Who is a volunteer?

Volunteers are important to Not For Profit organisations. Many Not For Profits are run entirely by volunteers. While the definition of ‘volunteer’ may vary a little depending on who you ask, some things about volunteers remain true across all definitions:

  • volunteers are working voluntarily. You cannot force a volunteer to work
  • either the volunteer or the organisation can stop the arrangement
  • an organisation is not required by law to make any kind of payment to a volunteer  in exchange for their work
  • whatever agreement is in place with a volunteer, it does not tie the organisation or the volunteer into a legally binding arrangement
  • volunteers may be reimbursed for out of pocket expenses and may also receive payments such as an allowance, or an ‘honorarium’, which is a payment made freely and with no obligation
  • volunteers can receive non-cash benefits, e.g. free tickets, free access to services but if these types of benefits are accepted regularly and have substantial value, they may need to be taxed
  • volunteers are protected by the Equal Opportunity Act and have the right to work in a safe environment.

Do we need to do background checks on volunteers?

When recruiting volunteers, there may be some legally required background checks, as well as other checks that are recommended as part of the organisation's duty of care. For example, if you have not completed a background check the organisation may be liable for damage incurred by a volunteer working for your organisation.

There are few hard-and-fast rules about background checks. The decision has to be about the risk that applies for your organisation. You should take special care if your volunteers are working with children, the elderly, people with disabilities or if a volunteer have responsibility for finances or driving a vehicle.

Note: A Working with Children Check is a legal requirement for volunteers who will have contact with children during the course of their work with your organisation. The Working with Children Check is administered by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Do we need to have a written agreement with our volunteers?

There is no legal requirement for a written agreement with a volunteer. However you may find that a written agreement, clearly defining roles and responsibilities so that the organisation and the volunteer understand what both parties expect of each other will assist if there is a dispute or may help prevent disputes taking place.

Is our organisation liable for the conduct of a volunteer?

Under the terms of the Wrongs Act 1958 (Vic), there are some circumstances where an organisation is liable for something that a volunteer does. If this happens, the liability can extend to individual office bearers, committee members or directors (depending on the structure of your organisation). If you are unsure about whether your organisation is liable, get advice from a lawyer.

Discrimination and equal opportunity

Under the terms of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic), the rights of volunteers are not always clearly defined. No organisation is required to take on a person as a volunteer if they believe they will be unable to do the tasks required. However, if a person applying for a volunteer role feels treated unfairly on the basis of a personal characteristic covered by the Equal Opportunity Act, they may decide to take action against the organisation that they believe treated them unfairly. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission has a range of fact sheets and frequently asked questions about the rights of volunteers.

If we pay a volunteer or give them a non-cash payment, what about tax?

Volunteers can receive non-cash benefits, e.g. free tickets, free access to services but if these types of benefits are accepted regularly and have substantial value, they may need to be taxed. Your organisation may also pay 'one-off',  'honoraria', or 'ex gratia' payments. These are payments that carry no expectation of an exchange of work for pay.  The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) website has information about when tax might become applicable for volunteers.

What if something goes wrong?

Even with the best of intentions, problems can arise. Your avenues for dispute resolution will be different depending on the type of dispute, the legal structure of your organisation and whether you have volunteer agreements in place. If there's a problem, first check your rules or constitution and any agreements you have with the volunteer.

If the matter cannot be resolved easily, you may be able to access the Dispute Settlement Centre Victoria, managed by the Department of Justice (DoJ).

  • see the Disputes page on the DoJ website.


Further Information

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