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Managing risk in volunteer programs

October 15, 2012
by Timothy E.J. Folk
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Volunteers are key components to the success of many organizations, especially long-term care organizations. Many organizations rely on volunteers to enhance services provided by staff, improve the quality of life for clients or simply to meet the goals of their mission. Based on a recent study by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, almost 65 million people volunteer their time each year, and that number continues to grow. However, without a good risk management plan, volunteer programs can expose your organization to additional risks of a loss, damage to your reputation or even imperil operations.

Risks associated with volunteer programs can be summarized in three categories: 

  1. Injury or loss to a volunteer while performing services for the organization 
  2. Claims filed against the organization, resulting from harm or loss caused by a volunteer while performing services for the organization
  3. Claims filed against the volunteer that resulted from harm or loss caused by a volunteer while performing services for the organization 


These potential claims can be divided into two examples:

Example A – Who is expected to pay for a volunteer’s medical expenses for injuries sustained while volunteering? 

Your employees receive Workers Compensation for their medical expenses and lost wages arising from injuries sustained while working for the organization. Volunteers are not typically included on a Workers Compensation Policy, and you are not typically required by law to provide any benefits to volunteers. Some organizations choose to protect their volunteers with an Accidental Death & Dismemberment Policy as a way of attracting and communicating their commitment to their volunteers. This type of policy provides the following protections:

  1. Pays a benefit amount (such as $25,000) if a volunteer is injured in an accident and it results in the death or dismemberment of the volunteer
  2. Pays a medical expense benefit for medical services incurred due to injury to a volunteer from an accident. Note that this medical expense coverage is typically in excess of the volunteer’s own medical health insurance

Some organizations choose not to carry any insurance to protect volunteers for their medical expenses for injuries sustained while volunteering. In this situation it is critical to make sure your volunteers understand what to expect if they are injured.

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. What is the cultural message we send to our volunteers if we don’t provide some level of benefit? 
  2. What are the costs as weighed against the potentially negative cultural impact? 
  3. Will an AD&D policy help prevent significantly greater exposure (i.e., a lawsuit by a disgruntled volunteer)?

Example B – Can a volunteer sue your organization if they are hurt while volunteering? 

Employees cannot sue for their injuries in most cases because Workers Compensation benefits are their sole remedy for their injuries. Since volunteers are not employees, they are entitled to sue you for their injuries just like any other third party. (You would typically be covered for this lawsuit by your General Liability Policy.)  

Some organizations minimize their exposure by requiring their volunteers to sign a waiver and release. These agreements explain to the volunteer that because of the hazards and risks associated with volunteering, the organization requires every volunteer to be alert for his/her own safety and to sign a written agreement releasing the organization of any and all responsibility in connection with all risks encountered while volunteering. This helps protect the general liability loss experience, which then helps control the cost of purchasing insurance. Some organizations may not be comfortable with this approach and would not request their volunteers to restrict their right to sue.

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do we currently use waiver and release forms? 
  2. How will existing and new volunteers react to the request to sign one? 
  3. What are the leadership methodologies we can employ to create a balance between the need to manage risk and maintain volunteer relations?


For this type of claim, your organization would typically be covered by your General Liability Policy. However, the last thing an organization wants is a volunteer who turns out to be a “bad apple.” Your organization’s loss experience, reputation and ultimately, bottom line, are all at risk. In order to protect your organization, good risk management practices should be followed and documented, which include:

  1. volunteer screening,
  2. volunteer training and
  3. volunteer evaluations/reviews

Screening practices may include criminal background checks, DMV records, sexual predator histories and even credit reports (where allowable). Even a claim with little to no merit can become cause for serious concern if a third party is able to substantiate a lack of diligence in your selection and screening processes, especially for those individuals in direct contact with clients.