Volunteer-related risks

    THE TAKEAWAY: You don't want concerns about what might or might not happen divert you entirely from your mission, but you do have to take the risks posed by volunteers seriously.

Volunteers are an integral part of our community. The duties that they undertake are worth millions of dollars.

No organisation wants its staff or volunteers to be at any risk, and neither does it want anybody to be at risk from them.

It's best to consider volunteers as (unpaid) staff, because that's the way the law thinks of them.

Your organisation has recruited them, you've given them the authority of your organisation, and you've put them into contact with clients or the public or the members of your organisation.

Although they are giving of their time for free, there are a number of responsibilities you have to your volunteers. In turn they also must observe the rules, regulations and certain levels of behaviour expected of your organisation.

There are some obvious difficulties involved in working with volunteers:

  • They are not paid, and thus have no financial incentive to do what you say;
  • They may not stay for long, and so it's not financially sensible to give them intensive training; and
  • They usually have not had to undergo a competitive selection procedure, and so are often of unknown competence.

It is your job to overcome these difficulties and to find tasks that sit with the level of involvement and competence of your volunteers.

If your volunteers are unreliable, you may be able to find them jobs to do that have very little possibility of going wrong. If you are staffing essential positions with volunteers, then you have to hold them to the standards that the positions require. Their commitment, morale, and dedication will depend to a considerable extent on the quality of the management and leadership provided.

There are many jobs involved in not-for-profit organisations that have little possible downside and where even if mistakes are made, they are of a minor nature.

At the other end of the scale are the extraordinarily destructive effects that might arise from a failure to adequately supervise people working with vulnerable people or children. When a volunteer is independently in a position of responsibility over vulnerable groups in our society there can be no argument that they must measure up to the highest standards.

For most not-for-profit organisations, the chance of volunteers causing serious problems is extremely rare, so there's no need to panic, or to lose perspective, or to inflate the problem.

When things do go wrong, however, they can go spectacularly wrong, and if you're dealing with a very small chance of a very large damage it's sensible to take reasonable precautions.

You want to have procedures in place that as far as possible cover your clients and your organisation from avoidable risks without discouraging recruitment.

A standard screening process for volunteer recruits is a good way of checking up on possible volunteers without embarrassment or risk of losing support.

Why do we need to screen?

You need to think about screening potential volunteers because:

  • You're going to be assessing prospective volunteers to see if they fit the needs of your organisation - to see whether they're competent, whether they get along with people, whether they have the skills you're looking for and fit the position description. You need to assess their trustworthiness as part of the process.
  • You never know. All sorts of people can do wrong things. There can be no real guarantees about anybody, whether they've been screened or not. However, if a volunteer does go wrong and you hadn't screened, then your organisation could be prosecuted and sued, and your public liability insurers will want an explanation, as will the media and your supporters.
  • In some Australian states, in some situations, the law says you have to. Even where there's no specific legislation, you have a duty of care to the people you have dealings with, and that means you must exercise reasonable care with respect to their interests, including protecting them from harm.
  • It protects all volunteers. Prospective volunteers will want assurance that all volunteers working for your organisation have previously been screened. They want to feel comfortable that existing volunteers are trustworthy, just as existing volunteers want to know the same thing about them

How much screening do we need to do?

This depends on the possible risk to others. How much screening you do may also be determined by legislation. Areas of possible concern are:

Dealing with money

If a volunteer is handling money, you will want to know that they will not divert it sideways. Some money handling is relatively small scale and low risk (shaking the tin, for example) while some (banking cash after a fundraiser, for example) is larger scale and therefore higher risk.

Calculate the level of risk for your organisation and ensure that you put in place risk minimisation strategies such as a well-documented and appropriately supervised set of financial procedures for everybody. You also need processes such as the need for two signatures on cheques.

Access to sensitive information and intellectual property

If the volunteer is going to be able to access confidential personal data or your organisation's intellectual property, you'll need to be confident that they will observe the organisation's privacy and confidentiality policies.

It's worthwhile having all people working in your organisation, both paid staff and volunteers, sign a confidentiality agreement.

Positions of trust

If a volunteer is placed in a position of trust by the organisation - a position where he or she has authority (formal or informal) over another person in an ongoing relationship - then this presents the (remote) possibility of abuse.

A position of trust implies that the volunteer has some degree of power over the other person, whether that be a client or a fellow volunteer, and that the relationship is unequal.

Ensure that all members of your organisation have access to, are familiar with and understand your equal opportunity and harassment policies.

Working with vulnerable clients

If the volunteer is dealing with vulnerable clients, he or she will need to satisfy stricter standards. Clients are vulnerable if they have difficulty protecting themselves and are at greater risk of harm than the general population. People may be vulnerable because of their age, because they have a disability, or because of their circumstances.

Vulnerability may be a temporary or a permanent condition. This definition is fairly broad, but includes (among other groups) children, youth, older people, people with physical, developmental, social, emotional, or other disabilities, and people who have been victims of trauma, crime or torture.

If you work with vulnerable people, you need to take extra special care with your screening processes.

Working with Children

If your volunteers are working with children there are specific laws that need to be observed, except in Tasmania. These differ from state to state; check out which law you have to follow and incorporate the detail into your procedures.

What kind of screening do we need?

To protect clients and workers, organisations need to fit their volunteer screening procedures into all aspects of their formal recruitment and management processes. There may also be relevant legislation that governs what kind of screening is required.

Step 1. The position description

For each volunteer position, undertake a risk assessment and determine the level of protection you need. Include in the position description a description of the risk and the level of screening required.

Step 2. Advertisement

When you're calling for volunteers, be sure to say that you do have a screening process. You do not want people getting upset in the office.

Step 3. Application form

As well as asking for contact information and (relevant) personal details, the volunteer application/recruitment form should ask about any special information you have decided you need for that position (medical clearance, driver's licence, criminal record) and ask the applicant's permission to check them. Remember, all this information must be strictly kept confidentially.

Ask for referees.

Step 4. Interview

The interview has to cover much more than just security concerns, of course, and has to explore the whole range of issues about how well the needs of the prospective volunteer match the needs of the organisation, but along the way you will also want to explore any doubts you may have about their suitability.

After the interview, do follow up their referees and check their references.

Step 5. Conduct a Police Records / Working With Children Check (if necessary)

Obviously, this isn't going to be needed in all cases, or even in most. However, if you do have volunteers working in positions of trust or with vulnerable groups in circumstances where any abuse of their position is possible then you must consider this option, and if you're working with children it's probably required by law.

Remember, just because the police check brings up something does not mean that you are obliged to turn away the volunteer. The offence may be something that happened when he or she was young and foolish, something like non-payment of parking fines that isn't particularly applicable to the job at hand, or something that for whatever reason you regard as not relevant. If they can't get Working with Children clearance, of course, that's final.

Also remember that a clean slate doesn't guarantee a trouble-free volunteer (there's more on this below).

The responsible authority differs from state to state. Check with the Police Ministry in your state. Some states charge not-for-profits for the service, some don't - be sure to ask.

Step 6 (Option 1). After screening process - REJECT

If the screening process - form, interview, check - has thrown up information that has made you think again and reject the volunteer, you will need to advise the person that their application has been rejected.

Step 6 (Option 2). After screening process - ACCEPT

Even if screening has indicated that applicants are in the clear, your organisation will still need a full range of protective policies and practices.

Even full police checks

  • are only valid, at best, up to the day that they're processed
  • don't pick up interstate or overseas convictions
  • don't pick up cases who have managed to avoid prosecution

Step 7. Work design

It's possible to design work procedures and workplace layout to minimise the opportunity for abuse to take place, although this is of course only one of the considerations that you must take into account. You shouldn't make these fears the centre of your organisation's work.

Step 8. Training

You should use the training period to observe the person working in the new situation of the workplace.

Inform them of the policies and procedures relating to client protection. This should include those that engender a culture of respect for clients and their rights. If any concerns arise, discuss these with the volunteer.

Step 9. Supervision and evaluation

The amount of supervision that is provided will depend on, among other things, the level of risk that has been identified with the position. If there's a comparatively high risk, there needs to be a greater amount of supervision.

This, of course, should be integrated with the supervision necessary to give the person the best possible chance of achieving a successful job outcome.

Supervision can involve spot audits, checking reports, and monitoring outcomes.

Volunteers should be aware that their work is under review. As with any supervision, feedback to the volunteer and evaluation are important. If any concerns arise, discuss these with the volunteer.


Reporting procedures have two facets: encouraging clients, members and (paid and unpaid) workers to report incidents to you, and your responsibility to report incidents to the authorities.


Your procedures should include a recognised way for people to make complaints, about the organisation or about its staff/volunteers, directly or anonymously.

If there is a credible case, you will need to have a policy in place to ensure a fair but effective investigation, and a procedure for dispute resolution. These are serious matters, and whatever the rights and wrongs they have the potential to be enormously disruptive if not handled properly.

Mandatory reporting

Depending on the nature of your organisation and the applicable state law, you may or may not be subject to mandatory reporting of abuse.

If you are subject to mandatory reporting, inform staff and volunteers and draw up a reporting protocol that will guide and record each step of the process.

This area is fraught with difficult ethical questions, and it is important to seek expert advice on your responsibilities.


If you have public liability insurance, the policy will generally extend to your volunteers for as long as they are engaged in duties authorised and directly related to your organisation. Whether it is fundraising, maintenance or caring activities, they will generally be covered as long as it is an authorised activity of your organisation.

To ensure that this cover is extended to volunteers, check your policy or seek advice from your insurer.

Another form of insurance - personal accident insurance - is another form of insurance that you may want to consider for your volunteers.

Personal accident insurance (or, as it is sometimes known, volunteer insurance) generally covers members, volunteers, officials or participants for any out-of-pocket expenses following accidental injury, disability or death while carrying out their work on behalf of the organisation.

This type of insurance would, for example, normally cover loss of income if the injured party were unable to work through sickness or injury.

This policy complements public liability insurance. The public liability insurance covers volunteers where there is negligence involved, whereas the personal accident insurance covers the injured party where there is accidental (no negligent act) injury.