Do volunteers need special insurance?

You volunteer your time because you want to do a little good in the world. However, if you’re involved in an accident while volunteering, no one will ask about your intentions. You'll be asked whether you have insurance.

The likelihood that you’re covered as a volunteer depends entirely on the organization you serve. As many as 90 million Americans volunteer every year, but many aren’t covered for the specific risks they’re undertaking.

Riskier types of volunteering are the most likely to offer specific coverage for volunteers. Many volunteer firefighters, for instance, are covered by policies issued to volunteer fire departments by companies like VFIS, a division of Glatfelters Insurance Group in York, Pa.

volunteers insurance

Soup kitchen volunteers and meal deliverers, on the other hand, are unevenly covered. Some states have insurance programs for volunteers, but perhaps the best-known private provider of volunteer insurance is Volunteers Insurance Services Association Inc., a division of CIMA Cos. The Woodbridge, Va., company covers 2.5 million people who donate their time to 5,000 organizations around the country. Founded more than 40 years ago to insure volunteers for the federal government, Volunteers Insurance Services gradually expanded to cover volunteers for city, state and local government organizations, as well as for independent nonprofits.

Levels of coverage

Volunteers Insurance Services offers three volunteer policies: one that covers liability caused by the volunteer, one for injuries a volunteer incurs and one for extra vehicle insurance, in case a volunteer is involved in an accident while driving for volunteer work. The total cost for all three kinds of coverage through Volunteers Insurance Services is $12 per volunteer per year, plus a small membership fee for the organization. This includes up to $1 million in volunteer liability insurance, a $50,000 medical policy and $500,000 in excess auto liability.

Auto liability may be the most valuable option the organization provides. Just imagine if a volunteer were driving two other volunteers, got into an accident and was at fault, says William Henry, executive director of Volunteers Insurance Services. “That volunteer could be looking at a situation where their own personal automobile insurance limits are going to be exhausted quickly, just with medical bills,” he says.

Henry notes that many drivers carry only the state-mandated minimums for their auto liability coverage.

“In a situation like this, if they know that they’ve got an extra $500,000 available in our policy, that’s going to help the volunteer and the volunteer coordinator sleep better,” Henry says.

Such policies protect the volunteer and the organization, Henry says, by adding another layer of protection beyond whatever liability coverage they already have.

“For just a few dollars a year, the organization can separate the risk that their volunteers represent,” he says.

However, there are limitations. Typical exclusions include alleged "errors or omissions" in connection with the volunteer’s professional services, and damage to property that was in the control of the volunteer, according to “No Surprises: Harmonizing Risk and Reward in Volunteer Management,” a book published by the Nonprofit Risk Management Center.

What should you do if the organization you volunteer for isn’t covered? One option is to lobby for insurance. Many nonprofits buy volunteer insurance after members ask for it, Henry says.

Army of one

As an individual, however, buying volunteer insurance doesn’t appear to be an option. Neither Volunteers Insurance Services nor Glatfelters insures individual volunteers. If you try to help in a life-or-death emergency, it’s possible that you might be protected from liability under a state Good Samaritan law. Beyond that, you’re on your own.

It’s possible, Henry says, that you have some coverage if you have a personal liability benefit as part of your homeowner’s insurance or auto insurance policy. However, he says, volunteers are “really putting their own assets at risk when they volunteer.”

Additionally, homeowner’s insurance may have some important limitations that volunteers need to be aware of, according to “No Surprises.” Homeowner’s and renter’s insurance may cover injuries or property damage, but that won’t do any good if you're accused of violating someone’s civil rights or mismanaging the organization, according to Melanie Lockwood Herman, executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center.

Certainly, most nonprofits with significant operations will carry some insurance, which may offer some protection for most volunteers, but the risks themselves may be greater than in the for-profit world.

Risks higher in volunteer world

One reason you may want to worry more at a volunteer site than at work: Resource-strapped nonprofits are likely to have thought a lot less about how to reduce their risks. Many for-profit corporations have the money to hire professional risk managers, but a lot of nonprofits don't.

“A handful of nonprofits have their own risk managers, too. But for the majority of the nation’s 1.8 million nonprofits, the role of risk manager is carried out by an individual who has many other responsibilities,” Herman writes.

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