The benefits of volunteer agreements

publication date: Jun 18, 2013
author/source: Barry Kwasniewski

When a person decides to volunteer their time to assist a charity or not-for-profit in achieving their goals, they may come into the organization with certain expectations about their role. Barry Kwasniewski photoIn some cases, those expectations may not be clear.  Therefore, a written volunteer agreement can give both the organization and the volunteer a clear understanding of the mutual expectations, and describe how the volunteer may effectively serve the organization.

The benefits of developing volunteer agreements include:

  • Educating the volunteer about the organization, including its history, structure and activities;
  • Defining the organization’s values and goals;
  • Setting out any required standards of conduct, as well as any limitations on their activities;
  • Making the volunteer aware of organizational decision-making and governance, including its by-laws;
  • Clarifying communication lines between volunteers, members, donors, employees and the board;
  • Providing orientation for volunteers;
  • Demonstrating credibility to the public, members and donors;
  • Addressing issues such as confidentiality, conflict resolution, dismissal, expenses, liability and insurance,  policies with respect to social networking, and
  • Limiting the organization’s liability exposure.

A properly drafted volunteer agreement should set out the terms of the volunteer engagement, the duties to be undertaken by the volunteer, the requirement that the volunteer abide by the organizations’ rules of conduct, policies and regulations, the ownership of any copyright or intellectual property created by the volunteer in the course of his or her duties, and the fact that the volunteer will not be receiving any pay or benefits. 

Make it clear volunteers are unpaid

The lack of pay or benefits for volunteers should be obvious, since this is the central tenet of volunteerism. However, there have been some court cases where so called “volunteers” have ended up suing the organizations to which they provided services, claiming that they were in fact employees and ought to have been compensated as such. While these cases are quite rare, it is one reason why charities and not-for-profits should have clear written agreements with their volunteers. That leaves no room for doubt about their legal status.

Waivers and releases may be vital

In volunteer agreements, it is also quite common to include waivers and releases. Some charities and not-for-profits include provisions that if the volunteer should be injured or suffer property damage while carrying out his or her duties, the volunteer will assume the risk of these losses and will not make any claim for monetary damages against the organization, its directors, officers, employees and members. Legally, the effect of such a clause is that the volunteer will assume the risk of injury or loss while engaged in his or her duties. For charities or not-for-profits that have volunteers who do engage in risky activities (e.g. building houses or schools in developing countries) this is an important matter to consider. 

While organizations may be reluctant to ask volunteers to sign waivers, if a particular volunteer assignment involves a risk of injury, the potential volunteer has the right to know, and to make an informed choice as to whether or not they want to participate, once the risks are made known to them.

Include insurance provisions

With respect to insurance, the volunteer agreement should make it known whether or not the organization will carry any insurance coverage for the volunteer. For example, if the organization has a general liability insurance policy, will the volunteer be included as an insured person under the terms of the policy? Likewise, whether or not the organization carries any medical or travel coverage for the individual should also be specified in the agreement. This is particularly important if the volunteer will be travelling abroad.

Social media

Organizations also need to manage the risk of social networking and properly guide their volunteers in the right direction in their social media use. A volunteer’s posts on a social networking site could be disparaging and perhaps defamatory to the organization, so a well drafted volunteer agreement will clarify the “do’s and don’ts” of social media use.

Social media provisions should advise volunteers of the risks involved in making postings and emphasize the public nature of these postings. Include prohibitions on speaking on behalf of the organization.  The consequences of breaching this policy (and the volunteer agreement) should be specified.

In summary, there are numerous factors to consider in preparing volunteer agreements.  However, the long term benefits make the efforts worthwhile.

Barry W. Kwasniewski practices employment and risk management law with Carters Ottawa office. Contact him at 1-866-388-9596 or by email

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