Risk and Liability

What can happen to volunteers when working for you and what can volunteers do that can cause liability to your organization? Resources to separate worst-case scenario fears from reasonable precautions.

Barriers to Preventing Abuse, John Patterson with Charles Tremper and Pam Rypkema, Nonprofit Risk Management Center.
Benefits of Policies for Volunteer Programs, Linda L. Graff, Graff and Associates
Do Volunteers Pose Greater Risks Than Paid Staff?, Linda Graff, pp. 13-14, Linda Graff and Associates Inc.
Does Liability for Negligent Hiring Apply to Volunteers?, John C. Patterson, Staff Screening Tool Kit, pp. 13-14
Federal Law Protects Nonprofit Volunteers, Don Kramer, Nonprofit Issues
Gut Feelings and Intuitions in Volunteer Screening, Linda Graff, Beyond Police Checks, pp. 126-7, Graff & Associates
The Reasonable Person Standard in Volunteer Management, Minnesota Office of Citizenship and Volunteer Services, Planning It Safe, Minnesota Office of Citizenship and Volunteer Services.
Reference Checks, John Patterson with Charles Tremper and Pam Rypkema, Staff Screening Tool Kit, Nonprofit Risk Management Center
Step 2: Volunteer Screening, Charles Tremper and Gwynne Kostin, No Surprises: Harmonizing Risk and Reward in Volunteer Management, 2nd ed., Nonprofit Risk Management Center
Volunteering Is Inherently Risky, Susan J. Ellis, Appeared as an "On Volunteers" column in The NonProfit Times
When Something Goes Wrong and the Media Calls, Managing Special Event Risks, p. 41-42, Nonprofit Risk Management Center & Nonprofits' Insurance Alliance of California
Prepared by the Maine Commission on Community Serivce, but containing a summary of legal issues relevant to any volunteer-involving organization in any state. , 2011, pp. 24
Volunteering Australia has produced this free guide to assessing and managing risks for volunteer programs. , 2003, pp. 52

When newspapers in England reported of serious breaches of trust between volunteers and their organisations in 2009, Volunteering England was prompted to set up the Volunteer Rights Inquiry to begin to understand the nature and scope of the problems experienced by volunteers and identify suitable remedies. This Interim Report goes into detail about the findings of the intensive set of hearings held.  In 2014, a Final report of the Call to Action Progress Group following the Volunteer Rights Inquiry was produced by NCVO.

, 2010, pp. 32

Created as a "A Guide for South Australian Local Government" by the City of Salisbury in SA, this contains many useful tips for determining potential risks in volunteer work, even if the legal issues discussed will not be the same in all locations. Also suggests ways to create volunteer position descriptions from a health and safety perspective.

, 2014, pp. 60

Written in 2005 by Mark Restall for Volunteering England, this is "a readable overview of legal issues for volunteer managers and anyone who works with volunteers." It was written to cover the law as it applies to England and Wales, and cites actual cases from those courts. But the issues are applicable to many countries and the principles are universal. 

, 2005, pp. 63
Adler & Colvin (formerly Silk, Alder & Colvin)

The "resources" area of this law firm's Web site offers a number of excellent articles on legal issues for nonprofit boards of directors.

First Advantage

Resource center of free information on conducting background checks on volunteers (from a company selling screening services).

Legal Aspects of Volunteering (UK)

This is one section of the Web site of Sandy Adirondack, trainer/consultant on legal issues and governance in the UK, updating material in the Voluntary Sector Legal Handbook.

Nonprofit Issues

Nonprofit Issues® is a national Web newsletter of "Nonprofit Law You Need To Know." Written for nonprofit executives and their advisors, lawyer Donald Kramer provides clear, concise and comprehensive coverage of real issues that affect nonprofits every day. While there is a fee for subscribing to the full publication or participating in webinars, sign up for the free weekly e-mailed "Question and Answer" where Don Kramer responds to readers' questions on topics of general interest, often volunteer-related.

Nonprofit Risk Management Center

Major source of information and publications on all aspects of risk and liability for nonprofit organizations in the U.S. (much is relevant in other countries, too).  Volunteer risk management is one of their featured areas: https://www.nonprofitrisk.org/areas-of-expertise/volunteer-management/.

RISK eNews Archive

The Nonprofit Risk Management Center offers an excellent, free e-mailed newsletter discussing some aspect of risk each time. This links to the archive of articles written for the newsletter.

Verified Volunteers

Free information center on how to screen volunteer applicants, with reports, white papers, case studies, and how-to checklists for volunteer resources managers, provided by Verified Volunteers, a company that provides background screening services to organizations. Also have a blog.

VIS® Connections

Free quarterly risk-management publication for the organizations participating in the CIMA Volunteers Insurance program, but available for anyone. Archives online.

Volunteer Legal Handbook

Legal handbook for nonprofit corporation volunteers. Offers examples of "awful situations" and how to prevent them, with advice on volunteer screening, evaluation, training and insurance.

Volunteers Insurance Service

Most established American insurance program for volunteers. Site includes online version of their printed newsletter, VIS® Connections, and various articles on risk management.

Print and e-Books in Our Store

Book cover

A compendium of the best techniques for leading volunteer engagement, proven to work in a myriad of settings.

Book cover

Demystifies risk management and sets out in plain language what every volunteer program needs to know about this sometimes scary, always critical subject.

Weighing Benefits Against Risks
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

We live in a world concerned about risk and have evolved an army of designated "Risk Managers," too many of whom judge new roles for volunteers to be fraught with possible accidents or liabilities. A very recent example is the closing of volunteer-run shops by Cancer Research UK, despite a strong safety record. The job of a leader of volunteers is to focus on the benefits of volunteer involvement that, ideally, outweigh the worst-case-scenario risks that are not very likely to occur.

The key is to lead your organization through a series of important questions in three categories. Then assess the responses to see whether benefits or risks have the stronger argument.

The Benefits of Volunteers Doing Something

  • Who will benefit (to whom will this be important)?
  • What will be the impact?
  • To what other positive things will this lead?
  • How important is this to our mission?
  • Do we have people willing and qualified to fill this volunteer role?

The Possible Risks

  • Is there any harm that could come of this to anyone?
  • What is the likelihood of such harm occurring?
  • What will be the consequence if we do not deploy volunteers in this way?
  • Other than harm or an accident, what else might be negative about this?
  • Are clients concerned about risk or are they willing to accept some in order to obtain a desired service?
  • Are volunteers themselves concerned about the risk or willing to accept it?

Risk Management Considerations

  • Are there ways to build in safety through work design, training, or other risk management practices?
  • Does our insurance cover this or can we get insurance and at what cost?
  • Do we need liability waivers or other informed consent tools, from either volunteers or recipients of service?

Remember that there are always risks in not doing something that is needed. Balance the scales and follow the path that is best for the people you serve. Remember the old motto of the American Association of University Women: Only she who attempts the absurd can achieve the impossible.