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Volunteering and benefits

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People in receipt of state benefits can volunteer without their benefits entitlement being affected.

People are allowed to volunteer while claiming state benefits, including means-tested benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), incapacity benefit, income support, employment and support allowance (ESA), and Universal Credit.

A person can volunteer as many hours as they like while they are in receipt of benefits, as long as they keep to the rules for getting them.

However, there are some rules that benefit claimants need to be aware of, to make sure that volunteering doesn’t have an impact on the benefits they receive.

Common misconceptions

  • There is a 16 hour per week limit to volunteering.
  • Claimants can only volunteer in registered charities.
  • People who get benefits because of illness or disability are not allowed to volunteer.

Misunderstandings can mean that some volunteers encounter problems, so it’s useful to be aware of the rules and regulations. Benefits are handled by Jobcentre Plus, part of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Guidance on NCVO gives a clear summary of the rules for each benefit, and includes typical questions and answers.

This section touches on issues relevant to volunteering but there is more information on GOV.UK, or from specialist advisory organisations such as Citizens Advice or the Child Poverty Action Group.

Definitions of volunteering

Section 4 of the Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996 says:

voluntary work’ means work for an organisation the activities of which are carried on otherwise than for profit, or work other than for a member of the claimant's family, where no payment is received by the claimant or the only payment due to be made to him by virtue of being so engaged is a payment in respect of any expenses reasonably incurred by him in the course of being so engaged.

If ‘volunteers’ get more than out-of-pocket expenses, they will be treated as if they are in paid work and subject to the relevant rules on employment for the benefits they are claiming. They should not get payments in kind, such as luncheon vouchers.

Expense payments must be for the actual cost of the expense. Typical expenses include:

  • travel to and from the organisation (or wherever the voluntary work is taking place)
  • travel while volunteering
  • meals while volunteering
  • post and phone costs
  • care of dependants (eg children or elderly parents) while volunteering
  • the cost of protective clothing or special equipment needed for the role.

The cost to a volunteer of using their own vehicle can be worked out by using the HMRC’s mileage allowance payment rates. Receipts, public transport tickets etc should be shown to the organisation before they pay back the expenses. The organisation should keep these (or a photocopy if the volunteer needs the original).

Volunteers can be given a payment in advance to use for expenses. It can be difficult for volunteers on low incomes to come up with money for travel and food, even if they’re going to get it back later. Organisations giving volunteers expenses in advance should still make sure they see and keep receipts. Any unspent amount should be returned or taken from the next payment.

Volunteers should not receive any payment other than to reimburse out-of-pocket expenses.

Jobseeker’s allowance

Jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) is paid to people capable of, available for and actively seeking work. Volunteering should not stop people from meeting these requirements.

Available for work means being able to start work immediately. However, people who are volunteering don’t have to be available to start work straight away, but must be able to start within a week, or go to an interview for work within 48 hours.

The Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 2016 say that they can also take part in residential volunteering for a period of up to 14 days. JSA claimants must be easy to contact while volunteering if the chance of a job comes up.

Actively seeking work means that people usually have to take more than two ‘steps’ to find work each week. Examples of steps include applying for advertised posts, speaking to potential employers, writing a CV and signing up with an employment agency.

There are also terms in the person’s jobseeker’s agreement that they must agree to. This explains the type of work the person is looking for and what they’ll do to find it.

The rules for jobseeker’s allowance come from the Jobseeker’s Act 1995 and the Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996. 

There is no limit on the number of hours that people on JSA can volunteer for, but it’s important that they can demonstrate that they are taking the required steps to actively seek work, and are available for work and interviews.

Employment and support allowance/Incapacity benefit

People who get these disability benefits can volunteer.

The Social Security (Incapacity for Work) (General) Regulations 1995 and the Employment and Support Allowance Regulations 2013 put volunteering in the category of ‘exempt work’, meaning that claimants are allowed to it carry out.

However, volunteers on disability benefits can face problems, particularly with Jobcentre Plus staff who do not know the rules about volunteering. Organisations can support people by giving them information about their right to volunteer. It may also help to prepare a letter explaining the nature of the voluntary work, distancing it from paid work and explaining the flexibility of volunteering (eg organisations can often change roles to suit the individual’s needs, or accommodate volunteers being able to leave early or not attend on days where their condition makes this difficult, given that there is no obligation upon the volunteer to attend at all).

Technical information

The relevant regulations on ‘exempt work’ are Regulation 17 (1) (b) of the Social Security (Incapacity for Work) (General) Regulations 1995 and Regulation 39 (1) (e) of the Employment and Support Allowance Regulations 2013. The latter is repeated within paragraph 13931 within Volume 3, Chapter 13 of the DWP’s Decision Makers’ Guide (pdf, 340KB).

Universal credit

People who get universal credit (UC) are entitled to volunteer. They will be in one of the following work-related activity groups.

  • ‘No work-related requirements group’ for people who are unable to work
  • ‘Work-focused interview group’ for people who are being prepared for work through regular interviews with a work coach
  • ‘Work preparation group’ for people who are in a more intensive work preparation group, but who are not required to actively look for work
  • ‘All work-related requirements group’ for people who must do work preparation activities, be looking for work and be available to start a job straight away.

People in the ‘all work-related requirements group’ have to do ‘work search activities’ for as much time per week as they have to be available for work, usually this will be 35 hours per week. Volunteering counts as a ‘work search activity’ for up to half of this time[1]. This is not a time limit on volunteering, but a limit on how much of the volunteering is seen as work search activity. However, people must leave enough time for the rest of their work search hours, which may limit how much time they can spend volunteering.

This means that:

  • if you are required to spend 35 hours a week looking for a full-time job, half of this time (17.5 hours) can be spent volunteering
  • if you only volunteer five hours a week, then you will be required to spend 30 hours looking for work
  • if you are looking for part-time work, eg 16 hours a week, you can volunteer for up to eight hours and spend the rest of the time looking for work.

Technical information

The DWP internal Advice for Decision Making guidance says:

 J3074 Claimants can do as much voluntary work as they wish but for the purposes of UC, only 50% of their expected hours of work can be a relevant deduction against their work search activities for the week.

1. This will not apply to people in the no requirements, work-focussed interview or work preparation category.

Page last edited May 31, 2019

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