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Volunteer Policies and Procedures—Establishing Best Practices

Creating guidelines for volunteer participation

No matter the size of your nonprofit organization, developing volunteer program policies and procedures that govern the program—the volunteer program laws, if you will—is critical in protecting your organization and your volunteer corps. 


It's pretty easy to make the argument that guidelines for volunteers are more important than employees.

Why is this? An organization is bound by HR standards, and there are clearly defined rules regarding roles and behavior for continued employment, as well as rigorous screening prior to bringing a new hire on board.

Most nonprofits have a volunteer team that is much larger than the paid staff and is more public-facing, so it is important that volunteers represent the organization in a positive light, and that they are protected. 

Nonprofit organizations play a critical role in filling the gaps in public services. Your reputation in the community is crucial to maintaining your donor base, your ability to receive community grants, and ultimately, your ability to serve your constituency. If a volunteer breaks that public trust, your reputation may be damaged. 

Defining policies

Volunteer leaders can look at employee guidelines to develop a volunteer policies framework. This includes a volunteer position description policy, a dress code, and expectations of behavior. 

Because nonprofit organizations cover everything from child advocacy to fine arts galas, there is no one-size-fits-all template for putting together your policies and procedures. In general, these are the major points to consider.

Volunteer Recruitment Policy

Open your policies document with your mission statement—beliefs, values, and what you expect from volunteers.

A written statement also protects your volunteers from liability should something go wrong.

Work with your board and staff to set the broad outlines for how to develop a volunteer program.

The first item on the agenda: establishing a volunteer recruitment policy

Volunteer Screening Policy

Volunteer recruitment is simply the first step. 

You need to know who is asking to represent your organization, so a volunteer screening policy is essential.

All potential volunteers should complete an application. They may request a specific role, or simply want to fill in on an ad hoc basis.

Regardless, the application process should include an interview, a reference check, and in some cases, a criminal background check.

Here's an important tip—criminal behavior crosses socioeconomic classes and a museum curator will want background checks!

Outline Parameters

Volunteers need to know If your group requires a probationary period, any kind of volunteer evaluation policy, or a volunteer monitoring policy. 

Volunteer Termination Policy

A written volunteer termination policy establishes the ground rules for behavior at the beginning. Again, the structure of the policy is dependent on your organization, but here are the basics.

  • Circumstances for dismissal
  • Warning policy—verbal or written (written is always better)
  • Levels of consequences
  • Disciplinary actions

If your organization relies on volunteers whose participation is mandatory rather than voluntary, this is arguably the most important part of your policies. 

Volunteer Accessibility Policy

Under Title I, nonprofits do not have to be ADA compliant for the volunteers as there is no formal employer/employee relationship.

However, you must abide by the rules for employees, so if there is any staff (even if you're the only paid employee) the organization must be compliant. The only exception is if your group is religious or is governed by a religious organization. 

If your group is not compliant, explain why in the policies and guidelines. Otherwise, you are a target for public backlash. 

Volunteer position description policy

Make sure your application includes a volunteer description policy that defines the requirements for volunteer placements.

If your organization relies on volunteers for daily operations, make sure new members of the team are aware of your time off policies.

If your volunteers are involved with transportation, construction, handling finances, or anything else requiring specialized knowledge, you must iterate roles within the organization.

Van drivers need a specific license, and there's no wiggle room there. If your volunteers handle your budget, make sure that team has a finance background. If you're involved with housing, anyone handling power equipment needs experience. Regarding power tools, keep in mind that a signed waiver might not hold up in court, so have your attorney review any waiver first. 

Dress Code Policy

While this might appear frivolous, remember that you're responsible for your volunteers while they're out there working on your behalf. How they present themselves to the community has a direct bearing on how people perceive your group, so set out some basic rules on what not to wear.

There's also a safety issue—high school students working on a Habitat house may not know they need at least closed-toe shoes, if not actual work boots. People tidying up the highway need to know that shorts and flip-flops are not safe, no matter the heat. 

Privacy and Personal Information Policy

Clearly state your privacy and personal information policy. Some volunteers prefer to keep a low profile and you should respect that.

Volunteer Data Protection

 Your team may not realize that volunteer data protection and database security are paramount in your world, so let them know that the information you collect is limited to what is necessary, but you do need emergency contact information.

Volunteer Safety and Risk Management

It's inevitable that at some point, something will go awry with a volunteer. Every volunteer group needs written guidelines that clearly state both the organization and volunteer obligations to stay safe, and the steps to take if there is an accident. This helps mitigate organizational risk

Volunteer Violence Policy

If a volunteer abuses or molests anyone, your entire organization may well go down with that accusation.

If you are leading a community service organization you cannot be as choosy about who comes through the door, but you can manage their access and responsibilities. If one of these volunteers commits a crime, you will be liable for negligence. 

Volunteer Harassment Policy

With respect to harassment of any kind, you cannot state clearly enough that it is not tolerated at all. Full stop. 

Don't forget to establish clear boundaries between volunteer and client relationships, especially where children are involved. Again, make it crystal clear that this is forbidden and grounds for immediate dismissal. 

When you establish your goals and guidelines with volunteers before they come on board, you stand a much better chance of retention and developing a successful volunteer team to partner with your paid staff and the community.

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