Defining Volunteering and Internships

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Volunteering and internships are different things and it is important to be clear about the distinctions. There have been occasions where the two terms have been used interchangeably and this is not helpful. It is possible that organisations may simultaneously offer volunteering opportunities, internships and possibly other work experience opportunities. It is very important that these are clearly delineated and that confusion around how people are being involved in your organisation is minimised. Organisations need to be aware of their legal requirements, but to also ensure that their volunteering opportunities remain flexible and do not exploit.

Defining volunteering

It is a core principle of Volunteer Edinburgh that volunteering must always be undertaken without compulsion. Volunteering should enhance the work of an organisation and not replace paid workers. It must never exploit the individuals who volunteer.

We define volunteering as an activity that is undertaken within a structured organisation, normally for a voluntary organisation, social enterprise or public sector organisation. It is unpaid and is done by free choice and without any compulsion. It is normally a part-time or one-off activity (for example an event volunteer). By part-time we mean an activity which is undertaken for a limited number of hours per week, normally less than 20 hours.

Informal volunteering is also part of the volunteering family. This social activism is a vital and valuable part of our society. It is often organic and driven by cause, need or community of interest. Those involved in this type of activity often do not define themselves as volunteers. We would define this under the broad heading of “active citizenship”.

Volunteering is a broad church and we recognise that volunteering in other contexts includes one-off (such as a fundraising event or festival volunteering), remote ad hoc activity (often called micro-volunteering) and in some circumstances full time volunteering, such as volunteering overseas.

Defining Internships

At Volunteer Edinburgh we define an internship as a time-limited, regular commitment, work experience opportunity (paid or unpaid) which is directly linked and relevant to ongoing or recently completed formal learning. An internship is designed to provide the participant with clearly defined experiential learning which is of direct relevance to the formal learning studies being undertaken or recently completed. Regrettably, the term can be used to mask what in another context may be potentially excessive or even exploitative volunteer involvement.

What have internships got to do with National Minimum Wage?

Internships are on the rise but there is no legal definition and they do not fit under employment legislation that protects workers even though, it is estimated, that up to a third of internships are unpaid. Thus concern is raised about how they are treated. Internships are more likely to fall under National Minimum Wage legislation due to some of the similarities of work-like conditions which could build a case of breach NMW law.

What can you do to prevent confusion between volunteers and internships?

Volunteers must have

  • Flexible arrangements for undertaking the role.
  • No expectation of a prescribed skill set or knowledge prior to taking on the role.
  • No obligation to undertake prescribed role.
  • Flexibility in the tasks and types of activities undertaken.

Internships should

  • Be a tailored placement that matches with the interns professional and or learning development needs.
  • Where possible, focus on a particular role or task within the organisation.
  • Be time limited.

National Minimum Wage

Remember the mantra: It is about the circumstances and not what you call it. National Minimum Wage legislation is a protection against exploitative practices that can see individuals in work-like conditions, under work-like contracts with either little pay or no pay at all.

Because of this, organisations need to be careful how they construct, advertise and conduct their volunteering roles by ensuring that there is no reference or conditions that imply a 'worker' relationship.

A 'worker' is someone who is under contract like conditions, which can be written, expressed or implied. This can be easily done, due to many organisations lifting employment practices and applying them to volunteers. Although not typically done with the intention to deceive, the practice of applying HR employment models to volunteering almost always causes problems. To safeguard against this organisations should ensure that their volunteer involvement practices do not:

  • Imply an obligation of the volunteer to perform the work.
  • Imply an obligation from the organisation to provide work.
  • There must be no regular or unexpected financial rewards or benefits (aside from legitimate volunteers expenses).

Organisations involving volunteers should ensure that they have an appropriate support framework that is specific to volunteers and includes:

  • A specific Volunteer Policy, which outlines conditions, expenses and support mechanisms.
  • A specific Volunteer Agreement, providing clarity to both the organisation and the volunteer, which clearly states that it is not a contract of employment.
  • Specific procedures to tackle problems between volunteers and the organisation.

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More help?

If you would like more help or advice please contact Volunteer Edinburgh on 0131 225 0630 or email:
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Volunteer Edinburgh
222 Leith Walk, EH6 5EQ