Not-for-profits that direct and benefit from the actions of their volunteers can be held accountable if those individuals are harmed or harm others on the job. Lawsuits involving volunteers often arise from allegations of negligence or intentional misconduct, even when volunteers act outside the scope of their prescribed duties. Your organization needs to take steps to limit risk associated with unpaid workers.

Volunteers as Employees
Your volunteer recruitment process should be almost as formal and structured as your paid employee hiring process. Develop job descriptions for open positions that outline the nature of the work, any required skills or experience and possible risks the job presents to the volunteer or your nonprofit.

Once you have volunteer candidates, screen them according to the risks that might be involved based on your nonprofit’s mission, programs and likely volunteer activities. Some positions will pose few risks. For those, ask candidates to fill out an application and submit to an interview, and then check their work and character references.

Positions that carry greater risks — such as work involving children, the elderly and other vulnerable populations, or direct access to cash donations — should involve more rigorous screening. This might include criminal history and credit report checks and verification of driver’s licenses, certifications or degrees.

Training and Performance Plans
Once volunteers are on board, provide training, supervision and, if necessary, discipline. Hold an orientation session to explain your nonprofit’s mission and policies. After volunteers have begun working for you, continue active supervision to verify that they understand expectations.

To encourage professionalism and responsibility in your volunteers, consider devising performance plans that include goals — and rewards for achieving them. Such plans can also provide you with a framework to evaluate and dismiss volunteers who may be putting your nonprofit at risk by, for example, failing to follow safety procedures.

Role of Insurance
No risk reduction plan is complete without insurance coverage. In addition to general liability, consider supplemental policies that address specific types of exposure such as medical malpractice or sexual misconduct.

It’s also a good idea to have legal advisors periodically review policies and procedures pertaining to volunteers. Attorneys and financial advisors can help you determine whether your organization is doing all it can to reduce risks.

How much are your volunteers worth? The not-for-profit advocacy group Independent Sector estimates the value of the average American volunteer at $24.69 an hour. Volunteers who perform specialized services may be even more valuable.

Whether your entire workforce is unpaid or you rely on a few volunteers to support a paid staff, you need to safeguard these assets. Here’s how:

1. Create a Professional Program
“Professionalizing” your volunteer program can give participants a sense of ownership and “job” satisfaction. New recruits should receive a formal orientation and participate in training sessions. Even if they’ll be contributing only a couple of hours a week or month, ask them to commit to at least a loose schedule. And as with paid staffers, volunteers should set annual performance goals. For example, a volunteer might decide to work a total of 100 hours annually or learn enough about your mission to be able to speak publicly on the subject.

If volunteers accomplish their goals, publicize the fact. And consider “promoting” those who’ve proved they’re capable of assuming greater responsibility. For example, award the job of volunteer coordinator to someone who has exhibited strong communication and organization skills.

2. Keep Them Engaged
A formal program won’t keep volunteers engaged if it doesn’t take advantage of their talents. What’s more, most them want to know that the work they do matters. So even if they must occasionally perform menial tasks such as cleaning out animal shelter cages, you can help them understand how every activity contributes to your charity’s success.

During the training process, inventory each volunteer’s experience, education, skills and interests and ask if there’s a particular project that attracts them. Don’t just assume that they want to use the skills they already have. Many people volunteer to learn something new.

3. Make it Fun
Most volunteers understand that you’ll put them to work. At the same time, they expect to enjoy coming in. So be careful not to make the same demands on volunteers that you would on employees. Also, try to be flexible when it comes to such issues as scheduling.

Because many volunteers are motivated by the opportunity to meet like-minded people, facilitate friendships. Newbies should be introduced to other volunteers and assigned to work alongside someone who knows the ropes. Also schedule on- and off-site social activities for them.

4. Remember to Say “Thank You”
No volunteer program can be successful without frequent and effusive “thank-yous.” Verbal appreciation will do, but consider holding a volunteer thank-you event.

Most charitable not-for-profits have a never-ending need for volunteers. But finding new ones can be time-consuming — and volunteer searches aren’t always successful. Here are recruitment ideas that can help your not-for-profit.

Look Nearby
Is your not-for-profit familiar to businesses, residents and schools in the surrounding community? People often are drawn to volunteer because they learn of a worthwhile organization that’s located close to where they live or work.

Start to get to know your neighbors by performing an inventory of the surrounding area. Perhaps there’s a large apartment building you’ve never paid much attention to. Consider the people who live there to be potential volunteers. Likewise, if there’s an office building nearby, learn about the businesses that occupy it. Their employees might have skills, such as website design or bookkeeping experience, that perfectly match your volunteer opportunities.

Once you’ve identified some good outreach targets, mail or hand-deliver literature introducing your not-for-profit as a neighbor and describing your needs. Consider inviting your neighbors to a celebration or informational open house at your offices.

Fine-tune Your Pitch
By making your pitches as informative and compelling as possible, you’re more likely to inspire potential volunteers to action. Specifically, explain the:

  • Types of volunteer jobs currently available,
  • Skills most in demand,
  • Times when volunteers are needed, and
  • Rewards and challenges your volunteers might experience.

When possible, incorporate photographs of volunteers at work — along with their testimonials. And make it easy for people to take the next step by including your contact information or directing them to your website for an application.

Reach Out to Your Network
Develop a system for keeping those closest to your organization — major donors, board members and active volunteers — informed of your volunteer needs. These individuals often are influential in their communities, so a request from them is more likely to get people’s attention. They may even frame a request for assistance in the form of a challenge, with the solicitor being the first to volunteer their time or funds, of course.

Remain in Pursuit
No matter how precise or thorough your initial recruiting efforts, remember that one-time or sporadic efforts are insufficient to attract a steady supply of volunteers. To get the resources you need, make volunteer recruitment a continuous process that draws on several strategies.