Non-profit organizations often rely on volunteers to carry out their missions. But what are their responsibilities and best practices when it comes to volunteers? What happens if volunteers are injured, or injure someone else? Should they do police checks on their volunteers?
Volunteers are not employees, but . . .
Volunteers are not employees because they are not paid for the work they do. Since they’re not employees, the Quebec law on minimum standards for workplaces doesn’t apply to them.
But volunteers are an important part of a non-profit’s human resources. So, it’s a good idea for non-profits to use the same best practices for their volunteers as it uses for their employees.
Even though volunteers are not employees, there is a legal relationship between a non-profit and its volunteers, called a contract for volunteer services. So, they both have responsibilities under the contract. For example, volunteers must properly do the tasks assigned to them, and the non-profit should give the volunteer adequate training to do those tasks.
Non-profits have a duty of care towards their clients and volunteers. This means they must take reasonable precautions to prevent harm to their clients, volunteers and others. If they don’t, non-profits can be responsible for harm, such as injuries or financial damage, clients, volunteers or others suffer while volunteers carry out their duties. Non-profits could also be held responsible if they don’t properly screen, train and supervise their volunteers.
Here are examples, the first is a real court case and the other, a case that could potentially happen:
- A non-profit didn’t do a police check before taking on a volunteer to work with children. The volunteer was a convicted pedophile and sexually assaulted one of the children. The non-profit was held responsible for not properly screening the volunteer.
- If a volunteer could be injured by a client known to be violent but the non-profit hasn’t properly trained the volunteer to work with that kind of client, the non-profit could be responsible for the volunteer’s injuries.
CNESST and Insurance
Because of this responsibility, non-profits should carefully check whether their insurance covers both harm suffered by their volunteers and harm their volunteers might cause others.
Volunteers are not automatically covered by the CNESST insurance plan for accidents and illnesses in the workplace. This is the Quebec-government plan for employees in Quebec. But a non-profit can ask the CNESST to cover them. It must file a special form each year. The CNESST tells the non-profit what fees, if any, to pay.
Recruiting, training and supervising volunteers
Non-profits must recruit and screen their volunteers as carefully as they do their employees. In some cases, a police check might be necessary (see Police checks section).
Once a non-profit selects its volunteers, it must properly train and supervise them. Volunteers must understand their duties and the rules they must follow. For example, Volunteer Canada, which provides leadership and expertise on volunteerism in Canada, recommends having job descriptions for volunteers as well as a handbook containing the non-profit’s policies and practices which volunteers must follow.
Volunteer Canada also recommends that volunteers sign a volunteer agreement. The agreement should define the volunteer’s duties, what they are allowed and not allowed to do, and the standards of conduct expected of them. It should cover any other rules the volunteer must follow, including respecting the non-profit’s policies and practices and the confidentiality of information about the organization and its clients.
Volunteer Canada has a handy brochure called 10 Steps of Screening. Public Safety Canada has a Screening Handbook with more detailed information. You can also consult the Best Practice Guidelines for Screening Volunteers on the website of Public Safety Canada.
Depending on what your volunteers will do and possible risks to your clients and others, you might wish to do a police check.
For example, if the volunteer will be dealing with children, a history of sexual offences would be relevant. If the volunteer will be driving people to medical appointments, it would be helpful to know of any driving offences. If the volunteer will be providing services in clients’ homes, you might want to check for a history of theft.
You’ll need the person’s permission to do a police check and must keep the results confidential.
Not all police services conduct police checks in the same way and not all police checks reveal the same kind of information. So, before requesting a police check, decide what information you need on a specific volunteer. Also, provide police with as much information as possible about what the volunteer will do so police can tailor the check to meet your needs.
There are two basic types of police checks:
- police record checks to check for crimes or violations of provincial laws
- vulnerable-sector checks to check for sexual offences
Volunteer Canada recommends doing a vulnerable-sector check if your organization serves children under 18 or people who are vulnerable, and the volunteer will be in a position of trust or authority towards them. A vulnerable person is someone who is dependent on others or whose condition puts them at risk of harm by someone in a position of trust or authority, such as sports coaches.
To do a police check or a vulnerable sector check, contact the police service that serves your area. The website of Sécurité publique Québec (French only) has a search tool to help you find the police service in your area.
Non-profits must protect their clients’ personal information like medical and other sensitive details, such as medical issues, marital status, financial situation, or criminal history. The information must be securely stored to prevent unauthorized access to it. Volunteers should have access only to information they need to know to do their jobs.
Non-profits must also ensure their volunteers respect the confidentiality of this information. Volunteers should sign confidentiality agreements if this is not covered in a volunteer agreement.
The same goes for personal information the non-profit has on its volunteers. For example, it must keep confidential any police check results on its volunteers. Volunteers have a right to access the file a non-profit keeps on them.