“What could possibly go wrong?”

William R. Henry, Jr. Exec.Dir. Volunteers Insurance

Establishing a sustainable system to manage these risks requires identifying foreseeable risks, deciding what risks you should worry about most and which ones you can accept, then determining how you can reduce or eliminate the most serious risks. Insurance is for the serious risks you cannot eliminate entirely. And then, to keep the momentum, risk awareness really needs to be part of the organization’s culture, just as automatic as working with your clients, paying the electric bill or anything else you do.

There’s no absolute best way to establish a risk management system, but here’s an approach that often works well. First, apply the process to particular volunteer positions, or areas of responsibility. Then, apply the process to the individuals who fill those positions. So first, let’s look at the positions…

• What are we asking volunteers to do?
• Analyze tasks, and work environment, for risk scenarios.
• What can we do to eliminate or reduce hazards?

What are you asking volunteers to do, specifically? Do you have a written description of objectives for each volunteer job? If you decide you want to commit to a risk management system, it’s a good chance to evaluate each position, and create a written description, or standards, for those positions.
Get input from the volunteers who do the job now. There might be aspects they’ve discovered that the supervisor didn’t know about. Get the supervisor’s input, too. You might learn that volunteers are doing tasks that are no longer important to the organization’s mission. Have a written job description, and also it’s a good idea to list the top five qualifications of the ideal volunteer for that position. That will help with selecting and assigning volunteers.

Next, analyze tasks and work environment for risk scenarios. What are the hazards involved?
The first step in this part of the process actually is pretty easy. You just ask yourself a simple question…

“What could possibly go wrong?”

Dig deep, for answers.


After you’ve thought of the fall hazards, back injuries from heavy lifting, unsafe use of tools, working with vulnerable clients, vehicle accidents and other risks that might come to mind right away, dig deeper. Get your best people together, and think about what could possibly happen. By the way, your best people might include someone from some other organization who has already been through the process you’re starting. Your best people might include someone in a discussion group on LinkedIn who would have good ideas.

If you work with vulnerable clients, you might already be doing background checks on volunteers to try to weed out someone who might be likely to assault a client. But look at it from the other side, too…what if a volunteer were assaulted by a client? Or by a client’s dog? Would that be possible, in your world? What if a volunteer accidentally downloaded a computer virus at your office, and your network crashed for a day? What about three days? What if a volunteer lost -- or stole -- your donor list?

What if a volunteer unintentionally violated IRS rules regarding political activity by nonprofits, and jeopardized your tax-exempt status? It’s easy to make that mistake, if you make statements on behalf of your organization that favor a particular political candidate. Learn more at www.irs.gov, in the section on nonprofits.

In brainstorming your scenarios don’t stop until you have at least 25.

Then assign each of those risks a grade of A, B, C or D for the severity of the risk. The screaming disasters that would threaten your organization’s existence would have a grade of A, and those you could get past with minor inconvenience would be grade D. If the Second Mile Foundation in State College, PA had been doing this exercise a few years ago, they might have considered the possibility that a volunteer – maybe even the founder himself, Jerry Sandusky – could be accused of molesting the children in their care. A Grade A disaster if there ever was one. But to get to that risk scenario, they would have to be willing to discuss anything, no matter how uncomfortable. There can’t be any taboos. Because if it can’t be discussed, it can’t be managed.  The Livestrong Foundation is going through a similar kind of crisis right now, as the face of the organization has been stripped of his Tour de France titles and corporate sponsorships.

So first you assess the severity of all the risks you can imagine. Then assess the frequency of each risk, again using the A, B, C, D system. But the highest frequency doesn’t necessarily mean the most serious risk. In many of the nonprofit organizations that participate in CIMA’s Volunteers Insurance Service program, minor injuries occur with some regularity. For example, in home repair projects or other light construction, a volunteer hitting his finger with a hammer might occur several times a year. It really comes with the territory, so that’s a frequency of A. But usually the injury isn’t severe, so it isn’t a risk that should worry you most. On the other hand, there could be a risk scenario so remote it might occur only every 25 years or so – like the Jerry Sandusky situation – but it is so severe that you want to reduce or eliminate it as a top priority.  So severity and frequency have to be considered together, as you evaluate how serious each risk is.

And then the last step – Once you have identified your risks, what can you do to eliminate or reduce them? It might be training in proper lifting technique to prevent back injuries, requiring background checks for any volunteers working with vulnerable clients, remote backup of computer files and some training on the basics of computer security. It might be training on the IRS rules about political advocacy, separation of duties where the organization’s money is involved to minimize the risk of embezzlement, or a number of other strategies. Serious risks that cannot be eliminated entirely should be transferred to an insurance company.

Next Issue – Part 2 – Risk management of the individual volunteer

For more information about the program, the reasons volunteers should be insured separately from the organization, and an application, please go to www.cimaworld.com/alive. When you enroll your volunteers, the VIS Community Giving Program will make a contribution to AL!VE to support the services we provide our members.
Newsletter - Winter 2013

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