When is a volunteer not a volunteer?

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For many years, I have regularly (and probably rather tediously) expressed concern about the practice of many environmental charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) employing people in unpaid `voluntary` positions which are clearly full-time jobs. These roles - variously described as `volunteer internships`, trainees, and even `voluntary immersive rangers`, often require qualifications and some experience. They seem to be particularly aimed at young people at the start of their careers, desperate for a foot on the environmental sector ladder.

This is not a criticism of volunteering of course. We know the benefits of proper volunteering. Volunteering can provide a sense of achievement; learning new skills and meeting new people, and can enable organisations to achieve much more on the ground. We need more volunteering opportunities - to allow people to engage with and care for the natural world. I developed my own interest in the environment through volunteering locally, at the weekends and in school holidays, with the Greater Manchester River Valleys Project, and on working holidays with the National Trust. At my university, we continue to encourage our students to volunteer to improve their skills and gain work experience.

But volunteering is not the issue here. Let's call the roles I am concerned about `volunteer internships`. UK employment law (1) on unpaid internships is quite clear - if an intern is undertaking work, they are normally due the National Minimum Wage. There are specific circumstances when this employment law does not apply - work experience as part of an educational course (at school, college or university); or if just shadowing an employee (with no actual work undertaken); or if the intern is classed as a volunteer working for a charity, voluntary organisation, or statutory body. It is this latter exemption which has allowed large NGOs such as the National Trust and RSPB, to recruit people to quite significant unpaid roles in the past. It could be described as exploiting a legal loophole. As with many things in our sector, where the National Trust and the RSPB lead, other smaller NGOs have followed.

In a recent edition of the CJS jobs list, I counted around fifteen `voluntary` roles on offer. Less than half of these sounded like real voluntary work to me - that is just one or two days a week at most - preferably working even more flexibly over a month. The majority sounded like real jobs. Some were short term contracts, less than a year, and offered free accommodation (a bonus of course) - but still proper jobs. Many were less generous than that. These jobs were offered by the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust (I will return to the NT's current position later), and other smaller NGOs.

So when is a volunteer not a volunteer? We all have our own personal views on this - but fortunately we have a major national organisation to provide advice - the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). To put it very succinctly, the NCVO's view is "If it looks like work and sounds like work, then it probably is" (2). I think we all intuitively understand this. But the NCVO also provides much more detailed guidance to NGOs struggling with the distinction and is currently working with several of our major environmental organisations to address these issues (3). Their advice covers guidance on volunteer management and expectations, and the need for personal and skill development (including feedback and evaluation). Perhaps more importantly (and practically) interns who are volunteers should not have a certain number of hours imposed on them, but the time they spend volunteering should be mutually agreed, based on their availability and around other commitments they may have. They cannot be compelled to turn up at a certain time, in contrast to an employee who would be contractually obliged to turn up for work. I would like to think that in practice, no volunteer roles should be advertised with any requirement for a specific period of hours a week - or at most, no more than two days a week for guidance only.

Imagine you are a young graduate, straight out of University with a good degree. You need to work - to pay for accommodation, food and other essentials - to establish your own independence. How many days a week would you need to work on top of an unpaid voluntary commitment? Do you feel you would need maybe at least one day a week for leisure and relaxation as well? As a university professor, I have known many excellent graduates who have been unable to take up `volunteer internships` because of their inability to support themselves at the same time. Sometimes these students are the first in their families to come to university. They have sometimes fought with their parents over their supposed unwillingness "to get a proper job". They are unlikely to now be able to come and work for you for free - even if they are amongst the most dedicated environmentalists.

I have heard many justifications from NGOs for existing practice in this area. Some are inherently ridiculous - arguing that NGOs can not afford to recruit paid staff is precisely the same argument that private companies would use if they were legally allowed. But they are not - and NGOs need to also budget accordingly. I am not talking about small voluntary organisations or community groups here - but the larger, professional charities.

Many NGOs claim their voluntary internships provide excellent training and experience - which they generally do. NGOs often add that whilst they cannot guarantee a `proper job` after such an experience, it will undoubtedly be regarded as a good thing by future employers. For me, this makes the inequity of this approach even worse. All the graduates I know who have taken up these opportunities have usually lived at home, supported by their families financially, and have often gone on to jobs with the same organisation. Whilst these young people are undoubtedly enthusiastic and committed, it is clearly unfair if others cannot afford the same opportunity.

Unpaid internships have been accused of being inherently exploitative, particularly if our sector reinforces the view that you are required to undertake such work in order to further your career. `Volunteering` becomes compulsory if it is required to secure paid employment - a sort of `badge of honour` - demonstrating your commitment to the cause. Many colleagues of my generation argue "we had to do this" - but that doesn't make it right (and I can promise you that the current benefit system is nowhere near as flexible as it was forty years ago).

And it is not just young people who are negatively affected by this approach. If your employment opportunities are only available to the well-off, this will inevitably diminish diversity in the environmental profession, as those who have been able to undertake these opportunities are favoured over the disadvantaged when it comes to paid employment. NGOs say they get many excellent, enthusiastic people applying for these roles (I am sure that is true) - but you won't necessarily get the best, and you will certainly be recruiting from a more limited pool of people.

Lynn Crowe
Lynn Crowe, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Management, Sheffield Hallam University

Encouragingly, I think views are changing. As organisations become increasingly concerned about equal opportunities and diversity, some NGOs are reviewing their recruitment practice. The National Trust has been working with the NCVO for over a year now, and has recently made the decision to move away from unpaid voluntary internships. Tina Lewis, their Director of People and Legal Services, has confirmed to me recently: "At the National Trust we are striving to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible. This includes continually improving our paid and voluntary opportunities and offering as much choice as possible. We stepped away from voluntary internships last year as, whilst popular, there was a concern that they were not accessible for a lot of people." Working with the NCVO, the National Trust has also introduced new apprenticeships and are piloting paid placements, as well as testing a new recruitment approach for more junior roles that focuses on potential rather than past experience (this work is described in an article for CJS here). This is excellent news and I trust other NGOs will follow their example (I believe the RSPB are already involved in similar work).

The environmental sector is never going to make you a millionaire - it is a vocation. It is hugely rewarding in so many other ways. But it should also be professional and it should be fair. We need the broadest range of people working in our field, representing everyone in our society, to contribute and to make a difference. Let's not allow unfair and unethical recruitment practices prevent this from happening.

Lynn Crowe February 2020

Emeritus Professor of Environmental Management,

Sheffield Hallam University

1 - Employment Rights of Interns (UK Government, 2020) -

2 - Internships: If it looks like work and sounds like work, then it probably is (NCVO, 2018) -

3 - Volunteering internships (NCVO, 2019) -

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