you don’t feel like it
  • You have responsibilities and duties as part of your contract or verbal agreement

If you fit this criteria you are classified as a worker and you are entitled to certain employment rights such as:

  • The National Minimum Wage
  • Statutory minimum length of rest breaks and paid holiday
  • Protection against discrimination and protection for ‘whisteblowing’.


According to the UK Government, an employee is someone who works under an employment contract.

You are an employee if:

  • You are required to work regularly and do a minimum number of hours
  • You expect to be paid for this work
  • You get tax and National Insurance contributions deducted from your wages
  • You can’t send someone else to do your work

Employees have rights over and above workers such as:

  • Statutory sick pay and parental leave
  • Minimum notice periods for the end of employment


You are a volunteer if:

  • You spend unpaid time working to the benefit of the environment or other people (this can include activity with public, private, or voluntary organisations)
  • You have not signed an employment contract (voluntary agreements are not compulsory and are not considered contracts of employment)
  • You have no required hours and are completing this activity freely of your own volition
  • You receive reimbursement of expenses but no monetary payment or rewards outside of this

Under UK law, volunteers have no legal status. But this simply means that they are not entitled to the National Minimum Wage and they are not protected by employment law.

You may have a volunteer agreement that sets expectations around training or expenses provided, but this does not amount to the same as a contract. This does make it a little difficult if something goes wrong in your role, you can check out this information from NCVO for more advice.

While they may not be the main motivation to get involved with volunteering - there are plenty of personal benefits that come from taking on voluntary work!

When things are not so black and white

While these definitions are pretty clear, there are of course, times when things are not so black and white.

Casual or irregular work

  • You occasionally do work for a business, but they don’t have to offer you work and you don’t have to accept it
  • You have a contract that mentions the terms ‘casual’, ‘freelance’ or ‘zero hours’
  • The business deducts tax and National Insurance contributions from your wages

If you fit any of the above criteria you are likely to be a worker.

Voluntary Worker

  • You work for a charity, voluntary, or not-for-profit organisation
  • You do not receive any benefits in kind or monetary payment, except
  • Reimbursements for expenses incurred or the provision of subsistence or accommodation if appropriate for the circumstances of the job

 A voluntary worker is someone whose role is more similar to that of a worker but who still works for free. The main difference between a volunteer and a voluntary worker is that volunteers (with no defined responsibilities or hours) can work for any kind of organisation, public, private, or third-sector, while voluntary workers can only work in charitable or not-for-profit organisations.

In summary

Simply put, volunteer roles are based on expectations and trust rather than anything legally binding. You are not obliged to carry out the duties you have agreed to or even turn up in the first place.

However, if a relationship of mutual trust and respect is established between a volunteer and the not-for-profit organisation, the benefits are numerous.

If you want to know more about volunteering and how you can contribute your skills for a good cause, please get in touch!

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