Well-intentioned payments or gifts to volunteers can lead churches and charities into difficulty.

Key takeaways

  • Understand the legal distinctions: Know the difference between volunteers, workers, and employees.
  • Be cautious with payments: Even well-intentioned payments or gifts can change a volunteer’s status.
  • Use resources: Utilise resources such as our Volunteer Pack for guidance on maintaining volunteer status.

Recent case example

In a recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) decision (Groom v Maritime and Coastguard Agency), a volunteer for the coastal rescue service was entitled to remuneration for certain activities he attended. Though not automatically paid for his services (as a worker or employee would expect to be) he had the option of submitting a claim for payment for those activities.

The documents outlining the arrangement said that the relationship was “a voluntary two-way commitment where no contract of employment exists”. However, the EAT looked beyond the documents and concluded that the entitlement to remuneration, whether or not it was used, meant he couldn’t be considered a volunteer. Instead, he was deemed a worker for the activities where there was a right to remuneration, and thus entitled to the minimum wage for all hours worked in that capacity.

Why this matters

Unlike volunteers, workers must be paid the national minimum wage. Failure to comply can lead to significant liability, including backdated minimum wage payments and HMRC penalties. This case serves a crucial reminder: paying or offering even “token” amounts to volunteers for their services can inadvertently change their status from volunteer to worker.

Best practices for churches and charities

The EAT actually observed that someone could be a volunteer even where there was a contract. However, we still advise avoiding creating contractual obligations. To minimise the risk of a volunteer being deemed a worker or an employee we recommend following these practices:

    1. 1. Avoid Remuneration: Don’t offer payments or gifts that could be seen as remuneration for services.
    2. 2. No Contractual Obligations: Avoid creating a contractual obligation for the individual to provide their services.
    3. 3. Clear Documentation: Clearly document the intention that the relationship is voluntary. This can be a good starting point in case of disputes.
    4. 4. Expenses Policy: Put in place a well-thought-out expenses policy to define permissible volunteer expenses, reducing the likelihood of inappropriate payments.


We offer a Volunteer Pack available to buy on our website. While documents alone can’t determine status, they can be very helpful! The pack includes templates for clearly documenting the voluntary nature of the relationship and an expenses policy to help churches and charities manage volunteer expenses appropriately.

These practices and guidance will help churches and charities work through the complexities of volunteer and worker classifications, ensuring compliance and keeping the integrity of their volunteer programmes.


Banner photo by Erika Giraud on Unsplash