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Protecting Volunteer Programs

“The goal of risk management is to improve performance by acknowledging and controlling risks . . . it is not just about buying insurance. It is not just about avoiding lawsuits. It is about protecting and conserving your organization’s resources and providing goods and services sensibly. Risk management frees your organization to pursue its mission.” (Tremper & Kostin, 1993, p. 1)

A volunteer may fall and get hurt. A volunteer can accidentally damage equipment. A volunteer may inadvertently push a client. A volunteer’s car may be damaged while in the parking lot. A purse may turn up missing. Very few work environments are risk free. Organizations have an obligation to protect volunteers as they do their employees. Programs that involve children and other vulnerable populations have an extra obligation to creating safeguards for all involved.

Risk management is the thoughtful process of acknowledging and controlling risks to protect and conserve resources. Risk management looks at vulnerabilities within the program that can lead to an active threat, and takes appropriate steps to control the risk. Risk Management is the process of developing good day-to-day operating policies, procedures and training.

Purchasing insurance is a form of risk management known as “risk transfer.” General liability insurance covers broken or stolen equipment and supplies. Volunteers and paid staff who are required to transport others in their cars often have supplemental auto insurance. Volunteers, as non-paid workers, are frequently ineligible from Workers Compensation, and other forms of organizational coverage designed for employees. Sometimes organizations can add “riders” to cover volunteers, or organizations may purchase special “volunteer insurance” to provide protection against accidents or negligence.

Risk transfer is more than buying insurance. For example a school may contract to have lunches provided by an outside organization rather than cook lunches on site. The risk from spoiled food is transferred from the school to the lunch provider. As you develop your volunteer program, it is important that you check within your organization to see what types of protection (i.e. insurance, etc.) currently exist and to what extent it will cover volunteers.

A second form of controlling risks is “risk reduction.” Volunteer orientation and training provides volunteers with the “tools” needed to work in a safe culture and to reduce the risks associated with the work environment. Volunteers should understand sign-in procedures, policies regarding use of office equipment, taking property from place to place, security and emergency procedures, etc. The volunteer job description is a primary form of risk reduction, because it clarifies what the volunteer is expected to do, and where they are to do it. Some organizations ask volunteers to sign a job description and policy statement to insure that volunteers are aware of policies, restrictions and limitations.

“Risk prevention” usually involves removing the circumstances in which something can occur. You may develop procedures and policies to prevent some risks. School volunteer programs may insist that:

  • Volunteers will never be alone with a student.
  • Volunteers will never discipline a student.
  • Volunteers will never meet with students after school hours or outside of school.

The best policies, the best training, and the best insurance cannot guarantee that you are risk free. The only way to totally protect your program from all risks is to eliminate the risks, or “risk avoidance.” This might mean eliminating the volunteer program or activity to eliminate the risks! That’s right, “No Volunteers Allowed!” For most organizations this is not a desirable alternative. Without the assistance of volunteers many clients would go without the personalized assistance that can make a difference in their lives. Rather than eliminate a volunteer program, organizations develop effective risk management strategies to manage and minimize the risks.

The best way to avoid being sued is to avoid causing harm. The risk management process provides a systematic method of responding to the dangers of an organization’s operations. A risk assessment or risk audit can be as simple as taking a piece of paper and writing down all the risks that come to mind. A more formal assessment may involve consulting with other members of the organization to learn about risks they perceive; walking around the facility looking for hazards or potential hazards; and/or reviewing job descriptions for volunteers to consider risks they may encounter while doing their work. Formal risk assessment checklists are available from insurers and risk management companies.

Risk Management is a four-step process:

(1.) Look for risks (What could go wrong?)
(2.) Assess the risks (How bad could it be?)
(3.) Decide how to control the risks (What will we do?)
(4.) Implement the strategy (How will we do it?).

Effective risk management for volunteer programs begins when organizations develop and follow good volunteer management practices.

  • Develop written position descriptions for volunteers
  • Implement a structured procedure for screening and selecting volunteers
  • Develop orientation procedures and materials to clarify expectations and establish standards of behavior
  • Provide training for the job and include ongoing training opportunities to stay on top of new techniques, trends, equipment, procedures and job changes.
  • Ensure ongoing, consistent supervision that monitors performance and maintains an open and timely line of communication
  • Evaluate performance honestly and create plans for improving weak or inappropriate performance, and for rewarding positive behavior. Implement action (termination) when warranted.

These guidelines are not meant to serve as legal advice in this matter. Specific situations and questions may warrant legal counsel, and these should be dealt with through the proper authorities in the organization.

References and Resources

Graff, L. (1999). Beyond police checks: the definitive volunteer and employee screening book. Dundas, Ontario, CA.: Graff and Associates.

Herman, R. & Associates (1994). The Jossey-Bass handbook of nonprofit leadership and management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Patterson, J., Tremper, C. & Rypkema, P. (1994). Staff screening tool kit: keeping the bad apples out of your organization. Washington D.C.: Nonprofit Risk Management Center
Tremper, C. & Kostin, G (1993). No surprises: controlling risks in volunteer programs.
Washington DC: Nonprofit Risk Management Center.

Safrit, R, Merrill, M., McNeeley, N. (1995). A high stakes affair: managing risks in volunteer programs. Columbus, Ohio: Satellite broadcast: The Ohio State University Extension and Volunteer Ohio.

Seidman, A & Patterson, J.(1996) Kidding Around? Be Serious! A Commitment to Safe Service Opportunities for Young People. Washington DC: Nonprofit Risk Management Center.

About the Contributor: Mary Merrill

In Memorium
Mary V. Merrill died at age 60 February 19, 2006. She was a graduate of The Ohio State University and founder and sole owner of Merrill Associates. Mary was a globally recognized expert and trainer of volunteer management. She was a frequent presenter at both world and national conferences, and a mentor, a leader, a visionary, and a role model to many.

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