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We recently participated in a presentation before the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration. I spoke about legal issues inherent with nonprofit volunteers and interns.

One topic discussed with the crowd was that individuals can volunteer or donate their time for nonprofit organizations and government agencies so long as there is no contemplation of pay; however, the same does not hold true for for-profit companies. The United States Department of Labor addresses interns in this fact sheet as they relate to for-profit companies.

Here are the top things I hoped the crowd took from my presentation:

  • “Volunteer” is an expansive term: Volunteer includes the organization’s Board of Directors as well as what we commonly think of as a “volunteer.” Volunteers are generally not civilly liable for an act or omission, if: the act or omission was in good faith, was within the scope of the person’s responsibilities, and the act or omission did not constitute willful or reckless misconduct. See Minn. Stat. 317A.257. In addition, Directors must follow their fiduciary duties and not receive compensation.

  • Don’t Reimburse Expenses as a Disguise to Pay for the Individual’s Time: The individual may be reimbursed for documented expenses – There are better ways to show appreciation than paying a volunteer for items beyond reimbursed expenses. See “Tempting But Confusing and Dangerous: Paying Volunteers ‘Just a Little Something’” by George L. Head, Ph.D.

  • No Coercion: The individual’s services must be offered freely and without pressure or coercion from an employer. In other words, the employer can’t put pressure on the person to work for free.

  • No Pay: The individual must provide services without any promise, expectation, or receipt of compensation for the services. And, ambiguity creates risk. See National Council of Nonprofits’ article, “Interns: Employee or Volunteer”

  • Employer must be the “right kind” of employer: In order to be a volunteer, the individual must be providing services for a public agency for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons, or to a religious, charitable, or nonprofit organization. Generally, for-profits don’t have volunteers (see Fact Sheet #71).

  • Not Also an Employee: The individual may not perform the same types of services for the public agency or nonprofit organization as a volunteer as he/she would in his/her hired capacity as an employee.

  • Have separate policies and procedures for volunteers, not just one set that applies to both volunteers and employees.

  • If your volunteers deal with vulnerable populations, conduct background checks in accordance with law.

For further information, contact us.

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