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August 7, 2018
Many not-for-profit organizations rely on volunteers to supplement their labor force. There are many reasons why people donate their time – altruism, a need for social interaction, and fulfilling a court order are a few of these. Whatever the reason, the experience should be mutually rewarding for all parties. Knowledgeable and satisfied volunteers represent your organization well.
Just as with employees, volunteers may pose a liability exposure. Organizations can be directly liable for their actions or inactions, and may be held vicariously liable for accidents or incidents involving volunteers that result in customer bodily injury. For example, a volunteer is pushing a wheelchair, when the chair tips, causing the occupant to fall out and sustain an injury. Allegations often include a failure to adequately select, train, and/or supervise the volunteer. As a long-standing animal assistive therapy volunteer in different not-for-profits, I have first-hand experience that volunteer selection and service standards vary considerably.
Just as with employees, volunteers may pose a liability exposure.
Even though you may not have experienced a claim involving a volunteer, an assessment of associated organizational risks may reflect areas that need to be addressed. Identify who your volunteers are, how they were selected, what areas they work in, what they do, and how they do it. You may find you utilize volunteers for not only for routine operations, but special one-time events, such as a fundraising golf tournament.
[C]riminal background checks are needed for volunteers working with children or vulnerable adults
Once your risks are identified, risk management strategies should be planned and implemented to prevent and mitigate possible exposures. However, risk managers should also consider how the organization and volunteers will be protected from financial losses related to claims and/or lawsuits.
The Federal Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 provides certain protections from liability related to volunteers serving at not-for-profit organizations and governmental entities. While there are a few exceptions (notably criminal activity, negligence/willful misconduct, harm while operating a vehicle for which a license/insurance is needed, and civil rights violations), volunteers may not be held liable for harm caused by their actions or omissions, if the volunteer was acting within the scope of their responsibilities and appropriately certified or licensed for these activities. State protections may also be present and vary in their scope. In Washington, RCW 4.24.670 provides protections from liability similar to those of the Act if the not-for-profit carries public liability insurance. ORS 30.260-300 considers volunteers agents of the state for acts and omissions when acting within the course and scope of their duties. As for Alaska, there are also statutory provisions concerning limited liability for some directors and officers and other specified individuals in Chapter 09.65 of Title 09.
Not-for-profits should consider the need for the various available insurance options depending upon your volunteer scope of responsibilities. Director & officers/employment practices insurance pays for losses and defense costs in the event legal action is brought against board members for alleged wrongful acts in their capacity as a director and/or officer. Many not-for-profit organizations indemnify their volunteer board members and find that potential members may make this a condition of their participation. Other organizational insurance coverage such as general liability, professional and non-owned auto liability policies may also include volunteers as an insured. Non-owned auto policies are intended to cover liability for employees or volunteers who drive their own vehicles during official business for the non-profit. The driver’s auto policy usually responds first, and because it is very easy to exceed the liability of many auto policies, non-owned auto coverage should be seriously considered as part of the organization’s insurance portfolio. For all the agency’s policies, it’s essential you consult with your broker to determine if policy language covers volunteers and there are any exclusions for volunteer activities. If volunteers are not covered as insureds, it is advisable that they be added as an additional insured on the policy or be required to purchase their own insurance. Some volunteers may rely on their homeowner/renter policies. In such circumstances, the volunteer should review their own policy coverages and exclusions to ensure all their volunteer activities are covered, and limits are adequate. It may be necessary to request an endorsement to broaden coverage or increase policy limits.
Most not-for-profit organizations rely on their base of volunteers to help fulfill their mission and objectives. A volunteer program that includes appropriate selection, training, retention as well as insurance coverage, will help prevent and mitigate the risks associated with this very important group of individuals.
References and Resources:
1. Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group, Managing Volunteers: Balancing Risk and Reward, 2017
2. Nonprofit Risk Management Center, Myths of Volunteer Risk Management, Parts 1,2,3; Hal Denton and Fiona Lally –
3. Nonprofit Risk Management Center, Risk Management Essentials, Vol 20, No 3, Winter 2011/2012, page 8, Developing Risk Management Policies for Your Volunteer Program
4. Nonprofit Risk Management Center, Insurance for Volunteer Programs –
5. Volunteer Protection Act Public Law 105-19 06/18/97 –
6. Liability of volunteers of nonprofit or governmental entities, RCW 4.24.670 –
7. DAS Risk Management, Volunteers, June 2017 –
8. AS 09.65.170. Limited Liability of Certain Directors and Officers, and Chapter 09.65 – Actions Immunities Defenses and Duties –
http://touchngo.com/lglcntr/akstats/statutes/Title09/Chapter65/Section170.htm and https://law.justia.com/codes/alaska/2014/title-09/chapter-09.65
The views and opinions expressed within are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Parker, Smith & Feek. While every effort has been taken in compiling this information to ensure that its contents are totally accurate, neither the publisher nor the author can accept liability for any inaccuracies or changed circumstances of any information herein or for the consequences of any reliance placed upon it.