If you’re around nonprofits, you know that many rely on volunteers for operations, special events and programs.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, “about 62.6 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2014 and September 2015.”

Usually, these people are good-hearted and do very good jobs.  However, we also have bad apples and those who misbehave or have accidents  in the name of the organization. This creates a huge liability for the nonprofit that is counting all pennies to provide goods and services to the community.  It doesn’t matter that volunteers are not paid, they still can do damage that the nonprofit may be held liable for. 

Actually,  “Good Samaritan” laws exist for volunteers in the case of personal liability, such as the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997.  However, that doesn’t mean that the nonprofit is also covered under this act automatically.  Better be safe than sorry. It's interesting to note that when things go wrong, the issue of proper training and oversight of volunteers is often questioned. 

So, proper supervision is a must in any volunteer situation, including making sure they get appropriate training and are placed in situations where they are qualified to be.  For example, if you run a swimming class, make sure the life guards are properly certified and are trained to identify problems and take care of them.  Swimming instructors should also have minimum qualifications for the job.  Just because it's a volunteer situation doesn't mean that standards need to be lowered. 

 Helping to maintain such standards, many nonprofits use manuals to clarify policies and procedures and as training material, very similar to those created for employees.  Be sure that manuals include sections about prevention of sexual harassment, safety and proper behavior in the workplace.  Also, add text about disciplinary actions if warranted. 

A tool to avoid unpleasant surprises is to do a background check on all volunteers, even if they cost a bit. It doesn't mean that everybody should be perfect, but if someone has a riskier background with problems with the law, they may need to be more closely supervised and placed in jobs that don't compromise the organization.  Background checks may also be required on insurance policies that include volunteer activities. 

Indeed, nonprofits must consider getting volunteer insurance policies to protect the organization from volunteers behaving badly or accidents.  Beware that because volunteers are unpaid, they are not usually covered by worker's compensation insurance and if something happens to them, the nonprofit may be on the hook for it.  So, consider adding a rider or a separate policy to include volunteer issues while they work for the organization. 

Volunteers are often wonderful and many organizations wouldn't be able to offer their programs if it was not for them. However, they also present a liability to nonprofits that must be addressed. Since protecting nonprofits against these risks can be expensive, be sure to include these costs when preparing budgets, grant proposals or gift requests so that you have the required funds to protect the organization against any losses.

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