Are You Putting Volunteers in Harm’s Way?
The U.S. Peace Corps announced in late December that they would be suspending volunteer efforts in Honduras and other countries because of increased security concerns. It’s not uncommon to hear reports from organizations such as the Peace Corps that they must place the safety of their volunteers above program service goals.
Energize often cautions agency executives against worst-case scenario thinking about volunteers and risk, in which some form of volunteer activity is banned because of presumed likelihood of liability. Yet the Peace Corps conundrum highlights something different: uncontrollable dangers in the environment in which volunteers are asked to work. This can range from possible physical assault to contracting disease to property theft.
Should you be assessing the dangers that you are asking volunteers to face as they serve your organization? Probably. Certainly you should be developing policies that identify any inherently risky environments volunteers may encounter and clarify what should be done about them. Isn’t it better to have discussions about the possibilities BEFORE we need to make decisions about stopping service at a moment’s notice?
Involve volunteers in your deliberations from the start. It is paternalistic to decide unilaterally that volunteers ought not to do something – after all, they are usually adults, free to make their own decisions about the level of risk they can tolerate. You have the right to curtail activities done in your name, but make decisions based on good reasons and with the input of different stakeholders.
Remember, too, that we routinely expect volunteers to fight fires, reach out to the homeless at night, visit prisons, engage in search-and-rescue emergencies and other activities that carry potential to be in harm’s way. Are your concerns legitimately to protect volunteers or are you mainly trying to avoid lawsuits?
To get the conversation started, here are our top 5 resources for helping you develop effective strategies for risk management and safety of volunteers:
- Better Safe: Risk Management in Volunteer Programs & Community Service - a book by Linda Graff that demystifies risk management and sets out in plain language what every volunteer program needs to know about this sometimes scary, always critical subject.
- Volunteer Risk Management Tutorial from the Nonprofit Risk Management Center at http://nonprofitrisk.org/tools/volunteer/no-surprises.shtm. This online tool explains how to control risks in a volunteer program and protect the agency, the volunteers, and the clients.
- Volunteers Insurance Service, the most established American insurance program for volunteers. Site includes online version of their printed newsletter, VIS® Connections, at http://www.cimaworld.com/visconnections/.
- “Safety in Online Volunteering Programs,”from the Virtual Volunteering Project Archives http://www.energizeinc.com/art/subj/VVArchivesafety.html
- The 9th edition (2010) of the Volunteer Legal Handbook, offers examples of "awful situations" and how to prevent them, with advice on volunteer screening, evaluation, training and insurance.
Be prepared for all these resources to focus more often on things done wrong by volunteers than what might be done to them. Spend some time thinking about that side of the coin, too.
Type of News: