Becoming a volunteer

Volunteering can be personally rewarding and helps you 'give something back' to your community. Volunteers can choose from many different opportunities.

What is volunteering?

Volunteering is giving your time to help someone else or a cause you care about, simply because you want to and without expecting payment. In Northern Ireland volunteers make an important contribution to community life.

Lots of people engaged in voluntary work might not consider themselves as volunteers. They may see themselves as 'just helping out' or 'lending a hand'. The list of things that volunteers do is almost endless.

You could be a sports coach, fundraiser, committee member, gardener, volunteer driver or dog walker. You can choose what you want to do, though it always helps to get involved in something you care about or are interested in.

You can find out about volunteering opportunities by contacting the organisation you want to volunteer with or your local volunteer centre.

It is not volunteering if you:

  • do something just for a family member
  • are given money apart from your out of pocket expenses
  • are under a contract to do the work, for example, an employment contract (this does not include any ‘volunteer agreement’ you may have)

Why volunteer?

Volunteering helps you make new friends, increases your confidence and lets you play a part in your community. It can also give you a better chance of getting paid work, improving your career prospects or getting a place at university by helping you to:

  • learn new skills
  • practise the skills you have
  • build your confidence
  • discover new hobbies and interests
  • meet people who can help you find paid work
  • include volunteering experience on your CV
  • show employers you can keep regular hours and handle commitment
  • have things to talk about in a job interview
  • get references

Other benefits of volunteering include:

  • having fun doing something you've never tried before
  • a sense of satisfaction and achievement
  • the opportunity to make new friends with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences

Questions to consider before volunteering

Volunteering can be a very positive experience. It is not something to take on without considering the time and effort involved or any personal expense which might be required.

Time

Decide how much time you can give as a volunteer. Remember your other responsibilities such as any work, sport or family commitments.

Your skills

Assess your skills. Research the organisations which could use your skills and give you  work experience for your own CV.

Travel and other expenses

You need to work out:

  • how you will travel to and from the location
  • cost of bus or train ticket or car mileage and if you can claim travel or parking expenses

Ways to volunteer

There are many ways to volunteer depending on how much time you can spare. Full-time, part-time, evening and night volunteering are offered by various organisations.

You can find out more about the different ways to volunteer at the following nidirect pages.

Age limits

Minimum and maximum ages

You are never too old or young to volunteer. Your age may in fact make you more suitable for some kinds of volunteering. However, some organisations may not take on volunteers under 16 as they can’t insure them. You should check that the organisation has adequate insurance for your age group.

There is no general legal restriction on volunteering by children in not-for-profit organisations. However, some local authorities have by-laws restricting the number of hours children can work.

As with all applicants, young people should be judged on their merits. Minimum and maximum age limits for volunteers are vague. The fact someone is willing to do the work is more important than the date on their birth certificate.

To find out more about volunteering go to:

Over 50s

If you are over 50 and interested in volunteering contact your local volunteer centre.

Volunteering while on benefits

Find out more at the volunteering while on benefits page.

Find volunteering opportunities

Decide how much time you have to give and in what area you would like to volunteer your skill. Some charities are flexible about when you work for them, while others will want you to commit to a regular day.

The next step is to find an organisation and volunteering opportunity that suits you.  

Search online

You can search for thousands of opportunities using the Volunteer Now online database. Just select the type of volunteering opportunity you are interested in or look for opportunities in your area.

Speak with your nearest volunteer centre

Find your nearest volunteer centre.

Volunteer overseas

Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) is an international development charity which matches people's professional skills to volunteering needs across the world. Volunteers are aged between 18 and 75. Most placements are for two years but can also be as short as one month.

European Voluntary Service organises volunteering roles overseas for 18-30 year olds.

Other organisations

Before you start

Once you have found an organisation, it is useful to go and meet them for an informal chat and find out more about what you would like to do. This is a chance for you to ask questions about the volunteering opportunity, see the place you would be working and meet some of the people you might be working with.

Some of the points you might want to ask are:

  • what the role involves
  • whether you will receive any expenses to help pay for your travel and food costs
  • what training is offered to help you do the role
  • if there are any qualifications you can gain while volunteering
  • whether you will have a supervisor or mentor to discuss your questions or concerns

Your rights and expectations as a volunteer

Volunteers aren't employees or workers and don't have an employment contract. Volunteers aren't entitled to the minimum wage, holiday or sick pay, or other statutory employment rights.

Your expectations

If you volunteer for an organisation, the organisation will give you several documents, including a volunteer agreement, a description of your volunteer role and the organisation's volunteer policy.

The volunteer agreement should explain:

  • the role you're expected to do
  • what you can expect from the organisation
  • if expenses are paid
  • what supervision and support you'll get
  • insurance cover
  • equal opportunities
  • how disagreements will be resolved

Health and safety

Under health and safety law, an organisation only has to have one paid employee to be an employer. If you're volunteering for an employer, it must assess any risks to your health and safety and take steps to reduce them - just as if you were a paid employee.

If the health and safety risks are different for volunteers and employees, the protection for volunteers should reflect this.

Volunteer expenses and training

As a volunteer, you won't be paid the National Minimum Wage. You will receive basic expenses for your work. Expenses are not wages. Expenses are a way to give you back money that you have had to spend in order to volunteering.

Normally, expenses will be limited to money for travel, food and drink, as well as repaying you money you have spent, or will be spending, on things you need for your volunteering. You may also receive child care costs if you incur these as a result of volunteering.

If you receive any benefits in kind they are likely to be limited to what you need while volunteering, such as food and drink. If you are doing voluntary work away from home, accommodation will usually be provided. Training for your volunteer role may also be provided.

If you receive any other payment or benefit in kind for volunteering, this may mean you are actually classed as an 'employee' or  'worker'. These categories have particular employment rights.

You are classed as a 'worker' if:

  • you receive training that's not directly relevant to your voluntary work
  • you receive a fixed regular amount for 'expenses' that is more than you spend

Insurance

While a clear health and safety policy is important, it is equally important for an organisation to have an insurance policy to cover any work that you do for them.

It is the volunteer's responsibility to buy insurance cover for their own vehicle while carrying out volunteering activity.

Data protection

As a volunteer, you have the same rights as an employee, under the Data Protection Act. This means the organisation you're volunteering for must keep to rules about collecting and storing your personal information in computer or paper files.

For more information on the Data Protection Act 1998, go to the Information Commissioner's Office website.

Overseas volunteers

There's no special provision under UK immigration law for people outside the European Economic Area to come to the UK to do voluntary work. However, to support charitable work and youth mobility, the government operates a concession. There are strict rules that must be met in order to get this.

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