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3 min read

The line between volunteers and paid staff

January 23, 2023

Over the last couple of months I’ve been having some interesting conversations about the line between volunteers and paid staff. And, since it’s the start of a new year I thought it might be a good time to brush off those volunteer position descriptions and do a little risk management!

Full disclosure - I am not a legal professional, this is not legal advice, and as always, you should check with a legal professional familiar with the laws in your jurisdiction before making these types of decisions.

With that out of the way let’s talk a little about the situations that have prompted some of these recent conversations:

Providing stipends to volunteers. Inflation is everywhere, gas prices have come down a little, but it’s still expensive. Many of our volunteers are on fixed incomes. Providing stipends to volunteers to help cover some of those costs sounds like a good idea, but wait! Where is the line between supporting or recognizing a volunteer and paying someone to work? It’s blurry, and there isn’t a law that clearly covers this. 

Most organizations feel comfortable directly reimbursing a volunteer for expenses - volunteers provide a receipt for something, and are paid back for that amount. That doesn’t blur the volunteer/employee line, but it’is such a hassle! 

Gift cards create more complications. The IRS considers gift cards like cash and designates them as compensation for employees and volunteers and this can be risky. At what point does a stipend to support a volunteer become the foundation for an unpaid wages claim? We don’t know. We haven’t seen that case come through the courts yet, but it’s probably coming. If you’re regularly giving your volunteers gift cards, even a card for something specific like gas or a bus pass, you may be opening your organization up to risk.

I had another, similar conversation with an organization that had put their participation in AmeriCorps programs on hold because of this situation. Again, I am not a lawyer. I don’t know how risky this is for any specific organization. I think it will depend on how risk averse your organization is, and what types of documentation you have in place for your volunteers and your paid staff. In this instance the organization’s legal counsel felt that the position descriptions for their AmeriCorps volunteers were too similar to those of employees, and that the risk was too great. They could not draw a clear line between the work of stipended volunteers and the work of employees, so the right course of action - for them - was to stop working with stipend volunteers.

How can we make sure we’re protecting our organization and our volunteers in this situation? Clear documentation is one of the best ways to do this! I know I talk about position descriptions a lot, but if you don’t have clear, comprehensive volunteer position descriptions - what include decision making authorities -  for all of your roles, you should. It is the single best way to make sure you have a clear distinction between paid staff and volunteers. And, if those position descriptions end up being really similar make sure you’re consulting with the appropriate legal professionals. I don’t know when we’ll see an unpaid wage case for a volunteer come through the courts, but I’m sure we will at some point. I don’t want it to be my organization, and I don’t want it to be yours, either!

Jennifer Bennett

Written by Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer Bennett, CVA is the Director of Education & Training at VolunteerMatch. Jennifer joined VolunteerMatch to formalize and manage the organization’s volunteer engagement program. With her breadth of experience, she is well qualified to help VolunteerMatch’s community of nonprofits better recruit and engage volunteers.