Managing risk in volunteer programs

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.

Training is important to minimize both the physical risks to volunteers and clients as well as non-physical risks. The procedures in safe lifting, patient handling and use of restraints are all important. But so is training in regard to client interaction, dispute resolution and harassment.

Finally, performing evaluations and reviews of volunteers may place a burden on the time of management and supervisors. However, it also allows for a continuous screening process and helps ensure you have the “best of the best” helping you complete your mission.


The volunteer who caused the injury would typically also be covered by your organization’s General Liability Policy for these types of claims since volunteers are included as “Insureds” in the standard ISO policy form. This means the volunteer would also receive defense coverage from your policy. In most cases, this is beneficial to your organization because your insurance carrier can coordinate the defense of your volunteer and your organization since you would also typically be named in a lawsuit if the volunteer is alleged to be liable. In addition, it is another way for your organization to protect and value your volunteers. 

However, many insurance carriers use non-standard General Liability forms for Health and Human Services clients. The definition of who is insured should be carefully scrutinized, as you may not have the coverage you assume you have.

Another difficult-to-manage exposure is when volunteers use their own automobiles while performing services for the organization. In this situation, only the volunteer’s personal auto policy would protect the volunteer. The organization’s business auto policy only protects the organization. An option some organizations consider is adding a “Volunteers as Insureds” endorsement to provide excess auto liability coverage to the volunteer under the organization’s auto policy. Since your organization would also typically be named in a lawsuit, this again could be beneficial to your organization for coordination of defense. 


Volunteers bring numerous benefits to organizations. However, they also bring additional risks. Having a good risk management plan for your volunteer program is key to coming out on the winning side. In addition, you should work with your insurance broker to ensure that your insurance program is properly tailored to respond to volunteers. Organizations have different philosophies on how to manage the additional risk of volunteers, but all recognize the added value they bring.

Timothy E. J. Folk is vice president of The Graham Company, a health and human services firm. Tim developed the company’s health and human services department, a team designed to address the risk management challenges specific to behavioral health, senior services, home health, addictive services and hospital services. Contact him at

Disclaimer: This article is not legal advice. Consultation with licensed and experienced legal counsel is advised.

Topics: Articles , Executive Leadership , Facility management , Risk Management