Volunteers often play a key role in non-profit organizations. Even though volunteers are not employees, organizations have certain obligations toward them. Here are some best practices that can be adopted to prevent problems from arising.
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.
A contractual relationship
Even though volunteers are not employees, the organization and the volunteers each have rights and responsibilities towards one another. The legal relationship between an organization and its volunteers is called a contract for volunteer services. It can either be written or verbal.
On the one hand, the organization depends on volunteers to carry out its mission. On the other hand, volunteers must respect their commitments to the organization. For example, the organization must provide the volunteers with a secure working environment, and the volunteers must follow the organization’s instructions.
The organization’s responsibilities
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 held responsible for harm, such as injuries or financial damage that clients, volunteers or others may 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.
For example, an organization could be held responsible for an act of negligence committed by a volunteer while carrying out their volunteer activities. An organization could also be held responsible if a volunteer injures themselves because they did not receive proper training to carry out the tasks in question. However, court actions and judgments against non-profit organizations for the actions of their volunteers are quite rare in Quebec.
Accidents during volunteer activities
Given that organizations can be held responsible for harm suffered by their volunteers and harm their volunteers might cause others, it may be wise to consider having insurance coverage for these risks. Organizations can start by checking whether their current policies cover these situation.
Volunteers are not automatically covered by the CNESST for accidents that may occur during volunteer activities. But a non-profit can ask the CNESST to provide such coverage. It must file a special form each year and pay the required fee. To learn more, consult the website of the CNESST.
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.
Signing a volunteer agreement
It is a good practice for volunteers to sign a volunteer agreement. This 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.
To learn more, consult the website of Volunteer Canada. The “Resources” section has guides such as the Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement and the Screening Handbook.
In general, police checks are not mandatory. But depending on what your volunteers will do and the types of people they will serve, you might wish to do a police check.
Your organization serves vulnerable persons
You must do a police check in this situation.
For example, if the volunteer would be dealing with children, it would be necessary to check for any sexual offences.
Definition of vulnerable persons
A person may be considered vulnerable because of their age, a disability or other circumstances, either temporary or permanent.
A person is also considered vulnerable if they are in a situation of dependency on someone else. For example, a child is dependent on their parents or tutor. A senior in loss of autonomy is dependent on their caregiver.
A person may also be considered vulnerable with regard to someone in authority over them. For example, a trainer or a teacher is in a position of authority with regard to a student.
Risks of not doing police checks
An organization that does not adequately verify a volunteer’s background could be held responsible for any harm caused to a vulnerable person, such as a child. Of course, this would also be awful for the organization’s reputation.
Carrying out police checks
You’ll need the person’s permission to do a police check and must keep the results confidential.
You should then contact the police service for your region. You can explain the volunteer’s tasks so that the police can do the appropriate type of verification.
You must keep the result confidential.
If a person has a criminal record
You must ask yourself whether the offences committed are relevant to the tasks the volunteer would carry out. In general, you can’t exclude someone if the offences are of no relevance to the volunteer tasks in question. That would be considered discriminatory.
Protection of personal information
Non-profits must protect any personal information in their possession. “Personal information” means any information about a person that makes it possible to identify them.
The organization must protect the personal information of the people who use its services, for example, medical issues, marital status, financial situation, or criminal history. The information must be securely stored to prevent unauthorized access (for example, in a locked filing cabinet).
Non-profits must also ensure their volunteers respect the confidentiality of this information. Volunteers should have access only to the information they need to do their jobs.
The organization may consider it appropriate to have volunteers sign confidentiality agreements to protect personal or other information.
Collecting personal information of volunteers
When an organization recruits volunteers, it can only collect personal information necessary for the volunteer activities in question. It must also identify the purposes for collecting this information. The organization must ask the volunteer directly for this information. It must obtain the volunteer’s authorization to request information from other sources, for example, if it wishes to do police checks or to communicate with reference persons with whom the volunteer has worked in the past.
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 or their driving records. Volunteers have a right to access the file an organization keeps on them.