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Protect Volunteers From Legal Risks

Having a few key policies in place can minimize the risks to parent volunteers.
by Sandra Pfau Englund

Getting parents involved in your PTO is critical to its success. But how do you protect volunteers from legal risks? Unfortunately, parent volunteers and PTO officers can and do get sued when a student gets hurt, the rented popcorn machine ignites a fire, or PTO funds come up missing.

Step One: Know the Risks

First, conduct a risk management audit every year. This is a fancy name for looking at the legal risks your PTO is likely to face and then taking steps to avoid or limit those risks. The risk management audit should take place after you plan the year’s activities but before the plans are finalized.

During the risk audit:

  1. Identify the risks to which the PTO most likely will be exposed.
  2. Assess the risks, determining which risks your group can live with, which risks you can control, and which risks are too great to bear.
  3. Control the risks by avoiding programs and activities that raise too great a risk; modifying policies, procedures, and practices to reduce the risks of programs that you don’t want to eliminate; and transferring other risks by using informed consent documents and acquiring appropriate insurance. Informed consent documents are essentially improved permission slips. They transfer the risks in contracts for services. For example, the company providing the popcorn machine might agree to indemnify the PTO for any loss.

Step Two: Set Guidelines

Clearly define the roles of your volunteers. Risks increase when volunteers go beyond the scope of their duties. Many parent groups find it impractical to use volunteer position descriptions and provide training for their volunteers, as larger nonprofits do. However, you can develop a do/don’t volunteer guide.

It might include rules such as:

  • At least two volunteers must be present when students are present (no one volunteer should be alone with children).
  • At least two volunteers must be present when money is handled.
  • Any volunteer who drives non-family members must certify that his vehicle has met all state inspection and other requirements, the driver is properly licensed, and the vehicle is properly insured.

Step Three: Mind the Money

Implement financial controls. Every year some parent groups are surprised to discover that a trusted volunteer has stolen money from the treasury. Limit this risk by using sound money practices: require two signatures on all checks, require two people to be present whenever money is collected and counted, require all fund requests to be made on a standard form, require receipts for all reimbursements, and require all funds to be deposited immediately.

It’s also a good idea to have a PTO finance committee that reviews bank statements and other financial documents at least quarterly. In addition, having an audit committee of at least three members conduct an annual audit in which each financial transaction is matched with an appropriate receipt will help spot problems. Finally, if your PTO can afford it, pay a certified public accountant to check the work of the audit committee.

Step Four: Buy Insurance

Acquire the appropriate insurance to help protect your volunteers. General liability insurance protects your group and its volunteers against injury claims and other claims related to your events. Directors and officers liability insurance protects board members and the decisions they make. Property insurance covers damage to the property your group owns, rents (the moon bounce), or has custody of (the candy or gift-wrap before it reaches the customers). Finally, fidelity bonds protect the group from misuse or theft of the group’s money.

PTO leaders often believe that state and federal laws, such as the Volunteer Protection Act, sufficiently protect their volunteers. While these laws provide some protection, they contain many exceptions. In addition, you might think your school’s insurance policies cover the group and its volunteers. This, too, often is not true. It is critical that you carefully review the school’s policies to determine whether the PTO is covered and if so, whether there are exceptions in the policy for the types of activities that your group plans to undertake.

The risk of liability shouldn’t scare away you or your volunteers. Instead, do what you can to limit the risks by implementing a risk management program.

Sandra Pfau Englund is an attorney specializing in legal issues for nonprofit organizations.

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