Keep it legal: Risk in volunteering

Recently, one of my charity clients found itself perched precariously on the horns of this dilemma: a dedicated and enthusiastic volunteer offered to realise part of its marketing strategy by creating a new website.

Many hours of unpaid labour resulted in a revitalised online presence that began to attract an increasing number of hits. Unfortunately, one of those hits was by an agency engaged by an international image library to protect its intellectual property.

In creating the website, the volunteer had uploaded images from the internet without making any investigations into their ownership. My client first became aware of this only when a letter from a New York law firm arrived threatening a five-figure legal action for copyright infringement. Suddenly, the free website didn't look so cost-effective.

In its publication Risk Toolkit: How to Take Care of Risk in Volunteering, Volunteering England identifies other examples of volunteers incurring significant legal liability for charities. It observes: "The sector is working in a radically different climate from a decade or so ago, which has made risk a subject that all organisations need to consider." However, as my client's experience suggests, it's not always easy to spot potential risks.

Understandably, this can result in trustees becoming too risk-averse, which can lead to the construction of bureaucratic barricades that are impenetrable by potentially indispensable volunteers.

It is possible to manage the risks inherent in volunteer involvement, however. A process of screening candidates is essential. Having identified appropriate individuals, many charities are increasingly using volunteer agreements that make it clear what is expected of volunteers and the nature of their relationships with charities.

Systems to review volunteer performance on a regular basis and provide accurate record-keeping allow major risks to be identified, tracked and minimised. Such systems also provide important data that will enable brokers to ensure that adequate insurance is in place.

In its Charities and Risk Management guidance, the Charity Commission says that risk is neutral. It is the management of risk that determines whether outcomes enhance or inhibit the effectiveness of charities.

- Tim Waldron is head of the charity and community team at Coffin Mew LLP

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