The great majority of work performed by non-profits comes from unpaid volunteers. While volunteers can be vital to helping a non-profit reach its goals, their presence raises certain risks that leaders of non-profit organizations should be aware of to craft effective policies for their recruitment, management and retention.
The typical non-profit organization in Wisconsin is simultaneously subject to two sets of laws. The entity is organized under state law, specifically Chapter 181 of the Wisconsin Statutes, titled “Nonstock Corporations.” However, an organization’s tax-free status is controlled by federal law, specifically Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, which generally requires the organization be operated for the sole purpose of pursuing one of several listed causes recognized as deserving tax-free treatment. The many requirements of these laws are beyond the scope of this article, but they affect certain aspects of volunteer management practices.
Before you can manage your volunteers, you must recruit them. Consider how potential volunteers are screened and appropriate policies are put in place. A bad fit can be more trouble than they are worth, and someone with bad intent or ulterior motives can be disastrous both to the organization and to the cause it is trying to help. Outside of the damage an ill-intended individual can cause directly, bad press from being associated with that person can do lasting damage to an organization’s reputation.
The screening process can be as simple as an application form and/or interview asking relevant questions. A more thorough screening may also include background checks. The extent of the screening process should be commensurate to the level of trust that will be placed in that person. Volunteers entrusted with responsibility over expensive goods which can be stolen or vulnerable people who can be abused should be screened with extra caution. These concerns must be balanced with making volunteering as simple and easy as possible, so volunteers do not lose interest when faced with a daunting application process.
During recruitment, take steps to ensure no improper biases or discrimination are applied to volunteer selection. Discrimination against protected classes is generally illegal, even for non-profits. Among the classes protected by anti-discrimination laws are: age, sex, religion, national origin, race, disability or genetic status. Many of these laws are written with the employment context in mind, but there is legal precedent for their application to unpaid volunteers in certain circumstances. Although the law is unclear in many cases, the safest route is to assume anti-discrimination laws will apply. Some types of organizations have limited exceptions to these rules. For example, religious organizations have a narrow window allowing discrimination on the basis of religion. Discrimination laws are complex and you should consult with an attorney if you believe a decision or practice could potentially expose the non-profit to legal action. Even if a form of discrimination is technically allowed under current law, an organization known to discriminate against certain groups may lose moral credibility, which can translate to reduced donations. Additionally, the non-profit risks losing out on federal funding or contracts.
Another concern with incoming volunteers is their classification within the organization itself. Non-profits in Wisconsin can either have members or not have members. If you are unsure whether a non-profit has members, the Articles of Incorporation filed with the State of Wisconsin will indicate the classification. If an organization has members, they may have voting and other rights to control the organization. If the non-profit is a member organization, be careful to be clear who is a member with these rights, and who is a volunteer.
Training and Supervision:
Once a non-profit has recruited volunteers, they must be trained and supervised to perform their duties. A volunteer orientation process promotes consistent training among volunteers and can ensure vital information is passed to everyone working on behalf of the organization. Key policies and procedures, as well as a mechanism for volunteers to get answers to any questions that may arise during the course of their duties, should be implemented and addressed. While certain training procedures should be uniform across all volunteers, job specific training should also be given based on the task the volunteer will be performing. Job duties may change over time, so updates and refresher training will likely be necessary, even for frequent volunteers.
In addition to initial training, a volunteer handbook can serve as a reference for important procedures and rules for volunteers. Detailed handbooks can also help protect the organization from liability should a volunteer do something against the organization’s policy. Some things a volunteer handbook should include are: non-discrimination and non-harassment policies, confidentiality rules, policies and permission statements for information and images of volunteers in promotional materials, policies for working with certain vulnerable groups, attendance, scheduling, conduct expectations and emergency procedures. This list is non-exhaustive and most non-profits will have unique policies to address their specific functions and organizational structure. It is important the handbook reflect current practices for the non-profit. Thus, it should be reviewed and updated regularly. Changes should be identified to existing volunteers so they are aware of the new expectations and they should be provided with the new handbook.
As discussed in the above “Recruitment” section, a non-profit should exercise care to avoid discrimination against or by volunteers. Monitor both supervisors and other volunteers for signs of discrimination or harassment. Harassment can include continuous jokes or jeers directed at a volunteer’s expense, or otherwise creating a hostile environment for them to perform their volunteer duties. Outside of legal concerns, not allowing such behavior can help keep volunteers eager to return and be productive in their duties.
When a volunteer makes a mistake, becomes injured, or otherwise takes action which gives rise to a legal claim, there are two major sources of protection for the organization and the volunteers themselves: state law and insurance.
In Wisconsin, a volunteer who provides services to a non-profit has limited liability under state statutes for damages arising from their acts as a volunteer, subject to certain exceptions including, but not limited to, violations of criminal law, willful misconduct if they are also an employee of the non-profit, or if the act was in their capacity as an officer or director of the organization.
Given the long list of exceptions, it is safest to procure insurance. Insurance also can help pay for the expenses of a volunteer who is injured while performing their volunteer duties. Many organizations purchase volunteer liability coverage to protect themselves and their volunteers from the costs of personal injury or property damages stemming from their volunteer duties. Auto insurance should also be considered if the volunteers will either be driving or riding in a vehicle as part of their volunteer duties. Wisconsin has minimum insurance requirements for all drivers, but these amounts are not nearly enough to cover expenses incurred in all but minor accidents.
By definition, volunteers should not expect payment in return for their services. Regardless, many non-profits desire to reward their loyal volunteers with some token of appreciation for their hard work. This can create issues with accidently classifying the volunteers as “employees,” or with the tax-exemption of the organization under federal law.
The tax-free status of an organization can be revoked if the organization is providing a “private” rather an “public” benefit. This can happen if monetary or other valuable rewards are given to volunteers. Likewise, the classification of a volunteer versus an employee is in part based on whether they receive anything in exchange for their work. Non-cash benefits to volunteers are allowed to a point, but beyond this hard to define threshold, problems can quickly accumulate. One thing is clear, avoid giving cash or gift cards to volunteers if the non-profit is looking for ways to reward its volunteers.
The laws regarding volunteering and Wisconsin non-profits can be complex and you should consult with an attorney if have questions about recruitment, training and supervision, liability protection and incentives for your non-profit.