Friday, August 2, 2013

Volunteers & Liability

Volunteers are the fuel that power many, if not all of the organizations and ad hoc groups that come together in the wake of disaster to aid a community in their recovery. Neighbor helping neighbor and strangers from around the state and country travel to disaster affected communities putting themselves in potentially dangerous situations to expedite a communities recovery. That speed is largely reliant on the productive use of the Volunteer interest while it's available, because once the disaster falls out of the news cycle (if it made it into the cycle) the Volunteer interest will drop and a community will be left to do it themselves.

The surge of Volunteer interest following disasters is nothing new, and Emergency Operation Plans reflect this in the annexes that have been created to help transform Volunteer interest into coordinated action. Even with plans in place and MOU's signed, the biggest challenge in capitalizing on Volunteer interest after a disaster has to do with Liability.
Sweet graphic huh?

I understand that Liability isn't sexy but it can be the single biggest hurdle a municipality faces when translating Volunteer interest into action, mainly because in our overly litigious society, the prospect of being sued when a city is facing the reality of paying for a disaster is the last thing they want to deal with.

One of the many reasons municipalities want as many people to pre-affiliate with an organization as possible is because it clears up the ambiguity around who is responsible for that individual when they're in the field. One of the challenges that spontaneous groups represent to the pre-affiliation model are the questions they bring: who's liable should one of their Volunteers slip and fall in a basement? Are things like workman's compensation something a Volunteer is eligible for? Who’s going to pay for it? What's the homeowners role in this equation? And in the eyes of the law, how do you define a Volunteer?

While the questions around Liability and Volunteers are fairly consistent from event to event, the way in which states interpret and set laws governing liability and Volunteer coverage varies widely.

Thankfully, the good people at have undertaken the herculean effort of amassing a comprehensive guide covering State Liability Laws for Charitable Organizations and Volunteers. This resource document provides a detailed look at how each state view the important role of Volunteers and Liability as it relates to Charitable organizations—if you utilize Volunteers in conjunction with non-profit activities, I recommend looking through this document.

If more local non-profits can gain a better understanding of what their exposure is by providing a platform for Volunteers to work in a community affected by disaster, then the necessary steps can be taken to ensure that more organizations can provide a structured opportunity for them that protects both Volunteer and Organization.

In addition to the benefits this guide can offer local non-profit organizations is the potential to incorporate this information into disaster preparedness literature; the goal would be to help set and manage expectations around Volunteer liability for those who would start spontaneous response efforts via facebook/etc. This one-sheet could be coupled with the necessary paperwork: homeowner and volunteer liability waivers, to ensure that all those who are active in the field have some level of protection—it would also be a way to standardize the language and coverage organizations provide.

The role Volunteers play in the recovery of a community following a disaster is undeniable; oftentimes their involvement can mean the difference between weeks and months of response efforts. As a community of practice who rely so heavily on these well intentioned individuals and groups to fuel our work, ensuring that we arm our Volunteers with as much information as possible will ensure that they are making informed decisions about how best they can contribute to response and recovery activities.

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