Volunteers are the lifeblood of many nonprofit organizations. They provide much of the labor that nonprofits, with their charitable or public-service focus, cannot always afford to hire full-time employees to fulfill. Since the work volunteers do is so integral to nonprofit efforts, it is important to make sure your organization treats them appropriately, both for their benefit, and to avoid accusations of impropriety or inappropriate labor use. Here are the key volunteer guidelines for nonprofits.

(Note: This article is not a substitute for legal advice. If you are concerned that your organization has misused volunteer labor, or if a volunteer is threatening legal action based on the organization’s practices, please seek out professional legal counsel.)

What kind of work can volunteers do?

AmeriCorps’ 2018 study on Volunteering in America found that over 30 percent of Americans performed some form of volunteer work in that year, accounting for almost 7 billion hours worked.

After seeing numbers like that, you may be wondering if there is any type of work that volunteers can’t do. The Department of Labor, as it turns out, says that workers are protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act (i.e., they have to be paid minimum wage and be treated as employees) when they engage in commercial activities: activities that result in making sales or exchanging funds for services. The examples they provide are of employees operating a gift shop for an NPO or providing veterinary services for a fee, but your own organization will likely have its own examples. This is different from fundraising events, where the money being collected goes directly to charitable efforts.

What tasks should our organization entrust to volunteers?

No matter how reliable and dependable your volunteers are, volunteer labor, by its very nature, carries an element of undependability with respect to scheduling. Volunteers have their own paying jobs that at times take priority, and they have families, friendships, and many other responsibilities. As an organization, you cannot have a reasonable expectation that volunteers will be tied to a regular schedule, and you cannot depend on individual volunteers to keep donating their time indefinitely.

When determining whether a task should be entrusted to volunteers or to paid employees, consider the following questions:

  • Is this task essential? If this work is not completed, will it lead to legal disputes, trouble with the IRS or regulatory agencies, or otherwise cause a breakdown in your organization? If so, it’s best assigned to someone who is on staff.
  • Is this task time-sensitive? Does this job absolutely have to be done by a particular deadline? If so, gauge whether your average supply of volunteers can do the work with plenty of excess time to spare. If it looks like your volunteer team will barely scrape by, get a paid employee on it—they’re paid to be there, and they have an established number of work-hours that can be safely applied to the task.
  • Does this task need specific training? You should assume that your pool of volunteers will be constantly cycling, as new people become invested in your cause and seasoned volunteers get pulled away as life events bring about changes in their availability. If the task requires intensive training, and you have someone new filling the role every week, the volunteers will spend more time and effort going through the training than actually doing the task. Try to limit volunteer duties to jobs that they can be easily trained for or tasks that can be efficiently trained in a group setting, reducing the number of times an instructor will need to repeat training.
  • Is this task continuous or frequently repeated? Regular responsibilities can be entrusted to volunteers, but you want to make sure you have an abundance of volunteers to fill this role. If you find yourself barely managing to complete the work with the volunteers you have, it’s probably time to have a paid employee take over the task or supplement/manage volunteer efforts.

The best situations to apply volunteer labor are those which can be scaled up or down according to participation turnout. Charitable functions are often perfect for this: with fewer volunteers, efforts can be scaled down to let you do what you can with the people you have on hand. As more volunteers show up, you can expand the scope of your charitable efforts with the increased personnel. Instead of an on-off switch that says the task either can or cannot be done, these opportunities are like volume knobs that can be adjusted to perform a task to a greater or lesser degree.

Can a nonprofit’s paid employees do volunteer work for the nonprofit?

The answer to this one is “Yes, but…”

Your nonprofit organization’s paid employees can do volunteer work for your organization, but in accordance with Department of Labor regulations, they cannot perform the same type of services that they are paid to provide in their official capacity. For instance, if you have a paid accountant on staff, they cannot volunteer their accounting services on behalf of the organization. They would, however, be more than welcome to help distribute meals through a food drive.

There’s twofold reasoning behind this: first, it protects the employees, who may feel increasingly pressured to provide their paid services for free out of a sense of duty, overworking themselves, or effectively volunteering their way out of a job. It also protects future employees from being expected to fulfill these same volunteer duties “because the last person always did so.” Indirectly, this can also protect your organization, as it keeps you from assigning essential to volunteers, who are not truly obligated to complete them.

Do volunteers have to be screened with a background check?

Not all nonprofit organizations are required by law to perform background checks, but some are, particularly those working with children and the elderly. Laws regarding background checks also vary from state to state, so even if you think your organization is not required to screen volunteers, make sure to check the regulations in the state where you’re operating.

Even when it isn’t required by law, it’s still a good idea to screen volunteers. Even though they are not paid employees, volunteers still reflect on the organization they work with, for better and for worse. And while most volunteers genuinely care about the causes they support, you will occasionally find people acting in bad faith or looking to take advantage of people by misusing volunteer opportunities.

When screening volunteers, consider the type of work they will be doing and the mission of your organization when determining what checks to perform. Screening for registered sex offenders is advisable in any situation, but it’s especially crucial for organizations with a focus on mental health counseling, or which work with children or victims of sexual abuse. Allowing someone with a history of predation in these sorts of roles puts the people you serve at risk. If driving is a significant part of a volunteer’s duties, an unsafe driving record might be cause for screening, or at least assigning them a different job. If volunteers are working with and handling money (such as for fundraising events), you should check for a criminal background, especially as it relates to financial misconduct.

Can a nonprofit organization pay volunteers, or provide non-monetary benefits?

While it is very well-meaning to want to reward volunteers for their hard work, there are many rules in place to prevent compensation for volunteers. Though it may not seem so from the outset, this is to protect both volunteers and employees—it protects volunteers from feeling economically pressured to volunteer or misunderstanding their role in the organization, and it protects employees from losing their jobs to ‘volunteers’ that are actually being used as underpaid and unprotected employees.

In general, a nonprofit organization is not allowed to pay volunteers directly (either with money or money-substitutes like gift cards) or compensate them through “in-kind” benefits, which could include services that the volunteer would otherwise pay for, access to goods or services the volunteer would not otherwise be eligible for, free usage of company vehicles, and insurance benefits, among others. Basically, if a person is volunteering because of a tangible benefit, that benefit could be viewed as compensation, opening your organization up to liability.

Can a nonprofit organization reimburse volunteer expenses?

The rules are a little more flexible when it comes to reimbursing volunteers for expenses accrued in the course of their volunteer work. Common examples may include reimbursing volunteers for gas mileage or providing meals or refreshments to volunteers.

According to the Code of Federal Regulations, these benefits should not be tied to productivity (e.g., “If we reach our fundraising goal, we’re having a pizza party!”) or to the number of hours worked by the volunteer. Either of these could result in the reimbursement being viewed as compensation for results or time worked.

The payment for these expenses should also, in keeping with those regulations, be nominal. They should not be what motivates someone to volunteer their time, only a reasonable accommodation which keeps these expenses from placing an undue cost on the volunteer. Consider IRS guidance on de minimis fringe benefits when determining whether or not these expenses or benefits constitute compensation.

By Nathan Biberdorf