Retaining and supporting nonprofit volunteers in today’s environment

Author: James Smith

Volunteers are a critical asset in supporting and sustaining any nonprofit organization's operations. People choose to donate their time because they believe in an organization's mission, and their skills, passion and enthusiasm can make a difference when budgets are lean. What a challenge the pandemic presented when our reliable volunteers were no longer available to help due to the risks presented — certainly we felt the impact of this retreat.

There are many factors to consider when recruiting and deploying volunteers, with an ever-growing series of pitfalls in today's complex environment. Volunteers can easily come to harm if placed in dangerous or unfamiliar positions, and their actions can also boomerang back and injure the organization itself from a financial or reputational point of view. It's essential for responsible nonprofit organizations to establish a strong volunteer program, with clear guidelines and well-trained management in charge to ensure proper oversight. It's also important to keep your risk management team in the loop when considering any new or expanded activities for volunteers to confirm that the proper insurance coverage is in place.

1. Supervision

Identify strong managers to oversee the volunteer program, and provide comprehensive training for them on the potential hazards and liabilities associated with volunteer activities. For example, a volunteer driving their own vehicle while conducting organization business may create a liability should they get into an accident in which damages or legal fees exceed their personal policy limit. Or, if children are present, supervisors must be fully trained on the organization's sexual abuse and molestation prevention policies and procedures. Supervisors are key in the implementation of such policies and procedures in the operations.

2. Screening nonprofit volunteers

Organizations should gather as much information as they can about all volunteers before they begin work. A thorough application can assist in this process, and should be used to assess the volunteer's experience and physical skills to match them to appropriate work. When volunteers are deployed in areas where they can best add value and be successful in their tasks, their bond to the organization is strengthened and they are more likely to contribute on a long-term basis. Volunteers who are put in situations outside their ability or comfort zones are more likely to move on or, worse, get injured (or injure someone else).

In addition to identifying skills, the application process should include:

  • Criminal background checks
  • Motor vehicle record (MVR) check, if driving will be part of their role
  • Establishment of written criteria for acceptance (or not) based on the results of these checks, to ensure that there can be no credible claims of discrimination
  • Requirement of evidence of the volunteer's personal auto coverage or establish minimum liability limits if driving is a core volunteer function

If the volunteer's potential position includes working with children or a vulnerable population, a comprehensive background check must be conducted on the volunteer. If the results of this background check show any kind of inconsistency or criminal history, the record should be reviewed by a committee of top management to determine whether it meets the organization's standards. When using background check firms, use the most comprehensive against national and state databases. Background checks have limitations, so it is important to review areas of known residences.

Finally, if the volunteer activities are physically demanding, the organization should consider establishing written physical criteria for applicants to meet, such as the ability to lift 50 pounds or more, work on one's feet for hours at a time, and so on.

3. Nonprofit volunteer orientation

Volunteers should receive formal orientation and training before commencing work. The orientation should emphasize the need for supervisory approval and clearly defined scope of work requirements and activities before any assignment begins. Volunteers should be trained on what to do in the event of an injury, illness or other accident as if they were full-time employees. Be sure to document any training done with the volunteer.

4. Work parameters

Establishing well-defined limitations will help volunteers focus their activities, and steer clear of hazards and injuries. In general, volunteers should not be allowed to use power tools, table saws, forklifts, welding equipment or any other hazardous equipment unless they can provide evidence of prior training or experience, and can demonstrate strong competency prior to independent use. They should observe all safety protocols and wear all required PPE as if they were full-time employees.

Volunteers under 18 years of age should not be allowed to use ladders or participate in other work involving heights; those past retirement age should be gently discouraged from use as well.

Like employees, all volunteers should receive ladder safety training (three points of contact, etc.) before they can climb a ladder for work. Ladders should be inspected prior to each use, and ladders with damaged or bent supports should be discarded and replaced.

Consider avoiding any work for the volunteer that includes close contact with children, vulnerable populations, money handling or sensitive files. These positions should be handled by paid individuals who are familiar with the sensitive nuances of each position. Volunteers should never be used for hazardous work typically reserved for licensed professionals, such as electrical work, fire protection, and roofing.

5. Insurance for nonprofit volunteers

When developing the volunteer program, organizations should work closely with their risk management and insurance brokerage team to create a comprehensive list of approved volunteer activities. These activities should then be cleared by the insurer and endorsed in writing to all relevant insurance policies, including workers' compensation, general liability, professional liability and (if they are driving) auto liability. If volunteers cannot be endorsed to the workers' compensation policy or if there is an expense associated with it, consider adding a separate volunteer accident medical insurance policy.

If volunteers come as a group from another organization such as a school or corporation, be sure to inquire as to whether they are covered by that entity's workers' compensation or medical policy. Ask them to provide a certificate of insurance naming your nonprofit organization as an additional insured as it pertains to the volunteer program.

6. Waivers for nonprofit volunteers

Before commencing work, it's a good idea to have volunteers sign a waiver releasing and holding the nonprofit organization harmless from any claims or personal injury damages that they might incur during the course of their volunteer work. A workers' compensation or separate volunteer accident medical policy may help defray medical costs, but neither are a guarantee that the volunteer will not file a lawsuit.

The waiver should also specify that the volunteer is physically capable of performing all work as described and that, to the best of their knowledge, they have no health conditions that would impact their ability to do so safely. The volunteer further certifies that they will follow all rules and instructions, and that they agree to participate in the program at their own risk.

These are important steps in establishing your organization's volunteer program. Your Gallagher team is ready to assist you with any questions or concerns you might have.

Gallagher's nonprofit Practice Helping the third sector maximize its impact. 24,000+ clients around the world.

Author Information: