Community engagement and programs run by not-for-profit organisations have a deep impact on communities/people/institutions. At times, the programs run by these organisations have the potential to shape the discourse of these communities/people/institutions. To run the programs, organisations often rely on volunteers who offer to engage in these programs. Since these volunteers work closely with the community and influence the impact of programs, governing the engagement between a volunteer and a host organisation becomes salient. To achieve this, organisations must ideally enter into a volunteer agreement with the volunteer to lay down the details of the program and the role of the volunteer, to achieve consistent models of volunteerism.
What is a Volunteer Agreement?
A volunteer agreement determines the understanding between the volunteer and host organisation regarding the nature of volunteering activities. The agreement specifies the parties, nature of engagement, scope of volunteering activities, roles and responsibilities and other important terms of their engagement. Clearly defining the terms of engagement, a volunteer agreement is a tool to safeguard the interests of the volunteer and the host organisation.
To strengthen a volunteer agreement, an agreement shall have the following clauses in addition to the general clauses of an agreement:
As a part of the programs run by organisations, volunteers have access to private and confidential information of the programs, beneficiaries/clients and organisations. A clause on confidentiality requiring the volunteers to keep the information confidential is necessary to safeguard the interests of the organisations and communities/individuals involved in the programs.
b. Intellectual Property Rights
During any program, intellectual property in the form of photographs, videos, audios, other media, data, reports, and other documents may be collected/created. It is necessary to govern the use of such intellectual property and determine the manner in which an intellectual property may be used and disseminated.
c. Relationship between the Parties
A volunteer is not an employee of the organisation even if they are paid a honorarium. Therefore, it shall be explicitly stated in a volunteer agreement, that engagement of a volunteer neither create an employer employee relationship nor a partnership between the parties. It should also be amply clarified that the organisation would not be liable for any harm caused to the volunteer.
d. Roles and Responsibilities
The roles and responsibilities of the volunteer shall be clearly laid out in the agreement to define the scope of activities that a volunteer is permitted to undertake. Actions of volunteers at the ground level have an impact, therefore, definitive roles and responsibilities shall be defined in the agreement.
Roles and responsibilities of the organisation to be included to ascertain the extent of support to be provided by organisation to the volunteer, and necessary steps need to be taken to mitigate risks if any arising out of the contract.
e. Compliance with laws and organisational policies
Volunteer shall be notified of the applicable organisational policies and the need to comply with such policies.
Important Points to Note while structuring a Volunteer Program:
a. Recreating biases through Volunteering
While designing a volunteer program, an organisation needs to be sensitive towards the existing structure of a community. When volunteers presume needs of a community and volunteer programs are designed with pre-conceived notions, it might prove to be minacious for the community. Therefore, volunteering programs shall ensure sensitisation and empathetic understanding of the community and the objectives of the program.
b. Volunteers are not Employees; Employees are not Volunteers
An organisation shall not structure an employer-employee engagement or consulting engagement in the form of volunteering to avoid the compliances under labour laws. This might result in the organisation being unable to enforce its rights against the purported “volunteer” or cause the “volunteer” to rightfully perform the obligations under the contract. Volunteers are neither a substitute for employees nor a way of evading labour laws. Volunteer agreement shall not become a substitute for employment agreement or consultant agreement.
At times, volunteering programs may include monetary stipend/ honorarium/ refund of expenses incurred. Stipend/honorarium should not be at the same scale as employees.
c. Liability for Volunteers
Organisation shall oversee the functioning of volunteers, however, shall exonerate itself from any liability for the actions of the volunteers.
d. Volunteers below the age of 18 years
If an organisation engages an individual below 18 years of age (a child) as a volunteer, the organisation needs to be mindful of the safety of the child. The organisation will be amenable to the application of Protection of Child from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 and other child protection laws. The Volunteer contract should also be signed by the legal guardian of the minor.
e. Application of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH)
The POSH Act is applicable on volunteers as it is applicable to employees. Host organisation shall accord protection to volunteers from any sexual offence during the duration of volunteering.
A volunteer agreement confers protection to both the volunteer and host organisation. It shall not confer a higher pedestal to the host organisation and create a system for the host organisation to adversely impact the interests of a volunteer.