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. Their skills, passion and enthusiasm can make a difference when budgets are lean.
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. In addition, their actions have the potential to injure an organization's finances or reputation.
So 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 ensure that the proper insurance coverage is in place.
Here are six key elements for managing volunteer program.
1. Train supervisors for nonprofit volunteers
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 on organization business can create a significant liability if they get into an accident in which damages or legal fees exceed their personal policy limit. Or, if volunteers work with children, supervisors must be fully trained on the organization's sexual abuse and molestation prevention policies and procedures. Supervisors are key in implementing such policies and procedures in the operations.
2. Screen nonprofit volunteers
Organizations should gather as much information as possible about all volunteers before volunteers begin work. A thorough application can help this process by assessing volunteers' 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 — be injured or injure someone else.
In addition to identifying skills, the application process should include criminal background checks and, if any driving is involved, a motor vehicle record (MVR) check. The organization should establish written criteria for acceptance (or not) based on the results of these checks, to ensure that there can be no credible claims of discrimination. The organization may also choose to require 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, a committee of top management should review the record to determine whether the volunteer meets the organization's standards. When using a firm to do background checks, use one that does the most comprehensive check against national and state databases. Background checks have limitations, so it's important to do checks specific to areas of known residences.
Finally, if the volunteer activities are physically demanding, the organization should consider establishing written physical criteria for applicants, such as the ability to lift 50 pounds or more, work on their feet for hours at a time and so on.
3. Orient nonprofit volunteers
Provide volunteers with formal orientation and training before they start working. The orientation should emphasize the need for supervisory approval and clearly defined the scope of work and activities before any assignment begins. Volunteers should be trained on what to do in case 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. Set work parameters for nonprofit volunteers
Establishing well-defined limitations will help volunteers focus their activities and steer clear of hazards and injuries. In general, volunteers shouldn't 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 before independent use. They should observe all safety protocols and wear all required personal protective equipment (PPE), as if they were full-time employees.
Volunteers under 18 years of age shouldn't be allowed to use ladders or participate in other work involving heights; those past retirement age should be gently discouraged from working involving heights as well. Like employees, all volunteers should receive ladder safety training (three points of contact, etc.) before they can climb a ladder for work. Inspect ladders before each use, and discard and replace ladders with damaged or bent supports.
Consider avoiding any work for volunteers that includes close contact with children, vulnerable populations, or handling money or sensitive files. Instead, paid staff familiar with the sensitive nuances of each position should handle these roles. Volunteers should never be used for hazardous work typically reserved for licensed professionals, such as electrical work, fire protection, roofing and so on.
5. Verify insurance coverage for volunteers
When developing a volunteer program, organizations should work closely with their risk management team to create a comprehensive list of approved volunteer activities. The insurer should then clear these activities and endorse them to all relevant insurance policies in writing, including Workers' Compensation, General Liability, Professional Liability and — if volunteers are driving — Auto Liability. If volunteers can't be endorsed to the Workers' Compensation policy or if there's an expense associated with the endorsement, consider adding a separate volunteer accident medical insurance policy — such policies are rarely expensive, and your volunteers will appreciate knowing the protection is there.
If volunteers come as a group from another organization, such as a school or corporation, be sure to inquire as to whether they're covered by that entity's Workers' Compensation or medical policy. Ask the organization to provide a certificate of insurance naming your nonprofit organization as an additional insured as it pertains to the volunteer program.
6. Have volunteers sign a waiver
Before volunteers start working, 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 the volunteer might incur during the course of their volunteer work. A Workers' Compensation or separate volunteer accident medical policy will help defray medical costs, but neither is a guarantee that the volunteer won't 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 six steps are important in establishing your organization's volunteer program. Your Gallagher team is ready to assist you with any questions or concerns you might have.