• Leah Norman

Can I pay a Volunteer?

Employee or Volunteer? Whats the difference?

Not everyone who works in your business is necessarily your employee.

As the business owner you may be working in the business and not drawing a salary or wage. Sometimes you hire contractors to perform work for you. And in some cases, you’ll have a person volunteer their time to work for you. They may want to do so to get work experience, or to help your non-profit cause.

By and large, these examples are not employees.

But just because you call someone a owner, contractor, or volunteer, that is not the end of the matter. The law looks at the real nature of your relationship with these people. In the case of volunteers, such as unpaid interns, you need to be particularly careful. A well-intended petrol or grocery voucher may be the tipping point if the individual is seen to be receiving "reward or gain" of the services they perform.

If they meet certain tests, they will in fact be your employee, regardless of what you thought they were.

It is often obvious when someone is a volunteer, for example, volunteering once weekly for a charity or community with no expectation of payment. The situation can be much more complicated when it comes to work experience, work trials and unpaid internships.

The most simple definition is that employees expect, and receive, payment from you. They don’t turn up to work for the mere fun of it. They have a bargain with you and expect you to keep it. They work, you pay.

By contrast, true volunteers do not have such an expectation of payment from you. They just want to help or learn. This means that employment law does not apply to them (with the exception of Health and Safety law).

Trouble arises when someone you thought was a volunteer:

  • expects payment for serving you; or

  • gets paid something for their work, even if it’s not what you would normally pay your staff.

When either of the above occurs, those “volunteers” may in reality be your employees. And like all employees, they will need to be paid the minimum wage, PAYE, and holiday pay.

You may have unwittingly taken on a new staff member.

The biggest thing to remember here is that "payment" does not to be monetary. A volunteer may become, or be perceived to be an employee if they are receiving "reward or gain" for their services, so it doesn’t matter what you “pay” the person. If it ends up giving them a benefit in return for the work they do for you, then that may mean they are your employee. Fuel or grocery vouchers, lunches, accommodation, can all be relevant “payments”. They may not be wages, but they can turn what you thought was a volunteer into your employee.

With that said, there are a few exceptions that do allow you to "pay" a volunteer... You are able to cover any costs they incur by helping you., and a token payment to a volunteer to thank them for their efforts (a koha or honorarium) can also be permissible. But you must be very clear about what that payment is for. It must not relate in any way to the work they perform as a large honorarium may look like a payment of wages or salary. And expenses payments that far exceed reasonable expenses could also look like wages.

When it comes to unpaid work experience, trials and internships, which are increasingly common in some industries, best practice would dictate;

  • make absolutely clear (and preferably in writing) that the position on offer is a volunteer position,

  • that the person does not expect payment or other gain,

  • make sure that the volunteer does not receive any payment or other gain,

  • avoid getting an economic benefit from the work done by the volunteer,

  • avoid having the volunteer do work which is integral to the business, such as work that an employee would ordinarily do,

  • limit the duration of work and the hours worked by the volunteer - the longer a person volunteers and the more hours they work, the more likely they are to be an employee.

It’s great to be able to give someone some experience in your workplace or to get help with your cause. If you are wanting to engage someone in a volunteering relationship, it’s important you make it clear that the volunteer does not expect payment and does not receive payment, unless you agree (in writing) to cover their costs or pay them a small koha or honorarium. Draft a written agreement covering what expenses you intend to pay for and how you will pay these. Be clear that the person is a volunteer, free to attend work or not. And get them to sign the agreement before they start attending your place of work. Otherwise, they may be judged to be an employee and will be entitled to minimum entitlements as outlined above.


This article, and any information contained on our website is necessarily brief and general in nature, and should not be substituted for professional advice. You should always seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters addressed.