Personnel Handbooks – For Employees, Volunteers, and Others Too?

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Many nonprofits use employee handbooks to serve the valuable functions of providing their employees with advance notice of work expectations, applicable requirements, and other responsibilities for a productive and mutually beneficial relationship. Such goals may likewise apply to volunteers serving nonprofits and even independent contractors, at least to a certain extent. Correspondingly, it may be helpful to maintain a supervisory handbook for more effective management of all workers - whether employees, volunteers, or contractors.

How can responsible nonprofit leaders best address such personnel matters? The answer will likely depend on the nonprofit’s size, operations, and goals. For smaller nonprofits with no or few volunteers, a basic employee handbook may be fully sufficient – and with supervisory matters handled on an ad hoc basis, mindful of the employee handbook. For nonprofits with significant volunteers, using an employee handbook plus an adapted version for volunteers may work well. Some nonprofit leaders may wish to go a step further and develop an adapted handbook that applies to independent contractors too. Other nonprofit leaders may determine that a supervisory handbook makes sense for effective management – most likely for very large organizations. Here are key elements and reasons for each type of handbook.

Employee Handbook

Many organizations function extremely well with only an employee handbook. A high-quality employee handbook should cover the following areas:

  1. introductory information such as a welcome statement and/or mission statement;
  2. key work status reminders, such at-will employment status and equal employment opportunity (potentially modified for religious organizations);
  3. work practices such as attendance, pay schedule, exempt/non-exempt employee classifications, and related instructions about overtime work and pay;
  4. paid and unpaid leave such as vacation, holidays, medical leaves, and jury duty leave, along with other employee benefits such as retirement and health insurance (typically addressed in only summary fashion);
  5. worker standards such as confidentiality (e.g., for donor lists, financial data, and sensitive program information), intellectual property (confirming ownership by the nonprofit under the “works for hire” employment doctrine), workplace conduct (including any religious standards as may be applicable), electronic communications, other technology usage, social media, dress code, workplace health and safety (including COVID-related protocols), drug and alcohol prohibitions, and conflicts of interest or other ethical work aspects (distinct from governance-related conflicts of interest policies applicable to directors and officers);
  6. potential conflict and related matters such as an anti-harassment policy, grievance resolution, whistleblower policy, and employee discipline, each of which may warrant particular measures involving victim/perpetrator, worker/supervisor or worker collegial dimensions;
  7. expense reimbursement policy;
  8. remote work policy, which may warrant updating for many organizations in light of COVID-related changes;[1] and
  9. employee acknowledgement of handbook review and accompanying responsibilities.

To cover these areas well, an employee handbook may be quite extensive. But keeping each section concise and well-written will help employees absorb this information for their benefit and effective use while employed.

Keep in mind that employees are covered by the laws of the state and localities in which they physically work. Consequently, if a nonprofit operates across state lines, the employee handbook should comply with these potentially additional employment laws and generally be applicable to all employees, wherever located. Note that while state laws may be uniform in many respects, significant differences may exist such as with respect to how paid vacation days are treated, paid sick leave,[2] and other state-specific benefits. An employer thus may need to take a “lowest common denominator” approach to its employee handbook, such as providing paid leave as generously as the most generous state law. Alternatively, the employee handbook could contain qualifying language or other detailed information about specific state law requirements.

Such considerations also warrant periodic review of employee handbooks, in light of employee census changes – along with legal developments that may affect legal compliance. Employee handbooks may otherwise warrant updating, for example, to provide for remote work arrangements, whether as an across-the-board policy or on a job-specific basis.

Volunteer Handbooks

Many nonprofit organizations rely on volunteers to serve vital operational needs. From overseeing major fundraising events to filling daily administrative or other critical operational needs, volunteers often serve as the hands-and-feet of an organization. Volunteers can significantly expand the organization’s capacity and mission-impact, beyond their paid-staff. Yet, given their vital role, the expectations, guidelines, and management of volunteers are often overlooked.

Nonprofits engaging volunteers need to carefully consider the best ways to manage their volunteers. Such consideration helps leaders ensure volunteers are effectively serving the organization, not causing harm, and are aware of appropriate restrictions. Developing and using a volunteer handbook helps put such careful consideration into practice. Volunteer handbooks may also be applicable to a nonprofit’s unpaid interns.[3]

A volunteer handbook is similar in many respects to an employee handbook, just without the provisions that would apply to paid staff. Both types of handbooks serve the valuable functions of providing workers with advance notice of the organization’s expectations, requirements for serving (as volunteer or employee), and applicable responsibilities for a productive and mutually beneficial relationship. Applying the above list of areas to address, the following provisions could all be directly used or adapted for a volunteer handbook version: introductory information (No. 1); worker standards (No. 5); potential conflict issues (No. 6); expense reimbursement policy (No. 7); remote work arrangements (No. 8); and worker acknowledgment.[4]

Combined Employee/Volunteer Handbook

A modified approach for addressing all workers could be to provide a personnel handbook that applies to both employees and volunteers, with specific distinctions as noted above and otherwise appropriate.

Personnel/Independent Contractor Handbook

Another modified approach could include workers who are engaged to provide services on a regular basis as paid independent contractors (not employees or volunteers), such as instructors, childcare workers, and fundraisers. If indeed an independent contractor is continually providing services to an organization, such as through weekly or daily interactions with the nonprofit’s other workers or program participants, then expanding an employee handbook into a “personnel” handbook may well prove beneficial for all.

Supervisory Handbook

Nonprofits occasionally find it helpful as well to develop a supervisory handbook. This resource tool should supplement the information contained in an employee or other personnel handbook, particularly to help management carry out personnel policies in everyday practice. For example, a supervisory handbook may include extensive information about paid family or medical leave (per the Family and Medical Leave Act or otherwise), while an employee handbook would only summarily note that such benefit is available and with outlined elements. In addition, a supervisory handbook may provide detailed instructions for carrying out an investigation of harassment allegations, with the employee or other personnel handbook providing worker-oriented information such as what constitutes prohibited behavior, how to report an incident, and expected follow-up measures. A supervisory handbook is also the proper place for addressing worker screening at some length (as applicable for employees, volunteers, and independent contractors who are working with children or within other contexts such as handling money or working with the elderly), as well as worker discipline and termination. An employee or other personnel handbook, in contrast, may provide such information in only summary fashion (e.g., progressive disciplinary steps, subject to the nonprofit’s right to immediately terminate a worker).

A supervisory handbook thus should assist supervisory personnel with addressing worker matters, as may be raised by employees, volunteers, or otherwise arising in connection with an organization’s employment and work activities. Other topics suitable for detailed attention through a supervisory handbook may include detailed guidance about exempt/non-exempt worker classifications, maintenance of employee records, provision of job references, overtime legal compliance, payroll practices, performance review protocols, additional paid leave considerations particularly for legal compliance, and additional guidance for harassment investigations, grievance resolution, and disciplinary matters. In short, a supervisory handbook may serve well as a collection of personnel policies applicable for management eyes only.

A supervisory handbook should not answer all questions, since all worker situations cannot be fully anticipated. The areas covered may also warrant consultation with HR consultants or legal counsel, depending on specific situations. The supervisory handbook may be further supplemented by materials such as retirement or health benefits addressed through separate plan documents.

Which Approach to Take?

Bottom line: nonprofits should address workplace expectations and responsibilities through a carefully developed handbook for workers to read, to acknowledge their understanding, and to use as reference tool for effective and beneficial operations. If the nonprofit has employees, then it should provide an employee handbook. If the nonprofit utilizes volunteers, then its leaders should consider developing an adapted version as a volunteer handbook. And if the nonprofit has independent contractors who regularly participate in program activities, then such handbook could be further adapted for an expanded “personnel” approach. Finally, a supervisory handbook – or at least a collection of related policies and procedures – may provide additional benefits to management, beyond ad hoc responsiveness to worker issues.

A final note: Our law firm regularly provides legal review of employee and related handbook versions. Sometimes we evaluate draft versions provided by our clients, then provide responsive feedback and recommendations. Other times we provide a template version for client customization. Our nonprofit clients typically use only an employee handbook, and they occasionally seek a volunteer or supervisory handbook too. Regardless of the initial direction and approach taken, a handbook should be both legally compliant and accurately fit the nonprofit organization’s goals, culture, and operations, as well as updated occasionally in light of legal and organizational changes.


[1] For more information about workplace health protocols in COVID’s wake as well as practical aspects of remote work arrangements, including job suitability, technology, home environment, work time tracking, accountability, communications, job performance, and safety, see our blog article here.

[2] For more information about paid sick leave laws, see our blog article here.

[3] For guidance about interns and related legal compliance aspects, see our blog article here.         

[4] For further guidance about volunteer handbooks, see our blog article here.