September 9, 2012

Volunteer – At Your Own Risk

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Best Practice, Leading Volunteers, Organisation responsibilities, Professionalism, volunteer experience tagged , at 4:17 am by Sue Hine

My present work focus is updating a basic guide for managers of volunteers which can serve as an introduction for new people and also a reminder and refresher for the old hands.  It’s amazing how much has changed, or shifted over the past five years.  This new edition will go on line, keeping up with technological advances and it will certainly be more user-friendly.

The hardest part of this update is ensuring accurate information on legislation relevant to volunteering – all the Health & Safety stuff, the Privacy and Human Rights provisions, and Employment law, and a few other things besides.  I am getting a headache from trying to assimilate all the information.  That’s when I think about the bundle that managers of volunteers have to absorb into training programmes and in their daily practice.

It is also a huge responsibility for organisations who engage volunteers (and paid staff), and exposes a number of risks.  Ideally, all organisation policies would cover the work of volunteers as well as paid staff.

Trouble is, the law vacillates a bit when it comes to volunteers.   Yes, they are included (with some exceptions) in the organisation’s ‘duty of care’ – the obligation ‘to take reasonable care not to cause injury or damage to a person or property’.  There’s some very clear guidance about this duty to volunteers under Health & Safety regulations.

On the other hand Employment law specifically excludes volunteers.  There is no recourse to employee rights, no option to be heard at a Tribunal or Employment Court.  But hello, the provision to be a ‘good employer’ extends to volunteers!  Except there is no one recipe or template for being a good employer.   At best we can follow a guide that includes examples and initiatives.  All of these are pretty much common sense – though sometimes we need to be reminded of common sense practice.

So a risk management strategy is an important ingredient in best practice for managers of volunteers.  Yes we have some guidance from existing law.  Yes, we are blessed in New Zealand with Accident Compensation, providing comprehensive, no-fault personal injury cover – though this will not excuse us from ensuring volunteers are informed about all the health and safety information relevant to our organisation.  Yes, the legislation on Human Rights and Privacy give us a good steer on how to be inclusive in recruitment, and how to protect volunteer privacy.

What worries me is the short cuts that can be taken when recruiting volunteers, in implementing a programme that has not developed all the necessary policies, in short-circuiting volunteer training, and failing to monitor volunteer practice and experience.  If you want to know more about the risks of legal liabilities read Sport NZ’s account.  Better to skip the worst case scenarios and go for the straightforward information and advice from Keeping it Legal or CommunityNet Aotearoa (see p 13).

We can cover risks and protect volunteers through a signed agreement relating to the job description.  We can hold to a Code of Practice, outlining commitments by the volunteer, and by the organisation.  Or ensure everyone knows their Rights and Responsibilities in a document that spells out the entitlements and obligations of both volunteers and the organisation.  Undertaking Police Checks of volunteer applicants is another safeguard for those working with vulnerable people.

There is no way I am suggesting we become fearful risk-aversive managers of volunteers.  Nor are volunteers saying they want to be wrapped in cotton-wool – indeed some people object to learning about all the regulations and policies.  Volunteering to make cups of tea is not as simple as it used to be, they say.

The bottom line of risk management has to be ‘beneficence’, the practice (in medical ethics) of ‘doing no harm’.  Or, to use the word in its conventional sense, the business of community organisations and the work of volunteers are about ‘doing good’.  Let’s not lose sight of that!

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