Volunteering: Responsibilities & Legal Liability

Posted December 20, 2010 in Consumer Law by

For years now, I’ve volunteered with a couple of non-profits in my community. The work has run the gamut: I’ve worked one-on-one with at-risk kids, I’ve managed other volunteers and I’ve even been the business manager for events that generated tens of thousands of dollars in cash that I personally had to count and then deposit at the bank.

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Each of these volunteer jobs involved a lot of responsibility. And with each, there was the potential that something could go very wrong. (I always breathed a sigh of relief after I’d finally dropped the cash in the bank’s night depository.) It’s made me wonder: What are the responsibilities and legal liabilities of a volunteer?

What to Look for in a Non-Profit

As you think about your New Year’s resolutions, perhaps you’re pledging to do more volunteering. Congratulations! I think it’s one of the most rewarding things we can do. Not only are you helping others, but you’ll feel good about yourself.

When looking at charities with which to volunteer, do your due diligence to make sure the organization will provide the support you need to be an effective volunteer.

Well-run non-profit organizations should offer all volunteers a few essential tools:

  • An orientation to the agency
  • Training for the work you’ll do
  • Ongoing supervision and feedback
  • Liability insurance if you are injured or if your work causes you or the non-profit to be sued

I mentioned some of the volunteer positions I’ve held. It’s important to stress that I went through training before holding any of those positions. I also had to earn the trust of more experienced volunteers in the organization before I was allowed to hold more important positions.

As a new volunteer, you’ll be very enthusiastic and ready to dive in head first. Don’t be discouraged if the organization makes you jump through some hoops before getting started. Know that it’s a sign of a well-run agency.

Your Responsibilities as a Volunteer

In my most recent volunteer position, I managed a team of 30 volunteers who reported to me directly and I indirectly managed about 400 volunteers who reported to them. My biggest frustration? Those volunteers who made a commitment and failed to follow through on it.

Some non-profits will ask you to sign a "contract" (non-binding, of course) that details your responsibilities as a volunteer. You should only offer your time and services if you’ll treat your volunteer commitment as seriously as you’d treat your job. That means you should:

  • Honor your volunteer commitment
  • Participate in all required orientations and trainings
  • Show up for volunteer shifts on time
  • While volunteering, focus on the job, not on socializing with other volunteers or friends you might encounter
  • Find an approved substitute or otherwise notify the agency in advance if you’re unable to make a volunteer shift
  • Make sure you have child care before your volunteer shift
  • Avoid scheduling volunteer shifts that conflict with big work deadlines, major life issues and other things that will distract you from your volunteer work

Legal Liability as a Volunteer

Non-profit organizations should have liability insurance that covers the organization in case it’s sued. Usually a non-profit’s liability insurance will also cover officers and directors of the organization. But if you’re a volunteer serving on the front lines, you may be more concerned about whether you personally can be sued.

You should ask both the agency and your own insurance agent whether existing insurance policies cover you if you’re sued in connection with the volunteer work you do. The answer will vary, depending on your personal insurance coverage and that of the organization. Then you need to decide whether you should beef up your own insurance coverage in connection with your volunteer work.

Personally, I’ve never taken on volunteer liability insurance, though such a policy exists. Now that I’m writing this article, it’s making me realize that with my volunteer responsibility, I do have some possible risks. I’m going to make a point to call my insurance agent this week.

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