References are comments from people who know the applicant in either a work or social context. They can range from 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?

There is no legal requirement to take up references and the types of reference you require will depend on the volunteering role however reference can help:

  • Check that the person is who they say they are
  • Confirms someone’s suitability for a role
  • Add information not disclosed at interview
  • Demonstrate to volunteers, staff and service users that volunteering is an important part of the service.
  • 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 or volunteering for some time
  • For paid work, it is not unusual to ask an applicant for two referees. You may decide that this is necessary for some of your volunteering opportunities. However, be aware that providing the names of two referees can be a barrier to volunteering,  particularly to people who may already feel excluded.

Who can be a referee?

Decide exactly what information you need from a referee and who would be best placed to provide this. Be prepared to help people think about who they know who could give them a reference.  This may include:

  • Employers: this option is fine for people who are either employed or have been so recently but difficult for others
  • Other professionals: this 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
  • Comments on the volunteers suitability for particular tasks

Getting a written reference is great as it provides a record for your recuitment process. However, verbal references are also valid. You will also want to create your own written record of these.

If you do get a written reference you may wish to follow it up verablly as this can give you additional and information.

You will probably get a more helpful reference if you explain the kind of tasks the volunteer will be asked to do and ask specific questions. You should ask whether the referee has any concerns about the applicant working with your client group.


Under GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018 volunteers are able to make a subject access request. This allows volunteers access to all the data that an organisations holds on them. The subject data access request only applies if someone believes a breached of their confidentiality or data has occurred or if they have raised a grievance with the organisation. Volunteers cannot randomly request their data, there must be a specific reason. Organisations should not hold data longer than is required in-line with data retention policies.’


See here for more information on GDPR and Data Protection

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