• Whitepaper

Mythical Mortals: Managing Risk and Reward with Volunteers

Many myths persist about the effective management of volunteers—staffers who are often the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations. Belief in such myths can increase the risk of volunteers bringing harm to themselves or bringing harm to an organization’s clients or reputation. Failure to recognize the realities of volunteer service can also result in missed opportunities to engage volunteers in a charitable mission.

Challenge your understanding of volunteerism—and better leverage the lifeblood of your mission—by exploring the myths and risk management tips below.

Four Myths Framing Volunteerism

Dispelling these four common myths will enable your team to optimize its volunteer management practices.

MYTH #1: Any warm body will do.

Most potential volunteers seek meaningful opportunities to use and develop their existing skills or learn new skills while serving a nonprofit. Usually, volunteers also hope to make a tangible, positive impact on a nonprofit’s fundraising or programmatic activities. As Albert Einstein once said, “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” Individuals who choose to volunteer are often willing to commit significant time, energy, or expertise to a cause because they believe it will bring new meaning and fulfillment to their lives. However, the desire to help others alone doesn’t qualify everyone for every position. It remains important to properly screen and assesses the skills and temperament of volunteers for specific roles.

Risk Tips

  • Publish volunteer position descriptions: Sharing accurate volunteer position descriptions increases the chances of suitable volunteer candidates applying and submitting themselves to the screening process. HERE is a sample template from the Nonprofit Risk Mangement Center that you may find helpful with writing compelling volunteer job descriptions.
  • Encourage self-screening: Intentionally set the bar high in these job descriptions for volunteer positions to allow prospective volunteers to self-screen if they don’t meet your standards. Clear job descriptions will reduce the amount of time you invest in unqualified candidates and limit your effort seeking out or chasing after candidates who aren’t qualified or motivated.
  • Reassign or reject volunteers who are a poor fit: The ultimate goal of screening is to find the best possible candidate to fill a specific role. If a volunteer candidate presents risks to your organization—or is unwilling to fulfill a volunteer role as designed, consider assigning the individual to a more appropriate position. Also, prepare yourself to respectfully reject individuals who are not qualified or are otherwise inappropriate for volunteer service.
  • Conduct volunteer exit interviews: When volunteers choose to depart your organization, take the time to document their insights, including why they are leaving. Gathering feedback from departing volunteers is a crucial opportunity to learn about and improve every volunteer life cycle aspect. Only by asking staff for their feedback can you truly determine whether you have set appropriate volunteer service expectations.

MYTH #2: Screening volunteers is not necessary if you already know and trust them.

It is hard to believe that a previously known, seemingly good-natured person would harm an organization where they volunteer. However, there are countless embezzlement instances, child abuse, and other criminal or unethical acts committed by experienced, seemingly “good” nonprofit staff members.

Unfortunately, naivety makes many nonprofit teams blind to those who seek to exploit an organization—or who might be willing to do so if the opportunity arises. Responsible nonprofit leaders remind themselves that seemingly good people do harm every day, whether the damage is planned and intentional or unplanned and situational.

One cause for concern is the tendency for nonprofit staff to allow specific volunteer candidates to skip screening because they are somehow known to the existing team. Not only does this tarnish the screening process with unfairness and inconsistency, but it offers perhaps inadequately screened volunteers open access to a nonprofit’s clients and assets. Volunteer John Doe might be the CEO’s brother, but he has no inherent right to volunteer without completing the same screening process as everyone else.

Risk Tips

  • Flag anyone who refuses to complete screening: Anyone who acts to avoid or flatly rejects your organization’s usual screening process should be removed from the process. They should be thanked for their interest and told that they would not be considered without undergoing the standard screening for any position within your organization. No exceptions should be made. Period.
  • Conduct thorough screening for high-risk roles: Thorough screening is ideal for most—if not all—potential volunteers, but financial and time restrictions often make comprehensive screening impractical. Ensure that all volunteers submit to a minimum of required screening based on their roles’ potential risks. For high-risk roles, like volunteers who interact with vulnerable clients, screening must be more thorough and take client safety risks into account. Employ one or more of the screening practices below, based on the role in question:
  • Application: Require candidates to submit the qualification information that you deem to be important, rather than allowing candidates to share what they want to provide on a resume.
  • Verification: Confirm information the applicant has submitted (e.g., credentials, experience, etc.).
  • Background checks: Recognize the limitations of background checks and be sure to leverage background checks in combination with the other screening tools at your disposal. Be aware; however, that background checks do not always reliably identify individuals with criminal histories. Similarly, they can not identify people who committed crimes but avoided conviction.
  • Reference checks: Ask for professional and personal references and contact those individuals to determine if they can verify the applicant’s work history and character.
  • Interviews: Ask some behavioral and situational questions related to the risks of the role for which the candidate applied.

MYTH #3: Not telling volunteers how to perform their tasks reduces a nonprofit’s liability

Some nonprofit teams mistakenly believe that offering training and supervision to volunteer workers exposes the nonprofit to increased liability. This approach is misguided. Simply telling volunteers to “use your common sense” instead of providing formal training allows potentially inexperienced volunteers act on your behalf. They may do things in a manner that defies what your organization considers a “common sense” approach to a task, nor promotes the values of your organization. Volunteers should always understand their expectations, conduct themselves with highest integrity when acting on behalf of the organization, and understand whom to contact in the event problems are encountered or if they have any questions or concerns.

Lax volunteer management also damages the engagement and productivity of your volunteer workforce. Volunteers who invest deeply in your mission also hope that you will reciprocate by investing in them.

A nonprofit’s best bet for reducing the risk of harming and thereby incurring legal liability is demonstrating greater care when managing volunteers. The organization can show that it did everything reasonably possible to ensure volunteer success and safety.

Risk Tips

  • Onboard and train based on the role: Guidance empowers volunteers to perform their duties effectively and make better decisions. Offer onboarding programs and ongoing training based on the responsibilities and service timelines for specific volunteer roles. For example:
    • One-time volunteers: Short-term or infrequent staffers—like volunteers who work at a one-time or annual event—can usually excel if given a short orientation or on-the-job training.
    • Long-term, skilled volunteers: Ensure that training is adequate for volunteers who support your mission through skilled labor or whose roles involve unique risks and responsibilities like:
  • Handing finances or cash
  • Protecting sensitive information
  • Supervising or caring for vulnerable clients
  • Interacting with top tier donors or other external partners
  • Provide adequate supervision and feedback: A nonprofit’s responsibility to its volunteers doesn’t end after training them. Volunteers want to know to whom they report, how they can improve their performance, how to express challenges or concerns, and more. Consider which styles of supervision and feedback are appropriate for specific types of volunteers. For example:
  • Supervision: Active management is often best for new volunteers or those in roles that present a greater risk to the organization.
  • Feedback: Short-term volunteers or those in unskilled positions might benefit from casual coaching from a supervisor, whereas skilled, long-term volunteers might help from regular, formal check-ins.

MYTH #4: It’s perfectly legal to pay volunteers something

According to the US Department of Labor (DOL), a volunteer is an “individual who performs hours of service … for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered.” Paying a volunteer—or promising payment to a volunteer—could potentially change the volunteer’s status to an employee, posing several risks for the organization.

The Frankenstein Effect,” an article from the Nonprofit Risk Management Center, explores the risks of transforming a volunteer into an employee:

“If one of your volunteers is deemed an employee, your nonprofit could owe back taxes, penalties, and even payments to that individual, including wages, overtime (if applicable), and access to employee benefits. As a volunteer crosses the line to become an employee, that individual may no longer be protected by volunteer-centric regulations, such as the Volunteer Protection Act, which only applies to volunteers who are not compensated more than $500 per year. Similarly, by offering volunteers thank-you gestures such as compensation or gifts, you could be unknowingly bestowing taxable gifts, or you could simply be causing volunteers confusion regarding their role in your nonprofit.”

Risk Tips

  • Do not pay volunteers: To be safe, avoid all forms of payment for volunteer service. Understand the rules and potential consequences if you choose to offer stipends, gift cards, or other payment forms to volunteers. To learn more, read “Employee or Volunteer: What’s the Difference?” from the Nonprofit Risk Management Center.
  • It is permissible to reimburse legitimate expenses volunteers incur in the performance of their volunteer duties: Spell out what types of costs volunteers are permitted to incur and require that receipts be turned in before issuing any reimbursement.
  • Clearly distinguish volunteer and employee roles: Create distinct position descriptions, handbooks, and other resources for employees versus volunteers. Ensure that all volunteer candidates understand that the roles they seek are unpaid and are not considered employment roles. Never tie stipends, gifts, or benefits to volunteer work hours. Never offer employment benefits to volunteers.
  • Don’t classify staff based on your finances: The DOL sets the standards for what constitutes employment versus volunteerism. Nonprofits must follow these standards. You cannot call someone a volunteer simply because you do not want to pay them.

Volunteer management myths are easy to believe and hard to bust. Continue myth-busting and campaign for facts to manage volunteer risks and reap the rewards at your nonprofit.

Additional Resources:

Nonprofit Risk Management Center sample volunteer job descriptions template, https://nonprofitrisk.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Volunteer-Position-Description-SAMPLE-and-WORKSHEET.pdf

“The Frankenstein Effect,” Nonprofit Risk Management Center, https://nonprofitrisk.org/resources/e-news/the-frankenstein-effect/

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