The Manifesto Explained: Voluntary Roles, Placements and Unpaid Labour

For many years, volunteering was seen as something unquestionably good – a means to give back to society, an act founded in charity and selflessness. Doing something for nothing was borne out of a sense of public duty, described by Dr David Starkey as ‘one of the great things that is essential to Britishness’ and lauded as an essential moral value as part of David Cameron’s Big Society.

There may be something innately good and wholesome about charitable acts and selflessness, but charities as organisations and volunteering as an institutional practice must not be without scrutiny. For both can be extremely troubling entities, and the consequences of their actions, left unchecked, can be entirely nefarious.

Image of a wall, 1895-1902, with peeling paint. Sussex, UK.

Fair Museum Jobs believes that volunteering within the museums sector has been insufficiently regulated, and this has produced a number of harmful consequences for individuals and the sector. These are as follows:

  1. Voluntary roles have been replacing jobs that would have previously been paid.
  2. Volunteering as a route for entry into the sector has become an established norm, with huge and overwhelmingly negative effects upon the sector’s workforce diversity.
  3. Volunteers are being asked to take on increasing amounts of responsibilities for which they are not compensated, sufficiently legally protected or properly insured.
  4. Volunteers are being asked to commit to unreasonable and inflexible time commitments and volunteering frequencies that limit access to other opportunities including paid work, as well as disadvantaging those with education, family or caring responsibilities.
  5. Volunteers can be subject to pressures that leave them with little or no recourse to change their volunteering situation, and be left with very few rights and agency within their organisation.
  6. Requirements that volunteers must have certain specific skills or qualifications are unreasonable, beyond a bare minimum that is necessary to meet operating needs. Trustee positions, given the legal responsibilities involved in such roles, may be an exception to this.

As a result of these concerns, Fair Museum Jobs has produced the following guidelines as part of our Manifesto, developed in spirit with the paper Best Practice Guide to Apprenticeships, Internships and Volunteering produced by Creative & Cultural Skill and the National Skills Academy.

  1. Voluntary Roles, Placements and Unpaid Labour

4.1 When advertised, a voluntary role must clearly and unambiguously be stated as such and must not be allowed to pose as a paid job. For clarity, the word ‘volunteer’ should be included in the role title.

4.2 Entitlement to reimbursement of expenses (or absence thereof) must be clearly set out in the job advert.

4.3 Voluntary roles should not exceed a minimum time-commitment requirement of 2 days or 15 hours per week (except for shorter-term periods) and ideally the volunteer should be able to commit as much or as little time as they like, within reasonable bounds.

4.4 Voluntary positions should not ask for minimum qualifications or prior experience of specialist technical knowledge (e.g collections management systems or documentation standards). An exception to this may be made for Trustee roles, so that they can meet certain legal obligations.

4.5 Voluntary positions must not be used to replace roles which were previously paid, or which carry duties and responsibilities one would normally expect from a paid role.

4.6 Adequate training and Personal Protective Equipment must be provided, depending on the nature of the role.

4.7 Each volunteer should have a designated supervisor, manager or mentor.

4.8 Appropriate volunteer agreements should be in place between volunteers and hosting organisations, so that the exactions of both parties are understood.

4.8 Organisations should not seek to claim title to Intellectual Property produced by their volunteers.

4.9 Commercial, profit-making organisations should not advertise for voluntary roles, with the sole exception of placements, as defined below.

4.10 Placements are understood to be fixed-term periods of unpaid work, within the context of an educational programme, with clearly defined learning and development outcomes and adequate training and support.

In challenging organisations that violate the terms of this Manifesto, we feel we can anticipate some of the arguments that they may present: That there is no money to pay a role, that they are a charity, and that without volunteers they would close.

If there is no money to pay a specific role adequately, then trustees must not release such a gathering of responsibilities to a volunteer who does not share the same legal responsibilities as a trustee. Trustees may ask that certain responsibilities be undertaken by a volunteer, but must not attach to these unreasonable terms of expectation of hours given or time in post.

That an organisation has charitable status must never, ever, absolve it from its social responsibility.

Many organisations can survive when staffed on a completely voluntary basis without breaking the terms of the Fair Museum Jobs Manifesto. If an organisation cannot operate along similar lines, then we suggest it looks to others that can and emulates their sound practice. Continuation of an organisation’s functioning and existence must never come at the expense of essentially fair labour conditions or human dignity.

Volunteers can be a great resource, but they are also people who demand and deserve respect. Let us all work hard to change the sector for the better by honouring these demands.

“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”  Booker T. Washington

“Volunteers don’t get paid, not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless.” – Sherry Anderson

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller


  1. Hello there,

    The Museum I work for is keen to get this right and we’ve got a query around the interlectual property clause (4.8). Would it be possible to chat to someone about this?



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