Ways Nonprofits Can Prevent Harmful Mistakes by Volunteers

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Volunteers are often essential to all aspects of a nonprofit’s operations. They do everything from basic administrative tasks to high level analysis. Because volunteers can be involved in almost every part of an organization’s work, they can also accidentally cause problems. And quite often the nonprofit’s recourse is simply to ask the volunteer to not come back—unlike an employee, a volunteer may have relatively little personal investment in the organization. Unauthorized activities by volunteers can have serious consequences, so it’s a good idea for nonprofits to examine how their volunteers are managed.

Volunteers can do a lot of damage if they aren’t properly managed

The kind of harm a volunteer can do to an organization depends on the volunteer’s role and the organization itself. Perhaps the most important distinction to consider is the scope of the volunteer’s real authority with respect to the organization. In other words, is the volunteer acting as an agent of the nonprofit? An agency relationship can put the organization on the hook for the words and actions a volunteer takes.

A volunteer can become an agent of the nonprofit through official action, either by being told that he or she has authority of some kind or by being presented to third parties as having some authority. A volunteer may also represent to others that he or she has agency where none exists; even though there isn’t a real agency, the third party can be misled and blame the organization.

The types of damage that a volunteer can do run the gamut. Here are a few examples:

  • Making statements or taking actions that threaten the organization’s tax status (for example, by making partisan political statements on behalf of a 501(c)(3) organization).
  • Taking actions that are contrary to the organization’s governance documents.
  • Making offensive, misleading, or dishonest statements to constituents (donors, service recipients) or outside parties (vendors).
  • Committing crimes while volunteering.

Steps nonprofits can take to protect themselves

There are a few simple things a nonprofit can do to limit the potential harm a volunteer can do. Here are a few examples:

  • Adopt a clear policy that sets out the scope of every volunteer’s rights and responsibilities.
  • Define in writing the specific role of volunteers, with an itemized description of any authority they have to speak or act on behalf of the organization.
  • Train volunteers about the organization’s policies that pertain to them, such as anti-harassment and fundraising policies.
  • Treat volunteers who will be doing sensitive work like potential employees. An interview and background check can screen out potentially risky individuals.
  • Require volunteers to identify themselves as volunteers to outside parties so there is no confusion about the volunteers’ agency.

Talk to the Church Law Center of California about your volunteer program

The Church Law Center of California provides legal guidance to secular and religious nonprofits. We can help your nonprofit develop a long-term plan for managing volunteer risk. Call us today at (949) 892-1221 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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