Volunteers and Legal Issues

Volunteers and Legal Issues

Limiting your liability

By: Joan Heberger and Karen Thomas

August 24, 2000

What legal issues do you need to be aware of when involving technical volunteers in your nonprofit agency?

First, a disclaimer: Legal issues are never simple, and every nonprofit agency is unique. This article provides a general overview of issues you may need to consider. Always check with your organization's lawyer before making any legal decisions.

Many liability concerns can be avoided by carefully screening volunteers before they get involved. Screening volunteers via e-mail, phone, and in person will help you identify potential security risks. If appropriate, check background references.

Volunteers' Safety

To start, consider your volunteers' safety. Make sure volunteers have a safe, secure place to work. You know those donated computers in the dark, damp basement? You should move them to a comfortable workspace before asking a volunteer to work on them.

Staff and Client Safety

Next, consider the safety of your employees and clients. Again, careful screening will help. Communicate with your employees and clients so that they understand the volunteers' roles. Your organization can be liable for harassment of staff or clients by a volunteer. To protect yourself, you must have policies in place and enforce them. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers information for employers that need to establish harassment policies.

Volunteers and Youth

Technical volunteers may not have experience with kids or teens. If kids or teens are around while your volunteers are working, it is crucial that you communicate what is (and isn't) acceptable behavior for the volunteers when interacting with youth that participate in your programs. To prevent misunderstandings, be very clear about the rules regarding unsupervised, one-to-one contact. For more information about setting up policies for volunteers that work with youth, visit the Texas Education Network's Web site. .


Technical volunteers may need access to passwords to perform their assigned jobs. They may need to gain access to private files in order to troubleshoot problems or work on a database that contains confidential client information. Before the project begins, determine exactly which passwords, computers, and files the volunteer will need to access. See the sample volunteer contracts for suggested ways to include confidentiality in a contract with your volunteer. After a volunteer or consultant is done working with confidential information, it is a good idea to change your passwords. Check out the article Internet Security in the Workplace for more information.


A volunteer may offer to sell his or her technical services or equipment to your organization. This can be a difficult situation, especially for a staff person who is unfamiliar with the technology that is being recommended. One way to avoid this is to set up clear expectations for the volunteer project. When the project is complete, you may negotiate a paid arrangement if desired.

Firing Volunteers

Occasionally your organization may need to dismiss a volunteer. This is a particularly difficult situation because the volunteer probably had good intentions. Projects most often fail because of personality conflicts or incompetence, on the part of either an onsite coordinator or the volunteer.

Clarify ground rules about the volunteer/agency relationship before the project begins in order to avoid misunderstandings when firing volunteers. Some suggested guidelines include:

  • The mentor may refuse all or part of a project at any time.
  • The onsite coordinator has the authority to terminate the arrangement.
  • The mentor should report problems or concerns ASAP to the onsite coordinator.
  • The onsite coordinator should approach the mentor directly about any complaints or concerns regarding their ability.
  • If the relationship must be terminated, a clear understanding of that fact should be made available to everyone involved.

Resources and Additional Information

About the Authors:

Joan Heberger is a former project associate at CompuMentor.

Karen Thomas is Senior Program Manager for TechCommons at CompuMentor.


Copyright © 2000 CompuMentor. This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.


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