Policies and procedures for volunteer programs

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Developing Policies and Procedures

Policies are expectations, definitions, and courses of action agreed upon by an organization's governing members, such as the Board of Directors. Policies can be general (i.e. smoking is only allowed outside of the premises) or specific to a volunteer program (i.e. volunteers must complete a criminal record check). Ideally, policies should be adopted before a volunteer program is implemented. However, this is not often the case. For legal and accountability reasons, it is important for nonprofit agencies to have policies which protect the agency, its staff, clients/patrons, and volunteers.

Procedures, on the other hand, refer to directions, instructions and/or step-by-step courses of action. Procedures may be part of policy (i.e. before preparing food, one must wash his or her hands and wear gloves), or just practical knowledge (i.e. when arriving at the Centre, everyone must sign in). Many agencies shy away from policies and/or put them on the 'back-burner'. However, policies need not be intimidating or overwhelming. Policies should suit the agency, not the other way around, and they should be developed with the following in mind:

  • Are there any foreseeable risks involved with the volunteer program/agency as a whole?
  • Can these risks be minimized? How?
  • Would a policy bring clarity to a particular issue, such as expectations of volunteers or staff and volunteer roles?
  • Are there unwritten assumptions or values that should be expressed in policy, for clarity?
  • Is there an action plan and/or timeline, for developing and implementing policies?
  • How will volunteer input be used when defining policy?

Many organizations have committees dedicated to defining and researching policy, and then presenting their recommendations to the governing structure of the agency. This allows discussion surrounding policy, and perhaps, makes the task a little less daunting. It is useful to keep track of policies currently in place and in progress. There are many ways to do this, including 'task sheets' or tables. Identify the policies that currently exist. As issues arise, document them and consider whether they should become a policy in the future. Prioritize policies, and work first on the ones that are most needed. Some important policies to consider:


While volunteers often sign confidentiality forms, are the forms clear and easily understood? Does agency staff go over the reasons for confidentiality, and what it really means? Are volunteers encouraged to ask questions about what constitutes confidentiality- information about clients, staff, or other volunteers? Depending on one's agency, the importance of confidentiality will differ. Some examples include:

  • An individual assisting a child with special needs should not disclose, without the consent of the child's parent(s)/ guardian(s) personal information about the child, such as his or her disability.
  • A volunteer with a family planning agency should not discuss with her or his friends or family the details of patients, including the fact that they came to the agency.
  • An individual who volunteers on a crisis line is never to discuss calls with anyone outside of the agency.
  • Members of the Sexual Assault Response Team are never to disclose the details of the assault without the victim's consent, unless legally obliged (i.e. if a child is in danger).
  • Volunteers at a daycare are not to share personal information about the child with anyone without the parent/guardian's permission, even people who may say that they are a friend or family member of the child.

Safety Precautions

There are certain procedures and expectations of volunteers regarding matters of safety. These should be clearly defined during the orientation process. Examples include: location of fire escape and all fire exits; location of first aid supplies; specific procedures dealing with injuries, i.e. wearing gloves if an individual is bleeding; and protocol in the event of an emergency.

Final Thought on Developing Policies

Often people mistake 'wordy' and lengthy policies as being somehow innately superior to simple, clear policies. The reasons for policies are to protect the agency, volunteers, staff and clients. Thus, policies need to be easily understood by all. Go with your gut feeling; think of potential problems, such as conflict of interest, and policies that can be created to minimize the risks. And don't feel you have to write a 300-page policy manual. It is really not necessary.

Excerpt from "Volunteer Synchronicity". To order this 400+ page manual please call (250) 762 2355 or e-mail the Kelowna Women's Resource Centre at kelwomenscentre@telus.net.

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