Internships and volunteering

The difference between volunteers and interns. Some of your questions answered.

Deciding whether a role is a volunteer role or an internship can be a bit of a minefield. The information below is from a range of sources.

There are several definitions of volunteering, Volunteering England quotes the Compact Code of Good Practice in Volunteering, that volunteering is: an activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or individuals or groups other than (or in addition to) close relatives".

People become engaged in volunteering for many reasons, these include: wanting to help others, gaining employment skills, meeting new people, increasing social networks. The essence of 'volunteering' is that time is given freely.

In order to ensure that volunteers are not considered 'employees' you should have clear guidelines around why you involve volunteers, pay out of pocket expenses, have clear role descriptions and volunteer agreements.

Interns may be paid or unpaid. However there are important employment law implications to consider if you are thinking about taking on interns. 

In most cases interns will be 'workers', however in practice charities sometimes attach the term 'intern' to a volunteer position which allows someone to gain practical experience whilst volunteering to support the charity's cause. Volunteer interns will be:

  • giving their time freely (i.e. not under contract)
  • reimbursed only out-of-pocket expenses
  • working either directly or indirectly to benefit others (i.e. the environment, individuals or groups)
  • We would suggest that a volunteer internship therefore be defined as "a timelimited volunteer placement that allows a person to gain practical experience by undertaking an activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment, individuals or groups other than (or in addition to) close relatives". Source Volunteering England 

    However, it is vital that you provide the appropriate support and development opportunities to any intern, whether they are paid or unpaid.

    The circumstances in which an internship can be offered without pay are limited, and if an intern is effectively performing as a 'worker', the employer is obliged to pay them at least the national minimum wage. Organisations that ensure their unpaid interns are not performing as workers may still be at risk if they offer some kind of enhancement. For example, the opportunity of a training contract offered to unpaid interns could mean they are classed as a worker.

    The text above about Volunteering and Internship is from Volunteer Centre Lewisham. They are our local experts on all forms of volunteering and you should approach them for detailed advice.

    Arts Council England

    The Arts Council state, 'We recognise the mutual benefits of a well-planned internship for both individuals interested in a career in the arts and arts organisations themselves, so we want to set out the responsibilities employers have when offering this kind of position.

    We have published these guidelines to help clarify the legal obligations of arts organisations offering internships.'

    This guide for arts organisations is available to download on this page (below).

    They state:
    There is no formal, legal definition of an internship. However, for the purposes of these guidelines, we define an internship in the following ways:

    • it is short term (ideally between two weeks and six months)
    • where the intern fulfils ‘worker status’ through the activities they undertake and their contractual relationship with their employer, it is a paid position (see Section 2)
    • while many interns have knowledge or skills in a relevant area, the internship should be either their first experience of a particular sector or role, or the ‘next step’ on from, for example, a volunteering role
    • the intern is expected to contribute to the work of the organisation, rather than taking on a purely shadowing role
    • an intern should be provided with a defined role and job title

    If you are at all unsure about volunteering versus internships, do seek advice from Volunteer Centre Lewisham and/or sign up for one of their courses.



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