Taking up references

References are comments from people who know the potential volunteer in either a work or a social context.  They can range form a basic check that the person is who they say they are, through to a detailed recommendation of their suitability for the role.

Why ask for references?

Whether or not you ask for references depends on the type of work that the volunteer will be involved in.  There is no legal requirement to take up references but reasons might include:

  • to check that the person is who they say they are
  • to check their suitability for a particular role
  • to add information not disclosed at interview
  • to demonstrate to volunteers, staff and service users that volunteers are an integral part of the service and therefore need to be checked formally
  • to satisfy everyone that reasonable precautions have been taken to ensure the organisation has exercised its "Duty of Care" towards its service users

Limitations to references

  • many individuals and organisations are reluctant to give any information beyond confirming a person's name, in what capacity they know them and how long they have known them for
  • the referee may have their own agenda and the information they give is their personal view
  • some volunteers find it difficult to identify a referee, particularly if they have been out of work/education/volunteering for some time

Who can be a referee?

Decide exactly what information you need from a referee and who would be best placed to provide this.  Be aware that providing the names of two referees can become another barrier to volunteering to people who may already feel excluded.  Be prepared to help people think about who they know that could give them a reference.  This may include:

  • Employers - fine for people who are either employed or have been so recently, but difficult for others
  • Other professionals - could include social workers, probation officers, health visitors, day centre staff, tutors, religious leaders or anyone else who may know the volunteer in a professional capacity
  • Personal friends - a character reference from a personal friend can provide useful information.  Close family members are generally excluded

Requesting references

Ask the referee some specific questions rather than a vague request for a reference.  Include a description of the role that the volunteer will be undertaking.  Questions might include:

  • In what capacity they know the person
  • How long they have known them
  • Comments on the volunteers suitability to work with a specific client group (if appropriate to the role)
  • Comments on the volunteers suitability for particular tasks


Under the Data Protection Act volunteers may claim access to their references.  However, disclosure is almost certain to identify the referee and the act provides some limited protection for third parties.  To find out more read section 7 of the Data Protection Act 1998.  This is available with additional comments in Volunteers and the Law available as a free download from Volunteering England

References that cause concern

  • Ask the referee's permission to discuss with the volunteer
  • Review in the context of your original impression of the volunteer
  • Consider the role, support and training available