As anyone involved in the community association industry knows, using volunteers is an important part of the efficient running of almost any Association, whether it be volunteer board members, other volunteers for projects, specific matters or general assistance around the grounds and buildings of an Association. However, care should be taken when utilizing volunteers and there are a number of issues to be aware of in that context.
Volunteers may be individually protected by the federal “Volunteer Protection Act of 1997” but that may not protect the association itself to any real degree. That Act was intended to protect individual volunteers with nonprofits from risk of tort liability for their actions in order to allow volunteering without worrying about potential liability for being a volunteer. But an Association needs to protect itself as well.
A volunteer is essentially acting as an agent of the Association when volunteering, depending on the type of task being done. Thus, there could be liability for negligence or wrongdoing as a result of something that the volunteer does (or does not do). Also, there is the risk of injury to the volunteer while doing tasks for the Association – that must be considered as well.
Some key concepts arise when involved in the world of volunteers:
- Lack of training is often what differentiates a volunteer from an “expert”. And that can be the difference in outcomes when using volunteers. Highly technical tasks are likely not good grounds for volunteer usage – using an expert with the training, experience and protections of the industry is likely a better choice. As stated above, determine where the line is between a properly trained expert and a zealous volunteer. Even a highly trained volunteer for a certain task/job may not come with the same protections as utilizing a true industry “expert”.
- Scope of duties/task. Sometimes, in the “heat” of “esprit de corps” a volunteer may feel inclined to do more than was initially planned for or expected. While that could be helpful, it is better to have a narrowly focused and specific set of tasks/duties so that there is clarity and oversight for what is being done.
- Written waivers signed by volunteers can be used to attempt to limit possible liability to a volunteer for some injury or act. But, it should be accepted that a waiver may not be an absolute method of limiting an association’s exposure for volunteer issues. Waivers are helpful in deflecting potential liability but need to be used cautiously and with an understanding that if something bad does happen and there are injuries or damages, any such waiver is certain to be challenged.
Possible Insurance Coverage for Volunteer Work
There are a number of potential insurance options to protect the Association from potential liability to or as a result of the actions/inactions of volunteers:
- Directors’ & Offi cers’ Liability. Protects board members making decisions during the course of Association business so long as they are acting in the appropriate way and using “business judgment” when doing so. Such a policy is good practice and can provide defense and indemnity where there is a dispute between an Association and one or more members/ owners about decisions or actions taken by the board of directors.
- Worker’s Comp. Typical worker’s compensation coverage may not cover volunteers (only employees), so depending on the task considered this may be something to look into further and determine potential options with your agent.
- Crime & Fidelity Insurance. Such insurance can protect an Association against financial losses as resulting of some type of fraudulent financial activity, e.g., embezzlement, wire fraud, check fraud. Oftentimes, associations may have an “employee dishonesty” bond/insurance, but that may only cover employees; to the extent coverage is sought for volunteers, exploring potential options may be wise.
These are just a few of the considerations when using or thinking about using volunteers around your Association. It can be done and most certainly can be helpful and rewarding to both the volunteer and the Association. But being aware of and planning for the potential pitfalls and risks is good business practice for homeowners’ associations.
This article is republished with permission and originally appeared in the Fall 2018 Issue of Minnesota Community Living from CAI-Minnesota.