Ready, Set, Go: Keeping Your Nonprofit Safe for All

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As September approaches, many churches, schools, and social service organizations are looking forward to offering new programs.  But court statistics show that liability for personal injury remains a serious – and expensive – problem for nonprofits, particularly those that care for children and other vulnerable persons.  Is your nonprofit well prepared to serve its constituents safely?

Attentiveness to a nonprofit’s safety policies is key.  These policies may include abuse prevention, other employee and volunteer guidelines, security, and facility safety.   Here are some guidelines for successfully developing and maintaining safety measures.

1. The Buck Stops With the Board.

A nonprofit’s board of directors is legally responsible for developing, implementing and monitoring appropriate safety policies.  While directors ordinarily are not subject to personal liability for their board decisions, they may be held personally liable if their action (or inaction, as the case may be) amounts to “gross negligence.”  

Accordingly, if your social service organization is going to offer bungee jumping lessons, the board will be responsible for ensuring that qualified bungee jumping teachers are on board (along with participant releases!)  At a more commonplace level, board-approved abuse prevention policies should be in place for caregivers serving children and other vulnerable persons.  And if your workers will be driving others around or taking them on trips, the board should have vehicle and driver safety protocols in place.  Be sure to check state licensing requirements for the type of vehicle and use. 

2. Insurance Matters.

So what happens when things go wrong?  Make sure you are well prepared by checking with your nonprofit’s insurance carrier on any needed insurance coverage updates.   

For example, is the dollar amount of coverage sufficient for the risks involved? Maybe an increase is in order, now that program capacity has doubled.  Does the type of coverage need to be adjusted, such to add directors’ and officers’ insurance (including coverage for legal defense) or to cover new activities or equipment?  

It also may be helpful to coordinate with your insurance provider on safety measures like abuse prevention and physical safety.  Follow your insurance company’s guidelines, and you just may end up with a safer facility along with a lower insurance premium!

3. Background Screenings

Since it is now relatively easy and common to use criminal background screenings as an abuse prevention tool, screening should be required for all staff and volunteers. Have you screened all workers involved with vulnerable persons, including staff and volunteers?

In addition, make sure that the scope of such screenings is appropriate for the workers involved.  More extensive screening is recommended for persons with greater responsibility, and credit checks may be warranted for persons handling finances (with permission from such workers, as may be legally required).  

For new workers, use written applications designed to reveal their suitability as caregivers, as well as any problem areas.  And when troubling information surfaces, investigate further fully and satisfactorily.  Check out references, and interview each applicant personally to ascertain their credibility and fitness.  

Also update background checks periodically (e.g., every 3 years), to obtain any new information of particular concern. The people your organization serves are too important (and the potential liability too great!) to skimp on these key precautions.

4. Training and Supervision

Childcare workers need to know how to care for others and carry out programs, consistent with applicable safety and other legal requirements.  Training is helping for knowing how to spot potential abuse, report it as required by law, and follow protocol for handling such sensitive manners.   Caregivers additionally need appropriate supervision, which can be accomplished through periodic observation by others, open (or half-open) doorways for children’s programs, and working together in program activities.

Training for other safety measures may include fire drills and emergency lockdowns.  In light of changing gun laws and related violence issues, nonprofits may wish to develop physical safety protocols as well.