Engaging volunteers: challenges & opportunities. Volunteers differ from employees in rights & obligations. Screening, safety, and liability considerations. Fair ending policies.

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Engaging volunteers comes with its own unique opportunities and challenges. It differs from hiring employees in substantial ways, both legally and practically. Since volunteers engage in a vast range of different activities, various questions may arise. What are my obligations to my volunteers? Can I give a volunteer a gift of money as a token of appreciation?  Am I liable for the actions of a volunteer driving kids on a day trip?

What is a volunteer?

A volunteer is someone who works for the benefit of others without financial gain. A volunteer relationship is therefore not legally enforceable since there is no exchange of obligations: work for payment.  Therefore, it differs from that of an employee or independent contractor relationship in both its rights and obligations. A volunteer is not contractually bound to perform work, however, unlike an independent contractor, a volunteer does not have the autonomy to decide when and how they do their work. Unlike an employee, a volunteer is not entitled to receive statutory benefits such as paid leave, superannuation and fair dismissal.

This relationship is legally determined by its nature, not by what it is called by the parties. Thus, only a certain level of payment is acceptable before the law may deem the relationship to be an employment or an independent contractor. Benefits such as reimbursement of reasonable expenses or a small gift or token of appreciation can be provided, however, some payments may be deemed to be a wage and point to an employment relationship. These include payments calculated by hours worked, an allowance paid on a regular basis that far exceeds expenses, or a lump sum paid in exchange for services.

New volunteers: screening and induction

When recruiting volunteers, it is crucial for certain screening standards to be applied. Depending on the nature of the position, organisations may be required to apply a Working With Children Check, as well as police checks and assess relevant qualifications. A quick Google and Facebook search may also be useful. While screening is necessary, it is important not to discriminate against individuals in the process. The law protects individuals from discrimination based on attributes such as sex, age, marital status and irrelevant criminal record.

It is important to clearly define the role and position of each volunteer. Volunteers should receive a copy of the organisations policies, and where relevant, sign a volunteer agreement and consent and release from. Note that such an agreement per se does not change the volunteering nature of the relationship as described above.

Safety and liability

Although volunteers do not have many of the rights of employees, the health and safety, sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination laws apply to volunteers. Moreover, in most circumstances’ volunteers will be protected from civil liability for anything done in relation to their volunteering work and the organisation may be held liable.

Engaging youth volunteers comes with several responsibilities. Note that stricter rules apply in Victoria since many of the Victorian child employment laws apply to volunteers as well. Regardless of the state you operate in, it is important to have clear guidelines regarding the appropriate working conditions of young volunteers. These responsibilities and guidelines include:

  • Normal working hours
  • Work does not disrupt attendance at school
  • Work is physically and emotionally appropriate for age
  • Written consent from parent or guardian
  • Appropriate duration of shifts and rest breaks
  • Proper adult supervision
  • Mandatory sexual abuse reporting

Note that the laws vary by State and circumstance. Get in touch with us to discuss your responsibilities in this area.

Ending the relationship

Volunteers are not protected under unfair dismissal laws, nor are organisation required to keep records after the relationship ends. Nevertheless, to avoid any reputational damage to the organisation, it is important to have fair and transparent processes and policies for finalising volunteer relationships.

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