Reviewed by Todd Kulkin
Todd Kulkin

Rocket Lawyer
On Call Attorney

Donors may be the lifeblood of a non-profit organization, but volunteers are the muscles that make the organization move. There is a common misconception that those who are not paid for their help, such as volunteers, are of no risk for liability.

The truth of the matter is that for the purposes of protecting your organization from being sued, or even being hit with a large judgment, volunteers are of a higher risk profile than employees. Here are a few things you need to know.

Get started Start Your Non-Profit Answer some questions. We’ll take care of the rest.

Most people are aware of the legal principle known as respondeat superior (a.k.a. vicarious liability), even if they’ve never encountered the Latin before. This is because we all experience its effect in our daily lives: when someone’s agent, such as a volunteer or employee, performs a wrongdoing or acts negligently, their boss is held personally responsible for the damage caused. Even though volunteers are generally not given monetary compensation for their work, they are still considered the organization’s “agents” under the law. So, when your volunteer makes a mistake or neglects to do something important, causing damage to a person or their property, your organization could be responsible for the problem.

In many states, such as my home state of New York, employees are restricted from bringing a personal injury action against their employer (under most circumstances). The reasoning behind this rule is that employees are compensated for their “on the job” injuries, and employee’s families are compensated for wrongful death from on-the-job accident, by Worker’s Compensation Insurance. This is not the case for volunteers, however, who are generally unprotected by Worker’s Compensation. If your volunteers are hurt while performing their duties are left unable to work or function, they might sue your organization in order to be made whole.

So, what can an organization do to build a competent volunteer base while minimizing their risk? There are many tools at your organization’s disposal, but three principles are key: 1) train volunteers well; 2) obtain the proper insurance; and 3) implement the right policies. Properly executed, these three principles can minimize your risk and strengthen your organization as a whole. Training your volunteers well reduces accident rates and increases productivity. Having the proper liability insurance effectively shifts the risk from an accident to the insurance company, up to the limits of your policy. Finally, implementing the proper policies and procedures (with a solid volunteer manual to teach them) reinforces the first two steps, to make sure that volunteers follow your rules and the insurance company can’t deny coverage on a technicality, such as improperly reporting a claim. Following these principles, and working with an attorney to ensure their proper execution, should allow your organization to pursue its mission without fear.

Get started Start Your Non-Profit Answer some questions. We’ll take care of the rest.

Get started Start Your Non-Profit Answer some questions. We’ll take care of the rest.

About Todd Kulkin

Todd Kulkin is a solo practitioner and a Rocket Lawyer On Call Attorney. He is a business attorney specializing in providing legal services to small to medium sized businesses, start-ups and nonprofit organizations. He has a unique commitment to flat fees, personalized law services and education on the legal issues surrounding your business.