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Involving volunteers

This page is free to all
This page explains how volunteers can best be engaged and supported during the covid-19 pandemic. The page gives practical ideas for working with volunteers and links to other relevant Knowhow pages. This page is for anyone who recruits or manages volunteers – including volunteers who manage other volunteers.

Volunteering: step 4 of the government’s roadmap

  • Under step 4 of the government’s roadmap, most legal restrictions to control the spread of covid-19 in England have been lifted. People no longer need to volunteer from home where possible.
  • You can volunteer from home, outside your home and in your workplace.
  • If volunteers are returning to the workplace, workplaces have a legal duty to identify and take reasonable steps to manage any health and safety risks including the risk of spreading covid-19. Find out more in our guidance on managing covid risk.
  • Organisations that operate in the leisure and tourism industry, to support NHS Test and Trace, should keep an accurate record of when staff and volunteers are working on your premises, their shift times and contact details. Read our guidance on supporting NHS Test and Trace.
  • If travelling to volunteer, to minimise the risk of spreading covid-19:
    • avoid travelling at peak or busy times
    • avoid crowded spaces where possible
    • wear a face mask when travelling by public transport
    • increase ventilation by opening windows where possible
    • try and keep a distance from others.
  • The restrictions on social distancing, meeting in groups and face coverings have been lifted. This means:
    • people no longer need to stay 2m apart from those you don’t live with
    • there are no limits on group sizes when meeting
    • people are no longer required to wear face masks.
  • However, covid-19 has not gone away and it's important to remain cautious. In order to minimise the risk of spreading covid-19 at a time of high prevalence, when volunteering it's recommended that:
    • People continue to limit the amount of close contact they have with those they do not live with. This means limiting the number, duration and proximity of social contacts. Close contact should be increased gradually.
    • If meeting in an enclosed space, let fresh air in and try to increase ventilation. Where possible, try to meet outdoors.
    • If in a crowded or enclosed space, wear a face mask to protect yourself and others.
    • Continue to wash your hands regularly and for 20 seconds.
  • For more information about how you can protect yourself and others, read how to keep yourself and others safe on GOV.UK.
  • For some volunteers, returning to the workplace may provoke a range of concerns. They may be worried about an increased risk of catching or spreading covid-19 and how this might affect them and the people they live with and/or care for. To help:
  • Some parts of England are receiving further support to stop the spread of covid-19. If a volunteer is based or volunteering in one of these areas, they should:
  • People are permitted to travel abroad, for volunteering or otherwise, but should check which countries are on the red, amber and green list for entering England. Read guidance on travelling abroad on GOV.UK.
  • Find more information on volunteering during coronavirus on GOV.UK.

Volunteers and self-isolating

  • By law, people must not volunteer outside of their home and must self-isolate if:
    • they have symptoms of covid-19 even if the symptoms are mild
    • they've received a positive covid-19 test result
    • someone they live with has symptoms or has tested positive
    • they've been told to, by the NHS Test and Trace service.
  • Volunteers will usually have to self-isolate for 10 full days if they've tested positive for covid-19 or have been in close contact with someone who has. They might need to self-isolate for longer if they develop symptoms or their symptoms do not go away. Find out how long to self-isolate for on NHS.UK. 
  • For more information read guidance about households with possible or confirmed coronavirus symptoms on GOV.UK.
  • There are certain circumstances where if a volunteer lives with someone who has symptoms of covid-19 or has tested positive, they'll not need to self-isolate. These are if: 
    • they're fully vaccinated – meaning 14 days have passed since their final dose of the covid-19 vaccine 
    • they're under 18 years, 6 months old 
    • they're taking part of have taken part in a covid-19 vaccine trial 
    • they're not able to get vaccinated for medical reasons. 
  • Find out more about when to self-isolate and what to do on NHS.UK.
  • If volunteers have or develop symptoms of covid-19, they should: 
  • If volunteers are self-isolating and need some help with shopping, collecting a prescription or a friendly chat,  they can self-refer for help  by calling the NHS Volunteers Responders on 0808 196 3646 (08.00 – 20.00, seven days a week). For more information  see the NHS volunteers’ responders portal.

Supporting volunteers who are clinically extremely vulnerable

  • Volunteers who are clinically extremely vulnerable do not need to volunteer at home but volunteer-involving organisations should think carefully about how they can reassure and support these volunteers in their roles. Steps organisations can take include:
    • Explaining to volunteers the measures that have been put in place to keep them safe at work. Read our guidance on managing covid risk.
    • If there are certain tasks which will put a clinically extremely vulnerable volunteer at particular risk, consider adapting the task to minimise the risk or allowing them not to do this.
    • Providing flexibility to allow these volunteers to continue to work from home where possible.
    • Providing a regular space for volunteers to raise concerns. Taking any concerns raised seriously and providing feedback.
  • Read guidance on what voluntary extra steps those who have a disability or are more vulnerable to covid-19 can take to reduce the risk of getting covid-19 on GOV.UK.
  • Organisations can also support volunteers who are clinical extremely vulnerable to stay safe by encouraging them to continue to take extra precautions including:
    • Meeting people outside where possible
    • If meeting inside, making sure the space is well ventilated
    • Keeping the number of social interactions low
    • Washing their hands regularly
    • Maintaining social distancing requirements where it feels appropriate
    • Getting vaccinated when offered it. See our guidance on volunteers and covid-19 vaccinations.
  • If you are working in high risk settings where people, particularly those who are clinically extremely vulnerable, are going to be in close proximity with those they do not live with, you may want to consider using the NHS Covid Pass.

Recruiting and inducting during the pandemic

Planning for volunteer roles

  • As part of your duty of care to your volunteers, volunteer-involving organisations should:
  • When assessing the risks of a particular volunteering activity and deciding what precautions you might take to mitigate the risk, you should consider the following:
    • Does the activity involve factors that make it particularly high risk? You can read the government guidance on understanding the risks of covid-19. Be clear about what these are. 
    • What is the impact of doing the activity online? For example, if you can do the activity online without it negatively impacting your service delivery, you may want to continue to do this – particularly if the activity is taking place in an area that is receiving further support in England.  
    • The circumstances of the volunteer and any individual(s) benefiting from the volunteering activity eg are they clinically vulnerable? Do you know if they have been vaccinated?   
    • The physical and social environment within which the volunteering activity will take place. For example: 
      • Will the activity take place indoors or outdoors? The likelihood of transmission is reduced significantly by being outdoors. 
      • If indoors, will the space be adequately ventilated? Ventilation of indoor spaces helps reduce the amount of virus in the air.
      • Will social distancing be possible? Keeping a distance still reduces the risk of transmission.  
      • Will the place be sufficiently clean? Cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures are key to reducing the risk of covid-19.
    • How will volunteers travel to the activity location? Will they have to travel at peak times? 
    • What's your organisation’s approach to covid-19 testing?
  • For more information read our guidance on managing covid risks.
  • When considering a volunteer role you should consider what background checks may be needed and whether the role requires a Disclosure and Barring Service criminal record check. Read our guidance about safeguarding and covid-19 for charities and informal groups.
  • Want to learn more? You can read our general guidance on how to plan for involving volunteers and about safer recruitment of volunteers.

Inducting volunteers

Furlough and volunteering

  • While furloughed under the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, employees can’t volunteer for their employer or a company linked or associated with their employer.
  • Furloughed staff can volunteer for other organisations, or through neighbourhood or community initiatives.
  • Organisations can accept furloughed staff from another charity or organisation as volunteers, provided this is not a ‘swap’, hasn’t been planned or arranged between organisations, and the volunteer has a genuine choice. ‘Swapping’ furloughed staff as volunteers is likely to be seen as an abuse of the scheme by HMRC.
  • Involving volunteers works best when you don’t directly replace staff with volunteers. If you need to fill tasks previously carried out by furloughed staff, rethink the role into specific tasks so it is more appropriate for a volunteer. Give volunteers flexibility about how they can help. It's worth considering concerns that furloughed staff may have about job substitution.
  • No pressure should be placed on furloughed staff to volunteer. All volunteering should be voluntary, as explained in our volunteers and the law guidance.
  • If people are volunteering in your organisation without a volunteer manager or coordinator, give them a named contact person who is aware of what their role involves and plan how to support and motivate them. Learn more in our guidance on effectively managing volunteers within your organisation.
  • Volunteers who are furloughed from their employer may be called back to work at very short notice. Include this in your plans for inducting or on-boarding new volunteers, for exit and handover processes, and consider having a combination of volunteer roles that can be delivered in shorter time blocks.
  • For more information, read our blog about volunteering and furlough.

Supporting volunteers in your team

Volunteers and covid-19 vaccinations

Covid-19 testing for volunteers

  • Everyone in England can access free, regular, rapid, covid-19 testing. Testing is most effective within three days of symptoms developing.
  • Organisations may want to encourage volunteers to take regular rapid lateral flow tests even if they do not have any covid-19 symptoms. There's no law in England that says that volunteers must be tested for covid-19.
  • Any volunteer with symptoms should order a PCR test and stay at home. If a volunteer does not have symptoms, they can find a rapid, lateral flow test site in their area or from a local chemist. Alternatively organisations can pay an approved provider to provide tests or run a test site
  • If a volunteer role is seen as being an essential worker role, they can be prioritised for testing through a self-referral portal. The volunteer must be self-isolating because either they or member(s) of their household have covid-19 symptoms. The employer needs to upload the names and contact details of self-isolating essential workers to the government’s secure employer referral portal. Learn more about getting tested on GOV.UK.
  • If as an employer you want to require all staff and volunteers to regularly test for covid-19, you should first talk with either: 
    • staff and volunteers
    • a recognised trade union or other employee representatives. 
  • It’s a good idea to discuss with staff and volunteers:
    • how testing would be carried out
    • how staff and volunteers would get their results 
    • the process to follow if someone test positive for covid-19 
    • pay if someone needs to self-isolate but cannot work from home
    • how someone’s absence would be recorded if they need to take time off work 
    • how testing data would be used, stored and deleted in line with data protection law (UK, GDPR). 
  • Any decision after that discussion should be: 
    • put in writing, for example in a workplace policy 
    • made in line with the organisation’s existing disciplinary and grievance policy. 
  • If you can’t reach an agreement with staff and volunteers, it’s a good idea to get legal advice before bringing in a testing policy. For more information read Acas’ guidance on workplace testing for covid-19.
  • Collecting health data is classed as ‘special category’ data due to its sensitivity. Your use of the data needs to be fair, relevant and necessary for a specific purpose. The ICO outlines data protection considerations for collecting and processing testing data.

Paying for goods or services

  • If someone is self-isolating and unable to leave their home, a volunteer may purchase their essential household shopping, medicines (prescription or otherwise) or other essential items. The self-isolating person can either pay for these up-front or reimburse the volunteer afterwards. There are several ways to do this:
    • Place their order online and share the order reference number with a volunteer who can go and collect the order. This is usually called a ‘click and collect’ service and is offered by many large supermarkets.
    • Order a voucher or gift card which can be topped up with money online or over the phone and given to a volunteer or collected by them in store and used to buy the shopping. Many large supermarkets are offering this service including AldiAsda, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.
    • Give a volunteer their pre-paid cash card to pay for their shopping. The volunteer would need to pick up this card from the person isolating in advance of doing the shopping.
    • Use a dedicated online volunteer reimbursement service. vHelp is an online service that helps organisations make quick, secure and low-cost transfers to reimburse volunteers’ expenses. The process is cashless and all online. Fast reimbursement means that volunteers are not left out of pocket for long periods of time.
  • A self-isolating person can pay for their shopping over the phone at the checkout, after the volunteer has picked it up. You can check with your local store to see if they offer this service.
  • A volunteer can use their own debit card to pay for the self-isolating person’s shopping and be reimbursed afterwards. Alternatively, a self-isolating person can give their debit card to a trusted family member to pay for their shopping. They should never give their debit card to a volunteer who is not a trusted family member. Starling Bank provides a debit card designed to be used by a volunteer who is a close family member to pay for shopping.
  • As a last resort, a volunteer can pay for the shopping by using their own cash and being reimbursed afterwards, or by collecting cash from the person isolating before doing the shopping.

For the above options, please bear in mind the following:

  • A volunteer should give receipts of any orders collected or purchases made to the self-isolating person and return any change, cards or vouchers with balance remaining.
  • If the volunteer has used their own card, cash or other payment method to pay for the shopping, they should be reimbursed by online payment (bank transfer or PayPal), by cheque or cash. Please note, it is always up to the volunteer if they wish to give their bank account/PayPal details to the person they are helping.
  • A self-isolating person should not share any unnecessary details with the volunteer purchasing or collecting their shopping, and vice versa.

Retaining and engaging volunteers under step 4 of the government’s roadmap

  • Under step 4 of the government’s roadmap, organisations may see shifts in both those who step forward to volunteer with them and also those who choose to pause or stop their volunteering activity. With increasing numbers of covid-19 cases, this might be for a variety of reasons including:
    • Volunteers being concerned about the lifting of restrictions and potential increased risk of getting covid-19.
    • Volunteers’ not feeling comfortable with an organisation’s approach to managing covid-19 risk.
    • Volunteers being increasingly required to self-isolate.
  • To manage this, you need to consider:
    • how you can keep volunteers with different needs, feeling reassured and engaged
    • how you will manage a changing pool of volunteers.

Supporting volunteers to feel reassured and engaged

  • Communicate clearly how your organisation is managing the risk of covid-19. Explain the steps your organisation is taking to protect the health and wellbeing of volunteers and why. It may be helpful to have your approach explained in writing as well as explaining it in person. Give volunteers the opportunity to discuss any concerns they have about the organisation’s approach with a named person or volunteer manager.
  • Where possible, be flexible with your volunteer roles and activities. Be mindful of the fact that some volunteers will feel more vulnerable than others. If a volunteer has particular concerns about doing an activity or role, see if there are ways in which you can alleviate their concerns or be flexible in what you ask them to do.
  • Be honest about the challenges. Volunteers are often mainly motivated by the cause and empathetic of the challenges you may be facing. Be transparent about timeframes, what your organisation can offer and where you may need additional support. Remember they're ‘on your side’ and bring energy, ideas and time to help you achieve your goals.
  • Seek volunteers’ views at regular intervals. Ask volunteers how they're finding giving their time and what could be better. Always feedback to them on any changes you make due to their feedback.
  • Take the time to thank volunteers for their efforts. Provide regular feedback to volunteers on the difference they're making to the people you are working with or your cause. This could be how many people you have reached or a case study of how someone has benefited from your work. Research shows many volunteers highly value informal thanks and feedback. Read our guidance on thanking volunteers.
  • Proactively contact those who have chosen to pause or stop volunteering. This may be due to a change in their circumstances; for example if they have less time available with the lifting of restrictions. If possible, acknowledge the change in their circumstances. You may want to see if there are alternative volunteer roles that would better suit their new circumstances. If not, ‘keep the door open’ for them to return to volunteering. If they've chosen to stop volunteering with your organisation, try to make sure you end the volunteering relationship well. To do this, read our ending volunteering checklist.
  • Read our general tips for ensuring your volunteers stay with your organisation.

Managing a changing pool of volunteers

  • Ask volunteers for the help you need. For example, if you have experienced volunteers still actively engaged, would they be willing to take on additional responsibilities - such as inducting new volunteers or checking in on how new volunteers are finding their role. Sometimes people would be keen to help but just need to be asked.
  • Be flexible and where possible ask volunteers to be flexible too. It is impossible to know who will have to self-isolate and when. In order to try and prepare for this possibility, talk openly to new and current volunteers about the need for volunteers, where possible, to be flexible in what they do and how..
  • Be prepared to reduce your offer. If you cannot carry out your service safely and effectively it is important to be prepared to acknowledge this. It may be helpful to:
    • Consider how you might communicate this with those you work with.
    • Make sure you know what other organisations are doing locally. This will help you know where you can signpost individuals whom you are unable to provide support.

Additional help for finding and supporting volunteers

  • The VCS Emergencies Partnership is providing a ‘Get help as a local organisation’ service, where regional voluntary sector liaison leads will be linking local organisations with local or regional responses of support.
  • Local organisations can make a request for support, which is then reviewed by local liaison leads. Needs that cannot be met are escalated to a regional or national level. If you are in London, speak to your Volunteer Centre or CVS for details on how to access this service.
Page last edited Sep 10, 2021

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