Let’s say that your nonprofit is planning a community-wide marathon fundraiser. You’ve recruited volunteers to help you hang signs and set up water tables along the marathon route. Then, before the event even starts, a volunteer helping decorate your venue falls off a ladder. They’re okay, but they’ve twisted their ankle—and your nonprofit didn’t have them sign a waiver. What do you do?
Situations like this can and do happen, and they can leave nonprofits with questions about liability, the importance of waivers, and what the next steps are to protect their organization.
To help your nonprofit understand why liability waivers matter and what can happen without them, this guide will explore three things that your nonprofit might encounter if you don’t have liability waivers:
- Participants will not be informed about risks.
- Your nonprofit will not be protected from liability.
- Your organization may have poor documentation.
It’s likely that you’ll need to use different kinds of waivers to help protect your nonprofit. Guests, volunteers, your staff, and even your beneficiaries may all need to sign waivers at various points so that your nonprofit can operate without worry. For example, to host a marathon, you would need to create an activity waiver for the participants in your marathon and a separate waiver for volunteers.
1. Participants will not be informed about risks.
Waivers represent agreements between your nonprofit and individuals who opt into an activity hosted by your organization that poses some degree of risk. A waiver should clearly outline potential risks in plain language to make sure participants are aware of those risks.
Using digital waivers, or waivers formatted in digital documents rather than printed on paper, is the best way to inform participants about risks in advance. With waiver software, you can share your waiver online at any time before the event or activity, giving participants the chance to carefully read and consider its terms.
Warning participants of risks beforehand is especially important for vulnerable groups or outside parties, such as:
- Individuals with medical conditions. Pre-existing health conditions can increase an individual’s level of risk. For example, someone allergic to bees may need to be more careful at an outdoor event that would otherwise have minimal risk. Additionally, those with preexisting injuries or conditions (like back pain) may have a higher risk for activities that involve lifting heavy objects. Make sure to note scenarios like these that could present a risk to certain participants.
- Minors. If your nonprofit works with schools, youth camps, or children in general, you will likely need permission from their parents or guardians for them to participate in even low-risk activities. Having a minor under your organization’s care—especially if they are not supervised by a parent or guardian—can put your nonprofit at unnecessary risk for liability if they have not signed a release form.
- External groups. If your nonprofit has partnered with another organization (such as a local business), they will likely want to review a copy of your liability waiver before having their members sign up. If your nonprofit does not use waivers, other organizations may hesitate to allow their members to participate in your fundraising events or volunteer opportunities in order to protect themselves against liability.
In addition to helping you keep participants safe, you can also enhance their experiences using waivers. For example, you might let them know what kind of shoes and clothing to wear to a neighborhood clean-up day so they arrive feeling prepared and comfortable.
2. Your nonprofit will not be protected from liability.
Plainly, liability waivers protect your nonprofit from liability. Without them, your nonprofit will have limited legal protections in the event that an activity your nonprofit hosted leads to an associated risk. More specifically, waivers can help protect your nonprofit from incidents that are a result of negligence.
There are two primary types of negligence to keep in mind when considering how to protect your nonprofit from liability:
- Ordinary negligence. Ordinary negligence refers to everyday choices, mistakes, or risks that may lead to harm. A waiver for renting equipment might contain a statement that covers the risks associated with small breaks or equipment in need of minor repair (e.g., a bicycle with gears that need to be greased).
- Gross negligence. In most states, gross negligence includes actions that indicate a significant lack of care in protecting participants’ safety. Most waivers will not protect against gross negligence, meaning your nonprofit should take care to create a safe environment even when participants sign waivers.
Because waivers are legal documents, they must align with all current local, state, and federal laws and use appropriate language. Smartwaiver’s guide to creating a waiver recommends consulting with a lawyer who has the “formal education, on-the-job training, and experience needed to write legal documents that protect your organization from legal risks.” It’s also advised that you stay away from online waiver templates as they likely were not written by lawyers and won’t fit your nonprofit’s unique situation.
3. Your organization may have poor documentation.
While they are a tool for protecting your nonprofit and your supporters, waivers also provide useful documentation for and about your supporters.
Some of the benefits of improved documentation include:
- Increased transparency. Many individuals are so used to waivers that they may see a lack of one as a sign that there are no potential risks to your nonprofit’s activities. By contrast, others may become wary of participating in those same activities due to the lack of disclosed risks. Waivers give your nonprofit a place to clearly disclose any potential harm or loss associated with its activities.
- Enhanced volunteer experiences. Many volunteers will likely want useful documentation about what they can expect from their volunteer experience and if there are any associated hazards they should be aware of. This will help them choose the opportunities they are most interested in and capable of completing. You can also use the data in waivers to follow Getting Attention’s volunteer recruitment advice of recruiting from your donor base and past volunteers.
- More comprehensive supporter records. Waivers can also be a tool to help you learn more about your supporters. To complete most waivers, participants need to provide their name, birth date, contact information, and details about their ability to participate in events. You can also use waivers to track patterns in the types of events supporters attend to better understand their interests.
By keeping digital waivers on file, you can also maintain better data hygiene. It’s much easier to keep digital files organized, and you can look up specific people, events, or dates using search functions. This will save your nonprofit time and printing costs.
Your digital waiver software should be a core piece of your nonprofit’s tech stack, alongside essential tools like your fundraising software and CRM. By making waivers a priority, you can take an important step toward protecting your organization and maintaining transparency with supporters.