A key question for churches and Christian organisations, many of whom rely upon volunteers, is “Can our furloughed employee do voluntary work for us?”

What we know

What we do know is that the government is trying to avoid a situation where an employee is on furlough leave, being paid by the government but still doing their job (or at least part of it) for the employer when the employer isn’t having to pay them. Ultimately, we are talking about fraud. We know that those we advise will want to approach the situation with integrity and honesty so we have set out some guiding principles on when volunteering may be acceptable or not.

The current official government guidance for employers says:

“You cannot ask your employee to do any work that: 

  • makes money for your organisation or any organisation linked or associated with your organisation
  • provides services for your organisation or any organisation linked or associated with your organisation

 They can take part in volunteer work or training.”

Our guiding principles

Volunteering must then be acceptable in some capacity, however, on the face of it, the limitations in the wording of the guidance prevents them doing much at all.  Bearing in mind the guidance is aimed primarily at commercial entities rather than missional organisations, we consider that, in practice, a more nuanced approach will be taken in practice – that HMRC will not always take issue with volunteer work even where it falls outside that permitted by the letter of the guidance.  On that basis, here are our best guesses as to when, and in what capacity HMRC might consider it acceptable to let an employee on furlough leave undertake voluntary work for their employer, outside the scope of the current guidance:

Number 1: If the employee already has a separate unconnected volunteer role with you, they can continue in that role provided they do not stray beyond what was (and remains) reasonably necessary for them to do. Let’s say they volunteer to stack the chairs after the service each Sunday – they can carry on doing that.

Number 2: If the employee has a separate but connected volunteer role with you, such as also being an elder or trustee, they can continue in that role provided they do not stray beyond what was (and remains) reasonably necessary for them to do.  This would not permit them, for example, to carry out functions under the label of an elder when it’s actually something they would usually do in their capacity as an employee.

Number 3: The employee can’t start volunteering for you in a newly created role (or undertake duties as a volunteer which are normally undertaken by an employee) once on furlough leave, especially if the volunteering relates to their paid role with you.  What they could do is step in to volunteer for the church as an act of service to do, for example, some cleaning, where another member of the church who usually carries out this task on a voluntary basis is unable to because they need to self-isolate.zoom meeting

An example

What may further help as you consider an approach of integrity, is to separate out the roles which a person might play in your church/Christian organisation:

In my church, I might be employed as an admin assistant, I could also be an elder of the church and a church member. If I am placed on furlough leave because there is no admin work for me to do at this time, I can’t start doing the odd bit of admin here and there as a volunteer.  That would simply a continuation of the work I am paid to do. I have not previously volunteered to do admin work (someone on a salary putting in extra unpaid hours to do a task does not mean they did so as a volunteer).  This is only something I do as a paid employee.  I can’t now ‘become’ a volunteer to effectively do some of the things I usually do as a paid employee.

As an elder, I am still able to carry out my duties in that capacity and attend church meetings and so on, but I need to be careful not to cross the line into my admin role, for example, writing up the minutes myself because I know I would have been asked to do that the following day when I was at work in my admin role. Another employee who is not on furlough leave should write up the minutes. I can’t volunteer to do them if they were something I would usually do in a paid capacity.

Part of my paid admin role might be sending out birthday, anniversary and sympathy cards on behalf of the church. I am paid for that so I can’t do it anymore as a volunteer. However, if it is within my knowledge that a member of the congregation has a birthday coming up, I could send them a birthday card as a church member and a friend. Another employee who is not on furlough leave should be asked to take formal responsibility for sending the official cards from the church.

As a church member, I may be pastorally concerned about other members.  Showing normal Christian pastoral care and concern should not be an issue, even if pastoral care formed part of my duties, provided I am not doing so on behalf of the church but genuinely acting in a personal capacity rather than carrying out my duties (or trying to carry them out under the guise of acting in a personal capacity).  Similarly, my duties may include evangelism.  Continuing to talk about Jesus to others in a personal capacity should not be an issue nor should creating evangelistic materials to put in the public domain outside my role for the church.

A final word of caution though, this article is to help those who want to honour the law and Christ to make decisions of integrity.  It cannot constitute legal advice; it is our view of situations where HMRC may, in practice, not take issue even if the volunteering is not within the letter of the current guidance.  HMRC may well hold a strict line and conclude it is not permitted.

Mark Jones

Head of Employment, Edward Connor Solicitors

Please give us a call if you want to talk through your requirements and find out how we might be able to help you.

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