VOLUNTEERS Legal obligations cloud once-simple issues


February 24, 1992|By LESTER S. PICKER

When's the last time you attended a government-sponsored event and found it useful? Or enjoyable? I recently attended a four-hour seminar put on by the Governor's Office on Volunteerism and -- surprise, surprise -- found it enjoyable and informative.

With government funding for non-profits at an all-time low, policy-makers are desperately seeking ways to transfer the financial burden to other sectors. One way to fill the public's escalating need for services is by encouraging volunteerism. The notion here is that by encouraging more people to volunteer in the good works of non-profit organizations, services will not have to be cut.

I've written about the benefits of volunteerism many times in this column. Trouble is, no amount of volunteerism can replace professional, trained staff, with years of experience focusing on client needs. But, times are tough and the money needed to fund our non-profits is harder to come by.

Using volunteers is smart. Through volunteers, non-profit agencies can reduce some of the effects of budget cuts. Volunteers help raise the social consciousness of the general public through the first-hand knowledge gained on the job. And volunteers give substantially more to charity than do their stay-at-home counterparts.

Based on discussions with executives at non-profits throughout central Maryland, these recruitment efforts appear to be working. But, as volunteers appear in greater numbers on the doorsteps of non-profit organizations, they bring risks and potential liabilities.

Responding to these concerns, the Governor's Office on Volunteerism collaborated with 15 other government and non-profit agencies to hold the conference on legal liabilities and related insurance issues.

One area of concern: the chilling effect that legal liability issues may be having on potential volunteers, especially in our drop-of-the-hat-lawsuit society. Is it fair to hold volunteers personally liable for harm caused by their negligence?

"Every state has passed laws to expand protection to categories of volunteers," according to Chuck Tremper, Executive Director of the Nonprofits' Risk Management and Insurance Institute in Washington. "It's a case of that volunteer who is willing to come out and contribute to the community and we say to her that as an added cost, we're going to hold her personally liable. Most would say it's not quite fair."

There are other thorny legal issues, too.

Consider the complexities of volunteer employment. That's right, employment. As I've said many times, volunteers should be treated, and respected, as if they are staff members. Now, there is increased concern over the legal issues of discrimination against volunteers, harassment, civil rights and dismissal. Suddenly, using the skills of volunteers isn't so simple anymore.

Concern over potential liability extends to volunteers who serve on non-profit boards of directors.

Volunteer boards in Maryland have a degree of protection afforded by law, but there is a great deal a non-profit organization can do to limit the risk of liability by board members, according to Frank Daily, an attorney with Lord and Whip in Baltimore. "The days of non-attendance at board meetings are over, if nothing else than due to liability issues," he observed at one of the conference workshops.

Board members must put in the time and effort for the organization. Non-attendance is no defense against liability suits. fact, the regularly absent board member may be more culpable, because he did not provide the organization with the counsel that might have prevented a problem.

Board members also must scrupulously avoid conflicts of interest, which would open them and their organizations up to costly legal battles. One recommendation emerging from this fine conference: Non-profit organizations should conduct an audit of practices related to their boards and other volunteers.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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