Protecting Non-Profits from the Risk of Volunteers

Non-Profit Lawyer New MexicoModern non-profit organizations quite literally live or die on the effectiveness and commitment of their volunteers. Particularly for organizations that rely directly upon volunteer service providers, developing and implementing volunteer policies and training programs are excellent ways to focus the energies of the volunteers, while at the same time minimizing potential liabilities and other risks. All such non-profit organizations should fear using reckless, negligent or ill-trained volunteers because of the vicarious liability and related costs they could pose. Detailed, written procedures and policies should be provided to all volunteers including information about the application process, screening procedures, and overall operations for the non-profit and its’ various departments or subdivisions. When designing such a comprehensive policy and training program we recommend you consider the following.

Insufficient supervision, management, and training are the most common mistakes made by non-profit organization seeking to avoid legal liability. As such, these organizations would be well served to incorporate written policies drafted with the intention of protecting the organization/corporation itself. It is essential that the goals of the organization for the volunteer and their contributions are presented along with these policies and procedures. Additional legal policies concerning harassment, discrimination, or any other prohibited behaviors should also be considered and drafted in the early stages of the nonprofit formation.

Additionally, the specific activity or service that a volunteer will be providing must be described clearly. The volunteer should understand what they are authorized to do, not do, and what is generally expected of them. Make certain to point out potential threats to the volunteer’s safety and give sufficient thought to having them sign consent or release of liability paperwork. The key here is that describing volunteer activities precisely can protect the charitable organization from a volunteer’s actions that overstep this clearly defined scope of their duties. Any business attorney, or nonprofit lawyer knows the importance of preventing such legal issues before they occur.

Effective utilization of volunteer applications is another liability-limiting tool. Naturally, the category of volunteer service at issue will dictate the depth and direction of the application itself (i.e. an application for a person to volunteer at a community park project would not need the depth and breadth of questioning as in the situation of a volunteer seeking to work with children or senior citizens). The higher the degree of risk associated with the volunteer service to be provided, the more appropriate a personal interview might become prior to acceptance of donated services and time. Contact information, identification information, qualifications, references, and even a background check should all be considered.

This brings us to the most important and most often neglected tool for preventing or minimizing and entity’s legal liability; training. All volunteers should be given written training materials or manuals but that is not nearly enough. Duty-specific training is an absolute must for any non-profit hoping to limit its risk while utilizing the volunteer’s services. All volunteers should be trained on the organization’s standards of conduct, guidelines for acting on behalf of the non-profit, the entity’s expectations of the volunteer, the procedures for identifying and reporting concerns or abuses, names and phone numbers of local and corporate-level persons to contact in the case of an emergency, and so on.

Discussing how proper management of a volunteer force is vital in minimizing liability would be an entire essay in and of itself. That being said, a few other important related topics remain. Volunteer workers must be held to the highest standard and members of your management must be willing to dismiss volunteers when appropriate. To protect your entity from future lawsuits the next rule is simple. Do not discriminate against any group for any reason and to do not tolerate any harassment of any kind. Be certain to provide a procedure for all volunteers to voice any grievances that they might have with management or with the organization as a whole. In general, if your charitable organization depends on its volunteers, you must generate and implement a tailored volunteer policy and program to better insulate your organization from liability.

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