One of a series of papers on managing volunteers

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Writing volunteer agreements

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Written by John Berry on 22nd September 2020. Revised 27th March 2024.

6 min read

Volunteers Working cropped anna-earl-cTtE2FlIRoU-unsplashThe nature of volunteering varies hugely. It could involve someone volunteering to lay stones on a path up a hill in the Peak District. Or it could involve someone volunteering to run an adventure programme for young people, every week for a year. There are any number of examples spanning from occasional to regular volunteering. And there are instances when volunteers casually give their effort and those where volunteers accept huge ongoing responsibility.

In search of contract

Volunteering is the provision of effort for the benefit of an organisation without financial reward. There will be significant reward for the volunteer, but it will be psychological, in the form of friendships, personal growth and the feeling of doing something worthwhile.

As such, in volunteering there is no economic contract and the psychological contract becomes all-important. We have written extensively on both of these in other blogs, in as much as they apply to paid work.

Traditionally, an economic contract involves both parties signing a legally binding agreement. An economic contract sounds like this. “As the employee, I’ll come under your direction and provide my skills, knowledge and effort”. From the other side, the organisation is saying, “as employer, I’ll give you regular work and pay you an agreed rate for that[1]”. In the event of default, the parties would resort to the courts for adjudication. We have all become familiar with the work of tribunals in adjudicating employment disputes. Today, employment contracts are set in statute and advised by case law.

We term paid work as employment. We term provision of effort without pay as volunteering. As we note elsewhere, the psychological contract is deep and wide and managers must understand it in order to manage volunteers effectively.

Volunteer agreement

It is important that in drafting a volunteering agreement, there is no intention to enter a legally binding agreement. The reward a volunteer gets must always be psychological. It must never be painted as a form of consideration[2].

As much as anything then, language defines volunteer agreements.

The organisation needs to know what the volunteer will do when volunteering. But this is set as expectations. The volunteer is not obligated. There is no recourse if the expectation is not met (other than termination of the agreement and cessation of the relationship).

Nonetheless, the start point of all volunteering is a list of what is expected. Whilst we drove a wedge between employment and volunteering above, there is nothing wrong with developing a job description for a volunteering role. If the language is right, the job description can be used for complex, high-responsibility volunteering roles. For more casual, routine roles, a list of tasks will perhaps suffice, supported by a code of practice. However it’s done, the volunteer role must be defined. The organisation must set out those expectations from its side.

So, the organisation is satisfied. Its expectations are set. But the volunteer has expectations too. Those are perhaps best set out in the volunteering agreement.

Volunteer expectations

Volunteer agreements start by defining the parties, the definition of work (if not done separately in a job description), the effort offered (with times and dates) and the locations where the effort will be delivered.

Managers of volunteers should also remember that the volunteer agreement is a selling document in recruitment of volunteers. It should set out the aim of the volunteer role, such that the volunteer will see the value in what they are doing.

With those preambles complete, the volunteer agreement should turn to outline specific expectations. Here the organisation might set out its training programme, stating that engagement with the programme is expected within specific time limits. Both parties have an interest in volunteer training – the organisation, because it might be using training as a means of illustrating its competence to its beneficiaries, like the elderly or the young to whom it provides services. Remember also that the volunteer may be looking to acquire new skills as part of their involvement.

Then comes arrangements for supervision and support. Motivating volunteers is pretty much done the same way as employees, with the right job and job contents. Leadership is done the same way too, using influencing to persuade the volunteer towards their manager’s point of view. Who manages the volunteer, needs therefore to be spelled out.

In disagreement

Of course, the parties hope that all goes swimmingly, but in the event of disagreement of any form, the process for resolution should be defined. It’s useful in this case of have performance, disciplinary and grievance procedures available. These can be a development of the procedures used for employees.

Then in the agreement, statements need to be made covering health and safety, privacy, equality and other ‘boilerplate’ stemming from the organisation’s legal obligations, that it would want to flow down to the volunteer as expectations.

There is a valid argument for development of a separate volunteer handbook that would then go on to describe all the general expectations such as taking due care of tools, dress code and the need to behave courteously. The manager of volunteers needs to decide the value of this versus adding such expectations in the agreement document.

Getting out

The agreement then needs to define how the parties will amend and cancel the agreement. Organisations would typically ask for some notice when a volunteer intends quitting. But that’s beyond the intention – unlike employees, volunteers can down tools in an instant.

Finally, it’s useful to summarise the nature of the volunteer agreement – these two example phrases sum up the relationship:

“This agreement is binding in honour only, is not intended to be a legally binding contract between us and may be cancelled at any time at the discretion of either party.”


“Neither party intends any employment relationship to be created either now or at any time in the future”.

So, a volunteer agreement is not legally binding, typically set out in three sides of A4, signed at the bottom by both parties and sets out expectations. From there, it’s for the manager of volunteers to make the volunteer experience work.

  1. This strict demarcation is not as black and white as it seems, though. Legally binding agreements take many forms, and reward need not always be monetary. Take a confidentiality agreement. Here, the consideration, or payment, is the access to confidential information. In return, the recipient of the information is bound to keep it secret. That exchange is identified and the parties intend to be bound.

  2. Consideration is the term used in law to describe the benefit that one party (typically the employee) gets when they comply with the obligations of an agreement.