Volunteer in food bank

Are volunteers part of the workforce?

Published: 11/11/21 | Categories: Influencing, Author: Fiona Liddell

Fiona Liddell, Helpforce Cymru Manager, takes a critical look at where volunteers fit, in relation to workforce planning post COVID-19.


It has long been a question of contention as to whether volunteers count as part of the workforce, or as something distinct and separate. What might once have been dismissed as a matter of petty semantics is becoming, we could argue, a more important one.

The post-covid world is one in which funding is more scarce and the needs for health and social care have increased. Through the pandemic, we have seen some remarkable examples of organisations pulling together and finding ways to circumvent the usual barriers that keep us working in our different ‘silos’. We have seen paid staff and volunteers working alongside each other perhaps more than ever.

There is now an opportunity for new discussions about how we develop and deploy our paid workforce and our volunteers, to build greater resilience, more joined up services and to better meet needs of the most vulnerable in our communities.

All this sharpens the question, therefore: are volunteers part of the workforce, or are they not?


Naturally there hangs a question of definition.

Workforce planning and reporting tends to relate to ‘staff’- on getting staff with the right skills and values in the right place at the right time to meet the organisation’s objectives.

Volunteers are not staff and the distinction is an important one. They are not under a legal contract in the way that employees are, but give their time voluntarily and freely. They cannot be redeployed and redirected in the way that staff can be; instead changes need to be a matter for mutual agreement.

We have also learned, during Covid, the value of volunteers being ’shared’ between organisations. They may, for example, be recruited and trained by a county voluntary council and placed under the day to day supervision of a pharmacy, a local authority department or a mass vaccination centre. A current pilot project with Age Cymru involves  volunteers being placed within care homes, (with a specific remit to support residents’ visiting). Responsibilities and accountabilities are agreed and clear, and are shared between the care home and Age Cymru.

A shared approach, such as this, maximises the benefit to and minimises the burden on the hosting organisation, drawing upon the time and expertise of a third party to manage the recruitment and support of volunteers.

For these reasons, volunteers cannot be part of the planned workforce –  at least not in the same way as staff.


The Bevan Commission has long called for recognition of the ‘wider workforce’ within workforce planning (Report 2018), including all available human assets: staff, volunteers, carers and members of the public.

According to CIPD  ‘Workforce planning is a core business process which aligns changing organisation needs with people strategy….It doesn’t need to be complicated and can be adjusted to suit the size and maturity of any organisation.’

One very good reason for including volunteers in our ‘people strategy’  would be simply that volunteering (in the context of complex, mixed workforces) requires a budget, dedicated staff time and skill, distinct operational and management systems, strategic forward planning, organisational recognition, stakeholder ‘buy in’. Even shared systems as described above need some forward planning and organisational investment.

A further reason is that some (not all) volunteers will be interested in further training and employment.  What better than to be able to employ individuals who are already immersed in the culture and practice of your organisation?  Made in Wales (described in the Welsh NHS Confederation report ‘Health, wealth and wellbeing, p12) aims to grow the health and care workforce from the local population, ‘creating flexible entry points and transferrable career pathways’.


Our exploration leads us to the conclusion that volunteering needs to be included in strategic planning, part of a ‘people strategy’ perhaps, but distinct from the staff focussed workforce planning and management. Volunteering is a valuable resource, but has to be based on voluntary commitment and mutual gain; not on ‘filling the gaps’ in a workforce plan.

This requires collaboration between volunteering leads and workforce/HR teams. Involvement of trade unions, volunteers and external organisations will help in shaping a future for volunteering  which is realistic, attractive and beneficial to all parties concerned.


The WCVA/Wales TUC Charter for volunteering and workplace relationships sets out principles for successful volunteering and positive workplace relationships.

Investing in Volunteers is the quality standard for volunteer management and a guide to good practice for all volunteer involving organisations.

Our recently published Framework for volunteering in health and social care explores six core questions for organisations who are thinking about introducing or developing volunteering within health and social care. It includes links to further resources, information and case studies. It aims to encourage a strategic and longterm approach to volunteering, not only within one organisation but working collaboratively across a locality, in order to maximise its strength and impact.

Helpforce Cymru is working with Third Sector Support Wales (WCVA and 19 CVCs), Welsh Government and other partners to develop the potential of volunteering to support health and social care services in Wales.

Visit the Helpforce Cymru webpage, or to receive email updates, sign up here and choose the option ‘health and care volunteering’.