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Nonprofit Volunteers: Minimizing the Risks

Volunteers can be the lifeblood of a nonprofit organization. For those organizations relying heavily on volunteers, establishing a thorough, comprehensive volunteer program and corresponding policies helps to ensure focused, productive, happy volunteers as well as minimize the organization’s legal exposure.

Minimizing legal exposure is important because volunteers’ acts are generally imputed to the nonprofit organization. Specific, written volunteer policies and procedures are critical. Important components of a good volunteer program include clear and forward-thinking volunteer policies, thorough volunteer applications, screening, and management.

What follows are some highlights of important components to consider when crafting a comprehensive volunteer program:

Written Volunteer Policies and Procedures. Inadequate training or supervision of volunteers can expose nonprofits to liability. Accordingly, nonprofits should adopt policies and procedures designed to protect the organization. The purpose of the organization and volunteer duties should be enumerated. Typical policies regarding discrimination, harassment, or other illegal behavior should also be included.

Job Descriptions. Include what is expected of the volunteer and what a volunteer is and is not authorized to do. Clarify any potential risks to the volunteers, and consider requesting that volunteers sign a release from liability. A concise job description will likely help insulate the nonprofit from liability in the event that a volunteer goes beyond the scope of clearly defined duties and injures someone, or, if they are injured but were aware of/waived liability as to the risks. Some elements to include in a job description include:

  • the nonprofit’s purpose

  • training requirements

  • volunteer duties

  • specific time commitment requirements

  • the locale of volunteer activities

Volunteer Applications. The type of volunteer service in question should dictate the scope of the application. For example, an application to volunteer at a community garden would require far less information than an application to volunteer to work a vulnerable population such as children or the elderly. If appropriate, a personal interview may be required. Here are some (but not all) components that should be considered, when circumstances dictate:

  • personal information (contact information, driver’s license, any insurance, social security number, etc.)

  • qualifications, if necessary (special educational requirements, skills, etc.)

  • references

  • home visit details and perimeters (if applicable)

  • written permission from the volunteer to conduct a background check

  • written waiver of confidentiality

Screening. Obviously, screening needs vary greatly depending on the nature of volunteer activities. When such activities involve working with vulnerable populations, driving, or other possibly dangerous activities, screening needs increase. Failure to screen and the urge to self-police volunteers can expose the organization to liability. In the interests of safety and risk management, screening should be designed and evaluated for effectiveness. Be cognizant of the privacy of volunteers, to the extent possible. Obtain a written consent. Screening should be done periodically and can include:

  • criminal background checks

  • driving records

  • insurance confirmation

  • health screens (such as a T.B. test)

  • verification of any necessary credentialing

Training. Depending on the nature of the volunteer’s duties, comprehensive training should be conducted. Volunteers should receive written training materials. In addition to duty-specific training, training should include:

  • the nonprofit’s basic standards of conduct

  • guidelines to use when acting on behalf of the organization

  • training on identifying and reporting suspected abuse

  • confidentiality

  • the nonprofit’s expectations of the volunteer

  • procedures to report problems or concerns

Management. Volunteers can be the main “face” of the nonprofit corporation to the community. Additionally, liability can arise from the acts of a volunteer. Volunteers should be given clear information as to whom they report. Since nonprofits are expected to supervise their volunteers and can be held liable for their conduct, volunteers should be given concise direction.

Dismissal of volunteers. The nonprofit should be ready and willing to dismiss a volunteer if necessary. Volunteers should be held to a high standard. Here are some tips on handling the dismissal of a volunteer:

  • if appropriate, have a meeting with the volunteer to address concerns and possible remedies

  • have a formal, written process in place to remove volunteers

  • document the removal of the volunteer

Other important topics. To protect your nonprofit from liability, don’t engage in discrimination and don’t tolerate harassment. Have a grievance procedure in place for volunteers to address issues that may arise. In sum, if you depend on volunteers, implement a solid volunteer program. Not only will your potential legal exposure be mitigated, but you will develop a stronger and more vibrant volunteer force if the volunteers are appropriately selected, screened, trained, and managed.

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