Keep Litigation Far Away: Tips for Nonprofits so Volunteers Won’t Be Considered Employees

Jonathan photographed in April 2021. (Photo: Xben911 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Jonathan turns 190 this year, but you won’t see his mug on the cover of People. That’s because Jonathan lives a solitary life in St. Helena, a remote volcanic island in the South Atlantic. Once a week, he is hand-fed cabbages, cucumbers, carrots, and apples to boost his nutritional intake. Jonathan is a giant tortoise, and he is believed to be the oldest living land animal.

You could volunteer to help feed Jonathan, but St. Helena is hard to get to. The island is 1,200 miles west of Africa, and commercial air service is limited. Sea transport is available on the RMS St. Helena, but it takes five days to get there from Cape Town.

If you want to volunteer closer to home, however, opportunities abound. Nonprofits thrive on the services of volunteers. But every once in a while, we hear of a volunteer who later claims to be an employee and who wants to be paid.

A recent case against the American Film Institute serves as a good reminder that expectations should be clearly established when working with volunteers.

When engaging volunteers, consider asking all volunteers to sign a short acknowledgement. Consider including these types of representations in the acknowledgement, customized to fit the specific project and organization:

  • That this is volunteer work and is purely optional;
  • That the decision to work is made freely, without pressure or coercion;
  • That the volunteer does not expect to be paid; and
  • That the work is being performed to support a nonprofit organization, and is being performed for [insert] objective [e.g., public service / religious / charitable / humanitarian / civic / some other similar non-commercial].

If the work could result in physical injury or damage to the individuals’s clothing or other property, consider adding that the individual acknowledges the risks (e.g., bodily injury, damage to personal property), knowingly assumes these risks, and will not hold the nonprofit responsible if those things occur.

Please don’t use the exact language above. This is not legal advice or a template. I’m just giving you ideas here — for the greater good. Work with counsel to draft an appropriate agreement.

Be sure the volunteer work is really voluntary. The voluntariness of the work was at issue in “the Lord’s Buffet” case a few years back, which has quite the backstory.

Volunteer service is important, and nonprofits unfortunately need to protect themselves against the occasional ungrateful troublemaker.

A simple acknowledgement can go a long way toward keeping litigation far away — like St. Helena and Jonathan, 1,200 miles from the nearest land mass.

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© 2022 Todd Lebowitz, posted on, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.