Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

August 19, 2013

Risk management protects volunteers and a nonprofit’s reputation

Special to Philanthropy Journal

Nicole Pitney

The growing role volunteers play in supporting the work of nonprofit organizations is increasing the importance of effective risk management strategies to help protect those volunteers and the organization’s reputation. Nonprofits have long depended on volunteers who share an affinity for the organization’s cause but, in many cases, might not have the necessary training or skills to perform required tasks safely.

Providing the new volunteer with
appropriate training and equipment
are also critical risk management
steps. © Shutterstock
Along with their primary  responsibilities, nonprofits have a moral and fiduciary obligation to help protect volunteers from accident or injury. Organizations ignoring these obligations may find that any potential negative publicity could damage their reputation, possibly impeding their ability to attract volunteers and even donors in the future.

Selecting and Training Volunteers
Front-line volunteers are effectively the public face of a nonprofit organization, and their actions reflect directly on the organization and its management techniques and effectiveness. Roles can run the gamut from performing routine clerical tasks to providing aid or rebuilding homes after a natural disaster. While those examples represent vastly different risk management challenges, they share characteristics including a need to align volunteers with the appropriate roles, train them effectively in their responsibilities, think about potential risks and develop incident response plans so people know what to do if something goes wrong.

In your initial conversations with potential volunteers, it's helpful to talk about their background and motivation for wanting to get involved. People bring various skills and life experiences to nonprofits, and it’s a good idea to take advantage of any specialized talents a new volunteer can provide.

Providing the new volunteer with appropriate training and equipment are also critical risk management steps. A pet shelter, for instance, should train volunteers how to handle or feed animals safely, while a soup kitchen would provide instructions on proper food preparation, protective clothing and kitchen safety.

Another valuable step in the training process is partnering a new volunteer with an experienced colleague to provide “on-the-job” guidance. This teaming can help reduce the risk of “rookie mistakes” that lead to accidents or injuries.

Volunteers should also be trained about the importance of notifying staffers about, or cleaning up, potential hazards such as spilled water that can lead to slip-and-fall injuries.

Similarly, sending volunteers for first aid or CPR training can also provide important benefits if a fellow worker, staff member or patron is injured at a nonprofit’s facility or during a sponsored event.

It is also critical to develop an incident response plan so volunteers know how to react if something goes wrong. Creating and reviewing protocols for incidents such as a fire alarm sounding or a child being separated from his or her family can help reduce panic immediately after an incident and reassure volunteers in advance that prudent steps have been taken to protect them and the organization’s patrons.

Reputational Risks
On the flip side, failing to train volunteers effectively or to develop response plans can create reputational challenges for the organization if an untrained worker is injured.

Even if the incident isn’t the organization’s fault, unfavorable publicity can lead to unpleasant questions about safety, training and potential negligence and can alter the public’s and donors’ perception of the nonprofit unfavorably.

If volunteers are traveling to devastated areas following a natural disaster, precautions should be taken to ensure their safety and access to medical care, both en route and at their destination. 

Workers performing construction tasks should be provided with hard hats, eye protection, respirators and other required safety equipment.

Depending on the location, arranging in advance for potential medical evacuation insurance coverages and services is also a prudent step in protecting volunteers serving in locations where effective medical care may be lacking, or the local infrastructure has been damaged.

Nonprofits should also be aware of the political situations at locations they may be serving. Trip cancellation and medical or political evacuation coverage may be helpful for people going to areas subject to political or economic instability.

Whether volunteers are working in soup kitchens or traveling overseas on humanitarian trips, they are exposed to the possibility of injury. Providing accident coverage alongside the organization's general liability coverage can help mitigate this fiduciary and reputational risks. Providing adequate safety training and insurance protection are ways to attract and retain valuable volunteers, which will add to the organization's strength as a nonprofit within the community.

Nicole Pitney is an assistant vice president of Chubb & Son and special risk manager for Accident & Health. For more than 50 years, Chubb has offered accident and health insurance solutions to employer and nonprofit groups as well as credit card enhancements to financial institutions. She can be reached at

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