Chapter 3: Managing Your Nonprofit’s Risks
Are Nonprofit Volunteers a Liability?
If there’s a theme for this guide, it’s that nonprofits have a few more hurdles to clear than other businesses. Your special tax-exempt status requires extra work come tax time and can expose your board to more lawsuits. Another situation that increases your liability is the use of volunteers.
Volunteers are great — don’t get us wrong. But from an insurance perspective, volunteers may seem like “wildcards” that bring a whole load of risk with them. Let’s take a look at some frequently asked questions about volunteers and how you can ensure your extra help doesn’t become a source for lawsuits and losses.
FAQ About NPO Volunteers and Risks
Is my organization liable for injuries my volunteers suffer? Absolutely. If a volunteer gets hurt working for your organization, you can be sued for failing to provide a safe workplace.
If a volunteer damages someone’s property or hurts someone, is my NPO liable? Yes. In fact, the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 (PDF) was enacted specifically so that volunteers can’t be sued over mistakes they make while volunteering. The Volunteer Protection Act doesn’t absolve your organization from liability, though. In other words, if a volunteer damages someone’s property, the property owner won’t be able to sue them. The owner will be able to sue your organization.
Your NPO can be held accountable for errors your volunteers make.
How concerned should I be about volunteer liabilities? According to the article “Safeguarding Volunteers with Effective Risk Management ” published in Nonprofit Quarterly, more volunteers have been asked to do manual labor or maintenance work since the Great Recession. In our recent economic downturn, nonprofits rely on more volunteers to perform work that their paid staff had done in years past.
Why is this significant? Maintenance and manual labor are some of the most dangerous and “risky” work that people can perform. If you rely on volunteers to do manual labor or specialized jobs, there’s a greater chance that your nonprofit will face some kind of liability lawsuit over injuries or errors — or both.
Protect Your Organization from the Risks of Using Volunteers
Let’s go over some ways to mitigate the risks of using volunteers:
Screen Your Volunteers
The level of screening you implement will depend on the kind of work your volunteers do. For instance, volunteers working with minors should undergo a background check (which can cost between $25 and $50). In fact, state laws may require you to do so. If your volunteers are involved with bookkeeping, you should check their credit background.
Even though you are not hiring them, you should scrutinize volunteers. You might not ask them all the things you would in an employee interview, but a few questions will go a long way.
Ensure Your Volunteers Are Properly Trained
While it may seem obvious that volunteers need training, the implementation is trickier than you’d think. Remember, training is an ongoing thing. Let’s say you run an organization like Habitat for Humanity. If you’re building a house, you’ll need to constantly train people. With a large number of volunteers, that can be hard to keep track of.
That’s why documentation is a good idea. Documenting which workers have received which type of training is vital. Equally important is having handbooks, guides, and other documents that backup the face-to-face training your organization does with its volunteers. Emailing guidebooks, waivers, and other material to volunteers ahead of time can be a smart way to cover your liabilities and streamline your work schedule.
Keep in mind that if a volunteer sues you, it might be your word against theirs unless you have the documentation to back up your story.
Assign Jobs to the Right People
Naturally, you want your most trustworthy and capable people working on your most dangerous jobs. These include things like heavy lifting, maintenance, manual labor, and any work that requires tools.
But what about new volunteers? You may not want to overwhelm them with documentation and training on their first day for fear of scaring them off. Many volunteers want to do something right away and feel they are making a difference, but some jobs aren’t safe for those without training. You’ll want to find low-risk tasks for less experienced volunteers or pair them with more seasoned volunteers in order to give them experience in a safe way.
Reward your best volunteers by giving them more responsibility. Let them train new workers. Make sure you outline best practices and show them the key things they’ll need to teach effectively.
Just as important as training, evaluation gives you an opportunity to reinforce the skills, attitudes, and behaviors you want from your volunteers. Tell your volunteers what parts of their work you appreciate the most and point out areas where they could improve.
One helpful resource on volunteer management is the website Our Shared Resources . This site compiles sample documents for everything from volunteer recruitment to screening and waivers.
Next: How Your Non-Profit Can Save Money on Unemployment Taxes