5 Ways to Avoid Legal Problems With Volunteers

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Volunteer with Child. Margie Politzer/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Volunteers are great and even essential to your charity. But, if things go wrong with a volunteer, it can spell bad news for your organization.

For instance, what if a volunteer has an accident while serving with you? What if the volunteer breaks the law or hurts someone else?  Your organization could be liable.

Here are five ways to make it less likely that you'll run into problems with your volunteers.

Some of these may seem onerous but take the time to do them right and protect both your organization and your volunteers.

1.  Develop volunteer policies and procedures.
Consult with an attorney or volunteer specialist to make sure these are adequate. Policies should spell out volunteer duties and address issues such as discrimination, harassment, and other possibly illegal behavior.

By explicitly banning bad behavior, your organization may be protected from liability. Be sure also to include protections for the volunteer from abuse by the organization and its staff.

2.  Write job descriptions for all volunteer positions.
Be explicit about expectations for the volunteer and what he or she can and cannot do. Spell out any possible risk to the volunteer and ask for a signed release from liability. A thorough and concise job description may help protect the organization from liability should the volunteer go beyond what he or she is allowed to do.


Here are some things to include in job descriptions:

  • your nonprofit's purpose
  • required training for this position
  • the duties expected of the volunteer
  • the time needed to do the task
  • the location where the volunteer will perform the work

3.  Require each volunteer to fill out an application.

Most of the time, it pays to require an application.

However, sometimes with group projects that involve a "cattle call" for volunteers, you can simply have the volunteers fill out a waiver that releases the organization from liability.

The complexity of the application will depend on the position. If the volunteer is working with vulnerable people such as children or the elderly, the bar should be higher. For menial tasks with little risk to anyone, a shorter application would be suitable. Be careful to have different applications for different jobs. There's no sense in discouraging some volunteers with a long form if it is not necessary.

Here are some things to include in an application, where appropriate:

  • Personal information such as address, phone number, email address, person to contact in the case of illness or accident, driver's license, proof of personal insurance, etc.
  • Qualifications, when necessary to the job, such as special skills, or educational attainment.
  • References who can attest to the applicant's good character or work ethic. References might be from a community member, another nonprofit where the applicant has volunteered, or an employer.
  • Written permission to do a background check, essential if the volunteers will be working with children or other at-risk populations
  • Waiver of confidentiality so you can gather the information you need and share it appropriately.

4.  Conduct proper screening.

Be careful here. Screening is especially important for volunteers who may be in contact with vulnerable people, or who have to drive while doing their volunteer work or engage in other kinds of dangerous work.

However, 31 percent of nonprofits do not perform volunteer screenings according to one study. Nonprofits often think they can police their volunteers themselves and neglect to perform proper background checks. But that can leave the organization open to liability. Think of screening as part of your safety procedures and risk management.

Screening should always be respectful and protect the privacy of volunteers as much as possible. Get written consent for screening before proceeding.

Also screen from time to time as a precaution.

Screening can be as simple as a personal interview, or can include:

  • criminal background checks
  • driving records and licenses
  • confirmation of insurance
  • screening for health conditions or asking for proof of certain vaccinations
  • verifying credentials such as a teaching certificate or special skills assessments
     

5.  Provide excellent training and management.
Never just turn a volunteer loose without adequate training. Volunteers appreciate being trained, so they know what to do and when. Train in groups or one on one. Develop written materials that the volunteer can take with them, and train on their specific tasks. Assign the volunteer to a staff person for oversight.

Training can include:

  • your organization's code of conduct
  • how to act when representing the organization
  • how to identify and report abuse
  • how to maintain the confidentiality of the organization and the people it serves
  • what you specifically expect of the volunteer
  • how to report any problems
  • who is in charge and how to reach them

Finally, be willing to dismiss a volunteer should they violate any of the rules, are difficult to get along with, are unreliable, or are abusive in any way. Develop a written procedure for staff if they must let a volunteer go.

Always inform the volunteer why you're letting them go, and then document the dismissal, just as you would with a paid staff member. Having a procedure, following it, and recording the action will help you should the volunteer decide to lodge a complaint with your top management or otherwise try to get back at you.

Don't forget to have policies for your staff that cover how they are to treat volunteers. Describe what harassment is and how to avoid it. Set up a grievance procedure that volunteers can use to report any abuse.

Volunteers want to do good and are appreciative when an organization is prepared to work with them. They want good policies in place and to have proper training and management. Keeping volunteers around requires not only gratitude on your part but also an organized approach that is protective of both volunteers and your nonprofit.

Recommended resources:

Volunteers: Balancing Risk and Reward (Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group)

Volunteer Screening - from Energize, a hub of volunteer expertise.