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Volunteer Help: Friend or Foe to a Community?

Many community associations face substantial budgetary shortfalls on a yearly basis. As such, the use of volunteer labor may look like an attractive proposition to some associations. While saving money should be of paramount importance, not all free glitter is gold. In fact, relying on volunteer help may expose a community association to certain risks and liabilities that would otherwise not exist.

Volunteer roles can run the gamut from performing routine administrative tasks to providing maintenance or cleanup aid to an association. Regardless of what role a volunteer undertakes, there are two main risks at issue when a community association utilizes volunteer assistance. In addition to the potential liability that could stem from a volunteer causing harm to others or to association property, an association may be held liable if a volunteer is injured while “on the job.”

A community association can also be held responsible for failing to protect its residents from “reasonably foreseeable” criminal conduct of third parties, including volunteers. So before jumping on the “free labor” bandwagon, a community association should carefully assess whether its needs outweigh the potential risks of securing volunteer labor. While potential risks can be mitigated, they can never be completely eliminated.

One of the most important risk management steps a community association can take when considering the use of volunteers is to match suitable tasks with the right person for the job.  Volunteers should then be made aware of what is expected of them and what they can and cannot do while “lending a hand” to a community association. Better yet, a volunteer handbook, including a written standard of conduct, should be adopted and provided to each and every volunteer.

The volunteer should then be asked to sign a statement acknowledging that he or she has read and understood the association’s rules and/or standard of conduct. Moreover, it is of critical importance that volunteers understand that they are not “employed” by the association. As such, associations should refrain from paying their volunteers anything for their service, as doing so can transform a volunteer into an employee, thereby opening up another set of potential risks to and claims against a community association.

When appropriate, training should also be provided to all volunteers. At a minimum, training should address any potential safety concerns. It should also include information and guidance on how to report any problems or issues that may be encountered while performing volunteer work for the association.

Further, since volunteers are generally ineligible for workers’ compensation and many volunteer-related risks are excluded from the typical general liability policy, associations should consider purchasing additional insurance coverage that extends to volunteers. Part of an association’s budget therefore needs to be allocated for such an expense. Associations should also have their volunteers sign waivers of liability and hold harmless agreements that, when properly drafted, serve to protect an association from being held liable for most injuries or damages.

The bottom line is that proper risk assessment and management is crucial to the viability of any community association which relies, even minimally, on volunteer labor. And, although volunteer labor is often a great option for some associations, it is not always the best choice for others. In fact, when it comes to volunteer labor, there is no blanket right or wrong choice for a community association.

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