Tackling Volunteer Liability Issues
During the pandemic, your not-for-profit may have been forced to operate without your dedicated volunteers. It has probably come as a great relief to welcome them back in person. However, volunteers, like employees, represent some risk to your organization. For example, you could be exposed to lawsuits if volunteers are harmed or harm others while volunteering for you.
What’s the Risk?
Allegations of negligence or intentional misconduct often motivate lawsuits against nonprofits. In certain situations, responsibility for harm may be considered automatic whether or not there’s negligence or misconduct. Nonprofits also can be held liable even when volunteers act outside the scope of prescribed duties or accepted procedures.
Still, most organizations have to manage volunteer-related risks as best they can, because operating without unpaid help would be impossible. But you can use volunteers with greater confidence by adopting certain practices. Just be sure to create policies with input from legal counsel.
How Do You Mitigate Risk?
Your volunteer recruitment process should be almost as formal and structured as your paid employee hiring process. Before seeking volunteers, develop job descriptions for open positions that outline the nature of the work to be performed, any required skills or experience, and any possible risks the job presents.
Screen prospective volunteers according to your nonprofit’s mission, programs and likely volunteer activities. Some positions will pose few risks and your screening process can be relatively basic: Ask candidates to fill out an application and submit to an interview, and then check their work and character references. Positions that carry greater risks — such as work involving children, the elderly and other vulnerable populations, or direct access to cash donations — require a more rigorous process.
Once volunteers are on board, provide training, supervision and, if necessary, discipline. At a minimum, training should involve an orientation session to explain your nonprofit’s mission and policies. Once volunteers have begun working for you, actively supervise them.
Do You Need Insurance?
Adequate insurance is critical. In addition to general liability coverage, your nonprofit may want to consider supplemental policies that address specific types of exposure such as medical malpractice or sexual misconduct.