Tips for Managing Your Nonprofit’s Volunteers

By Stan Hutton, Frances N. Phillips

Just like managing your nonprofit’s paid employees, working with volunteers requires attention to management tasks. Volunteers need training and orientation as well as clear, written lists of responsibilities and expectations. Basic expectations for volunteers are easily outlined in a volunteer agreement form. You also want to maintain records of the time and tasks volunteers contribute to your organization and consider whether to include volunteers in your insurance coverage.

Check out the Nonprofit Kit page at Dummies.com for a sample volunteer agreement form.

Provide adequate training

The degree and extent of volunteer training depends on the type of job you’re asking them to do. Volunteers who answer telephones, for example, may need more training than those who stuff envelopes for the publicity committee. To successfully answer phones, these volunteers need to know background information about the program or service, information about the types of services available, proper telephone etiquette, and emergency procedures, among other details.

If you need to provide a full day’s training or training over a longer period, consider consulting with a professional trainer to either provide the training or help you design the curriculum. Although you may be concerned about investing too much of volunteers’ valuable time in training, remember that key motivations for volunteering include meeting people and enjoying time with friends. Trainings can be great opportunities to introduce volunteers to one another and build camaraderie among them. It’s a good idea to schedule refresher training sessions for ongoing volunteers, too.

In addition to offering on-site training, give volunteers written materials that restate the information covered in the training. Include with these materials attendance requirements, details about whom to contact in case of illness, and other necessary information that volunteers may need to know when carrying out their tasks.

Larger organizations that use many volunteers sometimes publish a volunteer handbook. Such a handbook doesn’t need to be an elaborately printed document; it can be several typed pages stapled together, a simple loose-leaf notebook, or a PDF posted on the organization’s website. The more information you provide, the better your volunteers can perform.

Keep good records

Keep records of your volunteers and how much time they spend doing work for your organization. You may be asked to provide a reference for a volunteer who’s working to develop job skills or providing a service through an organized volunteer program. You also may need to dismiss a volunteer who’s unreliable, and having clear, written records of hours and tasks can justify that difficult act.

If you use professional volunteers to perform tasks that you’d otherwise have to pay for, you can include the value of the volunteer time as an in-kind contribution on your financial statement.

Insure your volunteers

Typically, nonprofit organizations carry liability and property insurance. Almost all states require that workers’ compensation insurance be in place to cover on-the-job injuries to employees (but not necessarily to volunteers). Beyond this basic insurance, coverage depends on the type of services provided and the degree of risk involved.

Keep in mind that volunteers usually aren’t liable for their actions as long as they work within the scope of the volunteer activity to which they’ve been assigned, perform as any reasonable person would perform, and avoid engaging in criminal activity. Unfortunately, people these days have become more eager to file lawsuits. If someone sues you or one of your volunteers, you have to legally defend the case even if it’s without merit. One advantage of having liability insurance is that your insurance carrier takes on the responsibility of defending the suit.

Workers’ compensation may or may not be available to volunteers in your state. If you can include volunteers under your state law, consider doing so, because a workers’ comp claim usually precludes the volunteer from filing a suit for damages against your organization. Plus, you want your volunteer to be covered if he suffers an injury.

Insuring volunteers is a subject of debate in the nonprofit sector. Some people take the position that insurance agents and brokers try to persuade you to insure anything and everything. Others believe that liability insurance and, in some cases, workers’ compensation insurance should be provided. As is the case with all insurance questions, evaluate your risks and decide whether the cost of insuring against risks is a good investment.

For example, if you fail to provide protection to a volunteer who is seriously injured, the reputation and future success of your organization could be harmed. This process is called risk management. To find information about risk management for nonprofit organizations, contact the Nonprofit Risk Management Center.

Say farewell to bad volunteers

If you work with lots of volunteers, especially volunteers who perform complex and sensitive jobs, you may discover one or more volunteers who don’t have the skills or personalities to perform at an acceptable level. Hopefully, you never face this situation, but if you do — for example, maybe someone is giving out inaccurate information or acting rudely — you shouldn’t ignore the situation.

Discussing the problem behavior with the volunteer is the first step. Treat this meeting as if you were counseling a paid employee whose job performance was below par. Written job descriptions, written standards for performance, and records of volunteer time and contributed tasks are important when discussing problem behavior.

Exercise caution when meeting with a volunteer about her unacceptable behavior, especially if you don’t have clearly written performance guidelines. Volunteers who are released have been known to sue nonprofit agencies. If you have concerns about this possibility, consult an attorney before you do anything.

Talking to someone, volunteer or not, about poor work is never pleasant. However, if someone working for your organization is being disruptive, giving out inaccurate information, or otherwise causing potential harm to your program or the people you serve, you have a responsibility to correct the problem.