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Volunteer Expenses

When considering the issue of volunteer expenses and framing a policy in this regard, the three issues regarding volunteer expenses policy to be considered should probably be:

1. Where possible, make sure that volunteers are fully reimbursed for their costs and are not out-of-pocket after volunteering.
2. Don’t give more money than your volunteers have spent. This could be regarded as a ‘payment’ and affect tax, state benefits or even the legal status of a volunteer.
3. Create a simple and efficient system so that expenses are quickly reimbursed and volunteers are encouraged to claim.

Why reimburse?

It’s not unknown for managers of organisations to query why they should reimburse expenses. Some volunteers too might feel that they shouldn’t take money from a charity.

The reimbursement of volunteer expenses can help an organisation to meet its commitment to offering equal opportunities to all. The cost of travelling and a meal eaten out is significant to someone on a low income or who receives state benefits. Volunteer expenses should be built into all funding applications or budgets as part of the regular costs of a volunteer programme.

It’s worth remembering too that volunteers are making a gift of their time – one that has substantial monetary value. They should not be expected to give up money as well. Any organisation serious about involving a diverse range of volunteers should reimburse expenses.

Which expenses should be reimbursed?

In general any reasonable expense incurred as part of the volunteering activity should be reimbursed.

This can include:
* travel to and from the place of volunteering.
* travel while volunteering.
* meals taken while volunteering.
* care of dependants, including children, during volunteering.
* postage, phone calls, stationery etc.
* cost of protective clothing/special equipment etc.

Limits on meals

It’s fine to put sensible limits on some expenses to prevent the unlikely occurrence of a volunteer ordering steak and champagne for lunch then presenting your finance team with the receipt. But be sure to set your limit at a level that allows volunteers to have a hot meal and drink in the local cafés.

Guidelines on transport usage

It is also reasonable to ask volunteers to come in by the cheapest reasonable form of public transport. Do remember though that it may be necessary for some volunteers to take taxis – because of disability, for example, so try to be flexible and budget for extra costs.

Reimbursing vehicle mileage

Consider a set rate for vehicle mileage.  Below is a suggested rate set at a level to take into account depreciation and other running costs as well as fuel. This is a convenient method for volunteers and volunteer managers, because receipts and proof of expenditure don’t need to be kept. Your volunteers just need to keep a record of their mileage.

•    Cars and vans – 50c per mile for the first 10,000 miles, 30c per mile over 10,000.
•    Motorcycles – 25c per mile.
•    Bicycles – 25c per mile.

Stick to “out of pocket” or actual expenses

It’s extremely important to reimburse “out of pocket” expenses only. This means reimbursing against receipts, bus tickets etc. Some organisations prefer to pay a flat rate – eg €5 per day. While this might be simpler to administer in terms of paperwork, it can cause problems for both the organisation and its volunteers.

Volunteers in receipt of state benefits are entitled to receive out of pocket expenses only. Claimants receiving more than their actual expenses may lose part of their means tested benefit, and the nature of their volunteering may also be called into question. Also, asylum seekers who volunteer are only allowed to receive out of pocket expenses. They must not be given something that would be regarded as income.

Money over and above out of pocket expenses is regarded as income by Dept of Social Welfare, and is therefore taxable. Note that the entire sum a volunteer received would be taxed, not just the portion above the actual expense. It is likely too that the organisation would have to put such volunteers through PAYE, as Social Welfare could treat such ‘volunteers’ as they would employees.

Expenses payments that exceed volunteers’ actual costs may be regarded as a payment in return for the work they have carried out. This could be regarded as a contract by a tribunal or similar body, giving the volunteers the same rights as workers or employees – including the national minimum wage. This is a complex issue.

Use clear record-keeping

For all the above reasons it is important to reimburse out of pocket expenses only, which means asking volunteers to produce receipts, bus tickets etc. It makes sense to create a simple claim form that you can keep with copies of the documentation.  

Have volunteer-friendly procedures

Some organisations only reimburse expenses on a monthly basis. This might be easier for the organisation to manage, but it can be very difficult for people on low incomes to wait that long to be reimbursed. Volunteers should be able to claim back expenses as soon as possible. Also, it’s generally much better for volunteers to receive their expenses as cash rather than a cheque. Some people do not have bank accounts, and in any case cheques have to clear.

For this reason, your organisation should consider reimbursing expenses in advance.

Encourage all volunteers to claim expenses

As mentioned earlier, some volunteers may feel that they do not need or even should not be offered expenses. Explain the equal opportunities issue – that not everyone can afford to write off costs incurred through volunteering. It’s important that there is no stigma attached to claiming expenses, so it would be better if everyone put in a claim, even if they returned the sum as a donation. Another key reason for encouraging everyone to take their expenses is so that organisations have an accurate picture of volunteer costs for funders.