peers who volunteer

Control and choice over voluntary work

Control and choice over voluntary work

One of the key things which differentiates volunteering from paid work is that volunteers are able to decide how much they work and what tasks they undertake whilst employees are required to do anything reasonable that lies within their job description. However, when we asked peer volunteers about how much control and choice they had over their voluntary work, we got a very wide range of responses.

Some organisations were careful to ensure that peer volunteers had control over the amount and type of voluntary work they did and were often careful to ensure that this work matched individuals’ recovery and other goals. However, other organisations were much less caring and, in some cases, merely used peer volunteers as unpaid staff to do whatever jobs they needed doing.

Are peer volunteers different?

Many volunteers spoke of how determined they were to put everything into their voluntary work, often as a way of starting to “give back” and atone for things they regretted doing in life. Many people talked of feeling shame about their involvement in, for instance, drugs or crime and were committed to be a “better person” going forwards. This often left people in a position where they were eager to take on as many responsibilities as possible to demonstrate to themselves and others that they had changed. They were also often driven by a need to make sure that the people they were supporting were not “let down”.

The need to please is a real thing. It’s like a desperation to be valued and heard. It is a driving force for good, but can also be exploited.

Many people with lived experience also have experienced different types of trauma which can also make it hard for them to say no. Many survey respondents talked about how they had taken on too many volunteering responsibilities early in their recovery journeys, leading them to feelings of being overwhelmed and sometimes even to relapses. They were keen to share their experiences to new peer volunteers and offer words of caution.

Choose what you take on wisely, because we can burn out very quickly because of our backgrounds.

Experiences of choice and control over voluntary work

We asked our survey respondents about how much choice and control they had over the voluntary work they did. While most were happy with their control over the amount and type of voluntary work they did, more than one in six people (17%) did perform tasks which they did not want to do on occasion.


People who were happy with the amount and type of voluntary work they did, praised organisations who were proactive about volunteers’ wellbeing and had a clear structure for ensuring that they were happy about their volunteering. This often consisted in regular check-ins which gave peer volunteers the opportunity to talk about their volunteering, what they liked and disliked, and what they would like to do going forwards. People valued organisations who did not take them for granted and explicitly encouraged them to talk about things which were not going well. Some organisations imposed clear limits (such as a maximum number of people to mentor) to ensure that volunteers were protected from the risk of over-work.

They keep reassuring me that is ok to tell them if I cannot do something or if I do not feel comfortable to do something. They are always making sure I am ok.

People also valued organisations which offered an enhanced level of care for people in recovery. In these cases, volunteer supervisors were careful to check that the mentoring that people provided to others was not causing difficulties for their own recovery journeys in terms of triggering cravings or promoting feelings of repeat traumatisation. Many people talked about valuing a transparent and explicit support process which raised hopes and ambitions while ensuring that progress took place at a speed which suited the individual and could be altered to take account of life events.

My mental Health problems make me un-reliable at times and less able to function - their awareness and acceptance of this has been very helpful.

Some organisations who mainly employ people with lived experience have put in place a range of Human Resource/support mechanisms specifically to deal with incidents of lapse or relapse relating to drug and/or alcohol use or mental health issues. These mechanisms were designed to reassure employees and volunteers that the organisation was committed to support them throughout their recovery journeys and were a concrete acknowledgement that for most people progress would be up and down. People were encouraged to seek help and support from the organisation as early as possible, rather than to try to manage on their own or hide problems.

Another key factor appreciated by many people was being offered an explicit choice over what work they would prefer to do, with this decision often linked to personal goals or ambitions either to do with recovery or career progression. In discussing their volunteering, people shared experiences of how important volunteering had been for them in terms of improving feelings of self-confidence and self-worth and feeling they had something to contribute to society. Many people talked about how feeling part of an organisation and being valued alongside paid staff made them feel content for the first time in many years. Peer volunteers often developed very strong feelings of loyalty and commitment towards the organisation they were volunteering for.

I was volunteering on pre-release at a charity furniture shop and I was really impressed when they gave me the choice to work on the till or not.

Many of the volunteers involved in this project had become involved in sharing their lived experiences for a range of reasons (to help an organisation improve its service delivery, to inform a research project or shape a new policy) and in a variety of ways – on planning groups, recruitment panels, service development days or even giving evidence to MPs.  This chance to share their lived experience fostered for many a strong desire to speak out about problems in the system for their peers and built a strong sense of identity and the value of their work.

I felt too ashamed of who I was to put myself in the public eye, the work I do sharing my lived experience has allowed me to become proud of who I am and my voice is important.


There were three main themes in the responses from people who had had negative experiences in terms of control over their voluntary work: Pressure to do more work from the organisation, internal pressure to do more work from the volunteer themselves and no choice over the nature of the voluntary work or an expectation of performing menial task.

People often spoke of being taken for granted after a period of time. For instance, one person who had been co-running a recovery group for 18 months expressed the desire to do something else to broaden their experience but was pressured into continuing to run the group (alongside a paid member of staff) because the organisation felt they couldn’t run it without them.

At an early stage in my recovery I could definitely have been supported more in getting a balance. At first, I just wasn’t confident enough to say no.

The third issue that a substantial minority of people complained about was when they were not given any choice about the type of work they did as a volunteer. Some shared experiences of being expected to do menial tasks or fulfil mainstream administrative functions because of a shortage of paid staff. In these cases, people said they felt exploited.

I do a lot of unnecessary bureaucratic work and sometimes I’m asked to run personal errands for staff. I feel like I’m being treated as a skivvy.

Control and Choice Checklist

For people with lived experience

  • It is natural to want to do as much as possible to give back when you start volunteering, but try to take your time before agreeing to new duties. It is important to balance your own needs and recovery with your volunteering. 

  • Life changes for all of us, all of the time. If you need to cut back on your volunteering for a time, because of other issues or concerns, have the confidence to do so.

  • Remember that as a volunteer, you have choice over what sorts of work you do. Make sure you only do those things you are happy doing, and with the support your feel you need.

For providers

  • Take responsibility as an organisation to safeguard your peer volunteers and limit the amount of volunteering they do, particularly in the early days of their recovery journeys.

  • Check in regularly with peer volunteers to ensure that they have the right balance between volunteering and other activities in their lives.

  • Encourage volunteers to express their areas of interest and suggest activities which appear to match their interests and skills.

  • Remember that volunteers should not be used as a way of filling staff shortages, even in “emergency” situations.

  • Remember that many peer volunteers will wish to move on from volunteering after a period of time – either to paid work or for other reasons. Try to facilitate these moves rather than retaining volunteers you have begun to rely on.        

For commissioners

  • If you are commissioning a service with peer volunteers, please ask for evidence on how providers guarantee that  volunteers have control and choice over the voluntary work they do based on the key points listed above.

Control and Choice Resources

Good practice guides

National Voices Peer Support Hub is an online bank of high quality, curated resources for people looking to measure, evaluate, sustain and grow different types of peer support programmes.

Clinks (2020) Managing volunteers: A guide for organisations working in the criminal justice system 

 Clinks (2016) Good practice in service user involvement from the voluntary sector working in criminal justice

Investing in Volunteers is the UK quality standard for good practice in volunteer management for those organisations who want to accredit their practice.

Justice Involving Volunteers in Europe (2016) Building successful partnerships involving volunteers in the criminal justice system: a good practice guide

Using this guide

You can either download the best practice document in full here or browse the different sections of the guide by following the links below.

Privacy Preference Center





Receive the latest news

Keep in touch

Get the latest news on peer volunteers.