Volunteer Handbooks: Benefits and Best Practices

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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. They 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.. 

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.  Thus a nonprofit could adapt a volunteer handbook from its employee handbook.

As with employee handbooks, responsible nonprofits should ensure that each volunteer not only receives a copy of the volunteer handbook, but has time to read it, and sign an acknowledgment to that effect.

The following are key handbook provisions:

1.     Purpose/Mission.  Why are the workers there?  The handbook should set forth – front and center – the organization’s purpose and expectation that volunteers will promote this purpose.  This articulation of the organization’s purpose should help volunteers (as well as employees) to serve wholeheartedly and passionately. 

2.     Technology Policy.  An organization should make clear its expectation that all staff paid and unpaid - will use technology equipment provided by the organization appropriately.  The policy may include such information as password requirements.  The organization may also include the right of the organization to monitor technology use by its volunteers.   Prohibitions on non-authorized technology use will also be helpful.

3.     Confidentiality Policy.  Nonprofits often have records and files that need to remain confidential.  Examples include donor lists, financial data, and sensitive program information.  Volunteers and employees may become privy to such information.  Accordingly, the handbook can inform volunteers regarding their privileged position of trust.   It can make clear to volunteers their accompanying responsibility to maintain appropriate confidentiality.

4.     Anti-harassment Policy.  Harassment and other offensive behavior may be disruptive, demeaning, and even illegal, whether done by employees or volunteers.  Consequently, workers should be informed of both (a) their obligation to refrain from harassment and (b) available protection in case they are harassed.  An explanation of what constitutes harassment, the steps for reporting harassment, and the method the organization follows for addressing such complaints can improve understanding in this critical area.

5.     Code of Conduct.   It is important that all nonprofit representatives understand other expectations for their behavior.  A code of conduct explains how workers serve as the “face” of the organization.  It further requires workers to conduct themselves in ways that reflect well on the organization and the cause it serves.  Provisions may be based on ethical, moral, and religious values specific to the organization itself.   For example, an organization seeking to reduce smoking will likely want its workers to refrain from smoking.  Likewise, an organization focused on promoting faith-based youth leadership would presumably have moral and religious expectations for those interacting with youth.

6.     Communications/Social Media Policy.  Organizations may wish to include specific policies regarding social media and other communications.  Some organizations may simply choose to include a statement in their code of conduct prohibiting use of social media to disparage or harm the organization.  For others, especially where workers regularly communicate with youth, robust communications rules may be appropriate.  Such rules may prohibit one-to-one emails, instant messages, or texts to youth and instead require that volunteers only send group messages.  By taking such precautions, the organization can dramatically reduce its risk of inappropriate interactions leading to harm, scandal, and even liability.

7.     Screening Policy.  The handbook should inform its workers that they may be screened and asked for references.  Screening is quite standard for all persons who work with children or other vulnerable persons, and therefore it is generally expected.  It also may be appropriate for persons who engage in financial activity for the organization.  Lack of screening (or inadequate screening), can lead to enormous liability for an organization.  The acknowledgement provision at the end of the handbook may include consent to such screening.

8.     Conflict Resolution Policy.  Resolution of conflict is important for maintaining a welcoming environment for volunteers, employees, and the members of the public served by the organization.  Organizations should establish procedures for addressing conflict and should inform their workers of these procedures.

9.     Whistleblower Policy.  Organizations should encourage people to express any concerns about the ethical conduct of the organization or its representatives.  The handbook should include information for all workers regarding how to report suspected ethics violations to the organization and how such reports will be investigated and addressed.

10.  Expense Policy.  Both volunteers and paid staff should be aware of expenses reimbursement procedures. Such procedures help protect charitable assets and limit claims for reimbursement of unreasonable expenses.  The volunteer handbook also can particularly benefit volunteers by providing information about volunteer-related prerogatives.  Such prerogatives may include tax deductions and other tax benefits for mileage, other travel, and contributions of tangible goods.