Volunteer Risk Management

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Risk managing a volunteer role (or a particular volunteer’s suitability for a role) is an exercise you should undertake as part of your volunteer involvement. It helps ensure that volunteer involvement is well planned and correctly resourced to effectively manage any risk. It also demonstrates a commitment to ensuring robust structures to support higher-risk volunteers. It is important that you follow the principles of conducting a risk assessment for a volunteer role and for risk-assessing the suitability of a volunteer for your organisation.

Principles of Risk Assessing

Organisations have a duty of care towards their volunteers (amongst others). Duty of care means that you and your organisation need to take reasonable care to ensure that the activities of your volunteers are conducted in such a way as to reduce the risk of any form of harm; Section 3 of the Health & Safety at Work, etc., Act 1974 enshrines this duty of care in law.

Effective risk assessment allows an organisation to establish the potential risks and identify the control measures that can help to minimise the outcome of any risk.

Risk Assessing a Volunteer or Role

Sometimes whilst planning for volunteers within your organisation, it can become apparent that the role you are looking to offer might come with an element of risk. It could be that the role:

  • is predominately lone working,
  • is working with a particularly challenging client group,
  • involves the use of tools or equipment, or
  • carries a level of responsibility in relation to access to sensitive data.

Whatever the role, doing a proper risk assessment to identify the risks and mitigate them will help you involve volunteers in a safe and positive way. Risk assessment also allows you to consider whether special measures are required or that it may not be appropriate to involve volunteers in a particular activity or indeed involve a particular volunteer.

Below is a list that could be identified as potential risks within a volunteer role. This is not a comprehensive list but indicative of the kinds of risks that can present concern:

  • Accident, injury or death or a client or client’s family member, volunteer, paid staff or member of the general public.
  • Substandard performance by volunteers resulting in harm to clients, users, participants, or the public.
  • Client or volunteer abuse (physical, emotional, financial).
  • Volunteers exceeding role descriptions, skills, boundaries or authority.
  • Misleading or wrong advice and information are given to clients or the public.
  • Breach of confidentiality.
  • Volunteers inappropriately speaking for/misrepresenting the organisation.
  • Loss or damage to property.
  • Theft, misappropriation of funds, fraud.
  • Governance-related risks, including trustee liability.

As part of the assessment process, the organisation could then seek to determine what wider impact these risks could have, for example:

  • Damage to organisational credibility.
  • Loss of public trust and support.
  • Loss of financial reserves or funding
  • Loss of users, members, paid staff and volunteers.
  • Decreased ability to raise funds or recruit paid staff and volunteers.
  • Increased insurance costs or withdrawal of insurance.
  • Legal claims.

As well as risk-assessing whether a volunteer role is suitable for an organisation, it may become necessary to assess whether an individual is suitable to volunteer in the role. This may be due to a number of reasons, which could include a volunteer having a complex offending history or having some challenging behavioural issues. By risk-assessing a volunteer you have the opportunity to consider what risks the volunteer presents to the organisation and, potentially, to themselves.

Whether you are looking at the risks surrounding a particular role or an individual volunteer, the aim is to look at the potential risk, identify how you can mitigate that risk and what contingency you might want to put in place.

What to consider when doing a risk assessment

  • What are you assessing? Is it the task, the environment or indeed the involvement of an individual volunteer?
  • What the are hazards?
  • Who might be harmed and why?
  • What existing precautions are in place?
  • What further actions are needed to minimise the risks? (Mitigation)
  • What will you do if something does happen? (Contingency)
  • Who has responsibility and to whom and when does any issue need to be escalated?

An example risk assessment

A befriending volunteer is visiting clients out of office hours in the evening.

  • What are you assessing?
You are assessing the risk to the volunteer from lone working in the normal delivery of their role.
  • What are the hazards?
There is potential that the volunteer could be exposed to risks associated with lone working, visiting a client at home after office hours.
  • What existing precautions are in place?
Volunteers are fully trained, clients are known, volunteers are empowered to leave if they feel uncomfortable in any way, volunteers have contact details (and if needed organisation provided mobile phone) to contact support if required.
  • What further actions are needed to minimise the risks? (Mitigation)
After leaving the client, volunteers must call in to their support worker to let them know all is well and that they have finished their volunteering.
Volunteers are expected to call their support worker by a certain time.
If the volunteer is not in contact by the allotted time the support worker will contact the volunteer.
  • What will you do if something does happen? (Contingency)
If the support worker is unable to contact the volunteer they will make contact with the volunteer's "emergency contact".
If the "emergency contact" and the support worker are unable to locate the volunteer then the situation will be escalated to management for support and contact will be made with authorities if required.

What to do or When to Stop?

When making an assessment you must balance the risks in terms of what can be a tolerated risk within your organisation, what would require some control measures to be implemented, or when activity needs to cease. Doing a risk assessment will enable you to understand the risks and how you can minimise and manage them. In some circumstances, it may be necessary to escalate the decision on whether a risk is acceptable to senior management and/or trustees.

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