Limiting Volunteers through Insurance Requirements

By Susan J. Ellis

About a week ago I was contacted by long-time colleague Ed Madara from the American Self-Help Group Clearinghouse. He wanted to alert me to a trend threatening the continuation of his stakeholders:

An increasing threat to the continuation and expansion of volunteer-run self-help support groups across the country is the demand for insurance coverage that churches, public libraries, and other community agencies are requiring of self-help groups. For decades, the groups thrived and helped millions of people. But the insurance demand is having its toll….

[C]ommunity self-help groups have depended upon the free meeting space afforded them by houses of worship…and other public meeting places… The insurance companies appear to be leaning on some churches to reduce their provision of space, or to pay more…The requirement by some local government offices, demanding all independent community organizations get insurance before they can meet in their facilities, is downright unAmerican!

But it is not just the United States. A July 21st article in the Daily Telegraph gives examples of the obstacle course citizen volunteers face in the UK:

David Cameron wants to protect individuals keen to take part in his Big Society schemes from falling foul of over-rigorous health and safety officials.

Just this week, a group of residents in Dudley, in the West Midlands, were told that they could not mow local grass verges even though their council was no longer maintaining them in order to save costs.

And last year, a group of volunteer gardeners in Hackney, east London, was told by the local authority that they could not continue to plant trees and plants in local parks without a public liability certificate, which would have cost around £1,000.

The cumulative effect of many such small, seemingly-unconnected incidents is eroding our social fabric. Do we really want to allow concern for liability and insurance to take precedence over the willingness of citizens to engage in a volunteer activity that has benefits to the community?

Insurance Requirements Are Just More Risk Avoidance

A column I wrote in 1996 for The NonProfit Times, a bit controversially entitled “Volunteering Is Inherently Risky,” remains relevant today. I still believe that there will always be risk in the work of greatest importance that volunteers do, particularly if they are acting on a problem that no one else yet sees or wants to tackle. (Just think about politically unpopular health-care projects such as needle exchanges for drug addicts or condom distribution for teenagers.)

Don’t get me wrong. All organizations, including self-help groups, have the obligation to consider the safety of participants, train people to be as competent as possible, provide appropriate work space and tools, and so on. (It is just as helpful to the homeless if blankets are distributed by two or three volunteers in a group for personal safety as if by only one volunteer in jeopardy on the street.)

But to me, the real question is: “What is the risk of not doing something?”

  • Does the small chance of something going wrong mean a faith community ought to withdraw its long-time support of recovering alcoholics or any other self-help group?
  • Should vacant lots in urban areas remain garbage dumps because community groups, willing to plant vegetable gardens or create playing fields, can’t get or afford liability insurance?
  • Is it reasonable to deprive patients or residents in a care center from a beauty appointment, if licensed hairdressers volunteer to style hair but someone fears a lawsuit?

It sounds reasonable to require insurance, but it is becoming just another way of saying “no” to volunteer initiative. In the name of safety and good management, agency leaders and public officials can turn down an idea without seriously examining its merits and even its likelihood of accidents or lawsuits.

The example of churches citing insurance requirements to stop self-help group meetings makes me wonder whether the 500 congregations who provided refuge to Central Americans during the successful Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s worried about their insurance coverage. Maybe they did, but they chose to act anyway.

Someone needs to ask: What will remain undone or unchallenged because of the fear of risk? What are the consequences of preventing citizens from doing what they genuinely want to do to improve their communities?

Perhaps – ethically and morally – it is leaders of volunteers who must pose these hard questions. We need to show that risk management does not mean risk avoidance. We need to challenge rules that are based on fear of worst-case scenarios by emphasizing the good that can come from allowing volunteers to do what they do best: step forward to do what needs to be done, taking precautions to do so safely and well.

What is gained by accepting some risk is as great as what is lost by avoiding it.

The Daily Telegraph article, which was titled “Big Society insurance policy to be launched,” went on to describe the creative response the new Cameron coalition government is considering to offer a government-backed, low-cost insurance plan for these types of citizen activities. That idea may have great potential. Are there other good ideas out there?

I have raised some philosophic questions here. What do you think? Have you ever been stopped from doing something with volunteers because of fear of liability or lack of insurance? How did you react? Is the UK’s insurance plan on the right track? What else can we do to challenge blanket restrictions on what volunteers are willing and able to do?

Receive an update when the next "News and Tips" is posted!


Permission to Reprint