Volunteers are important contributors to society, especially for non-profit organizations. From students to seniors, they’re a regular feature of events, fundraisers, and office work. And yet there’s no specific “volunteer law” in BC. If you’re a volunteer organization (as are many non-profits), or if you’re hiring unpaid volunteers, there are a few important things to consider.
What you should know
“Every year for our big annual fundraiser we always have a bunch of volunteers help out with invitations, set up, day-of coordination — everything, really! Last year one of our volunteers slipped on the front steps and hurt her leg pretty bad. She couldn’t work for a few months. We were shocked when we got a letter from her lawyer demanding we take care of her physio and alternative care bills. It took months to reach a settlement. It was incredibly stressful.”
– Ann, Victoria, BC
It doesn’t matter if you’re a for-profit business or a community-based non-profit: you have a responsibility to take care of the people working for you. This applies to paid staff as well as unpaid volunteers. The duties cover many areas:
Take reasonable care. An organization owes its volunteers a duty to take reasonable care. This means it must avoid foreseeable injuries to its volunteers. For example, if you’re holding a carpentry workshop that will be taught by a volunteer, you need to make sure they have the right tools and a tidy work space.
Create a safe workplace. An organization’s work space must be safe. And this extends beyond volunteers to the public in attendance. For example, at a fundraiser a volunteer might be expected to ensure a clear path to the exits, while the organization would be responsible for providing smoke alarms and fire extinguishers.
Don’t discriminate. An organization mustn’t engage in discriminatory practices. Under human rights law, it can’t treat anyone badly or unfairly because of certain parts of their identity, such as race or sex or disability. The law calls these protected characteristics. Effectively, this means you can’t exclude certain people from being able to volunteer. Taking it one step further, it could also mean that your organization’s work environment isn’t accommodating enough — for example, if you hire a volunteer in a wheelchair, the location should be accessible. Check out our discrimination coverage to learn more.
So how far does your organization have to go? It’s always a question of reasonableness in a given context. For example: is it reasonable for a 30-minute boat tour to provide life jackets to their volunteers? Yes. But would they also have to provide an hour of marine safety training before the trip? Probably not.
“At our spring gala, we had two volunteers run the coat check. Several of our attendees complained that their coats (and the valuables inside!) were lost. We figured the volunteers would have to compensate them, but we ended up being on the hook ourselves. I didn’t realize that our organization — which is a non-profit on a shoestring budget — could be held responsible for that sort of thing.”
– Stephen, Maple Ridge, BC
Beyond their legal duties to their volunteers, organizations can be held liable for what their volunteers do. This is called vicarious liability. Typically a two-part test determines this:
Was the volunteer under your direction and control? This part is pretty straightforward. If you hire volunteers and give them specific instructions of what they’re supposed to do, then they’re under your control and direction.
Was the volunteer acting within the scope of their responsibilities? If you hire a volunteer swim instructor, and someone gets injured on their watch, then yes, you’d be liable. On the other hand, if you hire a volunteer to do deliveries with your van, and they get in an accident while running a personal errand, that wouldn’t be within the scope of their responsibilities.
The second part of this test goes a bit further. If a volunteer goes out and does something outside of what the organization hired them to do, another person might assume that the organization okayed this. Think of a volunteer signing a contract with an event space. Even if the organization didn’t authorize this, a reasonable person might have thought the volunteer did have that authority. And then the organization might still be liable. The law was developed in this way to protect businesses that enter into contracts with people who hold themselves out to be representatives of an organization, but later try to back out of responsibility.
Applying these principles
Let’s walk through a few more situations to help describe an organization’s duty of care for the acts of their volunteers:
Take reasonable care. Organizations have a duty to avoid foreseeable injuries to participants. Going back to the carpentry workshop, this would mean creating a safe work environment (for example, providing safety goggles and a briefing on safety), but also ensuring that the volunteer leading the workshop is well trained.
A higher standard of care applies in some situations
Some situations require an extra level of care, like when you’re dealing with children, seniors, or people with disabilities. For example, if you provide a volunteer bus service, make sure that proper safety equipment is available to all.
Keep certain records confidential. Organizations must protect the records of their participants. The degree to which this applies can depend on the context — medical records or highly sensitive information should be guarded carefully. An organization should make sure that a volunteer who handles confidential records knows how to keep them safe, and what to do if there is a data breach.
Don’t let your volunteers discriminate. Organizations must ensure that their volunteers don’t discriminate against any of your participants. If a volunteer engages in discrimination, the organization can be held responsible if a human rights complaint is brought.
Getting a notice of claim can be intimidating. First: take pause. Review the claim and note down any deadlines that might be included for filing a reply. You might have some time to gather information about the claim and determine how serious this is. For more strategies, check out our coverage on what to do if you get a legal letter.
We’ve looked at how an organization can be responsible both to and for their volunteers. Now, let’s look at some strategies to help prevent legal headaches. We offer them as steps, but you could do them in any order.
Are you the head of a small non-profit with no employees, or are you a manager at a larger organization? If you’re a small outfit, simply knowing your rights and the appropriate procedures is the baseline: bookmark this page and refer back to it as needed, like when you’re about to start a new program or plan an event. But if you’re a bigger organization, you’ll have to think about the best way to communicate these legal issues to the right staff members. That’s where policies and procedures can be helpful.
The whole organization should agree on how it handles its volunteers. Putting the rules in writing is a good idea. The policy you draft might cover a few things, like job-specific issues (screening for the right skills, clear job descriptions, orientation, training, and supervision), anti-discrimination policies (for hiring and treatment), and confidentiality (for how to safeguard personal information and other records).
Getting your participants to sign a release or a waiver of liability can help protect your organization. Waivers are often used where the risk of injury is high, whether for a sporting event or that woodworking workshop. Learn more about how these work, then consider finding a waiver template online.
Whether you’re running regular programs or just putting on a one-time event, insurance is essential. Take this example: a volunteer fails to clean up a spilled drink, and then a guest slips and falls. A good insurance policy might compensate you if that guest sues you and wins. Insurance might even pay for your legal fees. Talk to an insurance broker for more details. Buying a policy online can be tempting, but it might not be clear about what situations it covers.
Who can help
Looking for more? There are options for low-cost legal help.
Access Pro Bono’s Everyone Legal Clinic
Clinicians provide affordable fixed-fee services on a range of everyday legal problems.
Access Pro Bono Program for Non-profits
Free legal help for BC-based charities and non-profits of limited means.