Volunteers give their time for free, so it is good practice for a food co-op to pay for reasonable expenses. This will enable volunteers from a range of backgrounds to volunteer in the food co-op regardless of their personal circumstances. It is also a way of demonstrating that their contribution is valued.

Some food co-ops choose to give volunteers a flat rate, for example five pounds worth of fruit and vegetables per session. While this might be simpler to administer in terms of paperwork, it can cause problems for both the organisation and its volunteers. There are legal complexities around this because if a volunteer is reimbursed for more than they have spent, or given other payments (such as vouchers, or a free veg bag) this could be classed as an official payment and could interfere with benefits they are claiming, cause problems for the organisation under the National Minimum Wage Act or go against visa conditions for international volunteers.

Volunteers in receipt of state benefits, asylum seekers and other international volunteers are entitled to receive out-of-pocket expenses only (examples listed below). If you give benefit claimants a reward for their work that is worth more than their actual expenses, then they may lose part of their means tested benefit, and the nature of their volunteering may also be called into question. The Inland Revenue may consider that you are employing the person, rather than them being a volunteer. Money or goods with a cash value over and above out-of-pocket expenses is also regarded as income by the Inland Revenue, and is therefore taxable.

The most trouble-free way to avoid encountering problems is to reimburse the volunteer only for their direct costs (also known as 'out-of-pocket' expenses), for which they need to provide evidence, such as till receipts or bus tickets.

Expenses could include:

  • travel to and from the place of volunteering
  • travel while volunteering
  • lunch or other meals eaten whilst volunteering
  • childcare or care of dependants whilst volunteering
  • postage, phone calls, stationery or other sundry costs associated with volunteering
  • clothing or items the volunteer must use as part of their role.

Another thing to be aware of is it can become costly to provide expenses if there are lots of volunteers, but it is difficult to withdraw the offer of a volunteer position once you have agreed it. So you need to make sure that you have enough money in your budget, or are putting a high enough mark-up on the food you sell to cover these costs reliably. You also need to have someone impartial and trustworthy, for example your treasurer or volunteer co-ordinator, to be responsible for reimbursing expenses and keeping good records.

Other benefits and incentives

You can also offer volunteers a range of other benefits and incentives such as free training courses or visits to other food co-ops.The benefits of being a volunteer for a local food co-op can include:

  • Being able to buy good quality affordable food
  • Helping the local community
  • Meeting new people and learning to work together
  • Increasing confidence and self esteem
  • Trying something new
  • Gaining useful skills and experience, that they can put on their CVs and improve their employment prospects
  • Finding a stepping stone, for example, back into work or into other community activities

However, all volunteers have different reasons for wanting to get involved.  Some may want to get useful work experience, whereas others just want to get out of the house for a few hours a week and so may not be interested in any training or other activities. It is therefore important that you understand your volunteers' needs and help them to fulfill them. To find out more about training for volunteers go to the Training section.

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244-254 Cambridge Heath Road
London E2 9DA

0203 5596 777

Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.

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