As most non-profit organizations can attest, volunteers are the key to completing their goals of helping more and more people. However, like any organization or business, non-profits have an important responsibility to make sure those representing them can be counted on to act in a reasonable and responsible manner. Thus, when a situation arises where a volunteer may be accused of physical abuse during an event, many questions will be asked of the organization and will need to be answered by those in charge. If you are a non-profit director, here are some key details to keep in mind regarding this matter.
In many of these instances, one of the first things that will be looked at will be the organization’s policies and procedures regarding volunteers. While these policies are always designed with the goal of protecting the organization, there are times when written policies and procedures may be considered too vague, which can result in volunteers receiving inadequate training or supervision. If this is deemed to have happened, the non-profit could be held liable for damages.
Along with its written policies and procedures, a non-profit that has had a volunteer accused of physical abuse will also have its volunteer screening process closely scrutinized. Since screening processes can vary greatly from one organization to another, depending on the activities volunteers will be asked to perform, this can unfortunately open the door to potential liability for the non-profit. As a general rule, if volunteers will be closely interacting with organization clients or the general public, criminal background checks should always be done before they are allowed to take part in any activities. This is especially important if volunteers will be working with children, since they will likely be in a position of power over the child. If, after an allegation of physical abuse by a volunteer, it is found the organization did not perform a criminal background check and confirm the volunteer’s experience and references, the door can be open for liability.
No matter how large or small an event may be, a non-profit organization is responsible for providing adequate levels of supervision regarding volunteers at all times. Since volunteers are usually considered the face of the organization by the general public as well as the organization’s clients, it’s critical that all volunteers not only know what they are allowed to do and not do during an event, but also to whom they are to report should they have any questions or problems. In almost any situation during an event, non-profits are expected to provide volunteers with reasonable and consistent amounts of direction and supervision. If it is determined this did not occur and thus resulted in physical abuse taking place, an organization may be held liable for substantial damages.
Because there is always the possibility a lawsuit could be filed against the organization, most non-profits choose to become incorporated as a limited liability corporation, more commonly known as an LLC. This is a very smart move from a legal standpoint since it generally will protect the organization’s board members, executive director, staff, and possibly even volunteers from lawsuits pertaining to financial matters and other situations involving potential liability. However, as with any legal rule, there are exceptions. And it is these exceptions that can result in a non-profit facing a complex and possibly debilitating lawsuit.
In most cases, the limited liability protections from being incorporated deal with such areas as unpaid organizational debts, unsatisfied court judgments, and other related financial matters. Unfortunately for a non-profit, LLC does not usually provide any type of protection regarding incidents involving possible criminal acts or activities, such as the infliction of physical abuse. In these situations, not only could the volunteer be held liable for their actions, but the organization’s director could also be named in the lawsuit. This can happen if, after investigating, the authorities and the courts determine the director (due to negligence on their part) allowed something that is illegal or clearly wrong – based on the legal standards of a reasonable person’s expectations – to occur during an event. If this happens, the lawsuit can, in some cases, seek damages that are worth more than the organization’s insurance. This can ultimately put the organization itself at risk of shutting down.
While all this sounds as if non-profit organizations and volunteers have little, if any, recourse should an allegation of physical abuse surface during an event, the good news is that there are some forms of legal protection available that specifically pertain to volunteers. One of these is the federal Volunteer Protection Act, which was established in 1997. Aimed at encouraging volunteerism, the Act limits or sometimes eliminates a volunteer’s risk of tort liability when acting on behalf of a non-profit organization. However, volunteers still run the risk of having their actions cause harm to others – even if those actions are done with the best of intentions. For example, if an allegation of physical abuse occurs during an event and the volunteer’s actions are deemed to be negligent, they can face a civil liability lawsuit based on their actions and what resulted from those actions. Along with the federal Volunteer Protection Act, many states (including Massachusetts, New York, and California, among others) have various laws in place that offer qualified immunity or other levels of protection to volunteers of non-profit organizations. With these laws, the essential legal question will be attempting to find out if the volunteer acted in good faith and also had the best interests of the organization and the person they were alleged to have abused in mind at the time the incident occurred.
Because these cases can be very complex and take a variety of twists and turns along the way, many non-profit organizations try everything possible to avoid having a case go to trial. Once a case gets to this point, anything can happen once a judge and jury have the organization’s fate in their hands. Rather than risk an award for damages that may financially cripple the organization as well as result in a public relations disaster, many organizations hire attorneys who specialize in non-profit law to arrive at reasonable settlements. By doing so, cases can be wrapped up much faster – often with few details being revealed in public.
While this may sound ominous, it’s important to remember that, by having clear written policies in place, providing proper training and supervision, and conducting thorough background and reference checks, most of these problems can be easily avoided.