Picture this: Your nonprofit is planning an upcoming event, and you’ve recruited volunteers to help decorate your event space. Your nonprofit has never held an event more physically taxing than a gala or auction, so you’ve yet to research too deeply into waivers. 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 haven’t signed a waiver. What do you do?

Situations like this can and do happen, and they can leave nonprofits with many questions about liability, the importance of waivers, and what their next steps are to protect their organization. Of course, every situation will be different, but there are some general things nonprofits should know about the risks of not having a liability waiver. 

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. 

As you read through the basics, keep our example in mind to remember that waivers apply to a wide range of individuals who interact with your nonprofit. Guests, volunteers, your staff, and even your beneficiaries may all need to sign waivers at various points to allow your nonprofit to operate without worry. 

Participants will not be informed about risks. 

Waivers are an agreement between your nonprofit and individuals who have the option to participate in an activity with some degree of risk that is hosted by your organization. A waiver should clearly outline potential risks in plain language to ensure participants are fully aware of any potential risk they might encounter. Then, participants can make an informed decision to accept or not accept the level of risk based on their personal health, age, or other factors. 

Without waivers, participants will not have all the information they need to make an informed decision about your event unless they explicitly ask for more details. In fact, many individuals are so used to signing waivers that they may assume an event without one has no risks, even for activities that might clearly have them such as races and other physically-taxing events.

This can be especially concerning for groups that are naturally at a higher risk level or need a waiver to participate in the first place, such as:

  • Individuals with medical conditions. Pre-existing health conditions can dramatically impact an individual’s level of risk. For example, someone with an allergy to bees may need to be more careful at an outdoor event that might otherwise have minimal risk, whereas someone with a history of back pain has higher risk for activities you may not first consider when drafting your waivers, such as lifting heavy objects. 
  • 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, they will likely want to review a copy of your liability waiver before having their members sign up. If your nonprofit does not have waivers, other organizations may hesitate to allow their members to participate in your nonprofit in order to protect themselves against liability. 

Additionally, keep in mind that some individuals may not know they are at higher risk for certain types of activities. For example, during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many individuals discovered whether or not they were at higher risk of transmission for viral diseases and were initially unsure whether or not it was necessary for them to work from home.

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 risk that may lead to harm. For example, a waiver for renting equipment might contain a statement that covers risks associated with minor breaks or equipment in need of minor repair, such as a bicycle with gears that need to be greased or have its tires fully inflated. 
  • 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. 

Exactly what qualifies as ordinary or gross negligence has been complicated by the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the use of COVID waivers. However, you can take steps to protect your nonprofit from liability as a result of ordinary negligence by using waivers with plain language that adequately inform participants about potential risks. 

Your organization may have poor documentation.

Waivers can have multiple uses. While foremost, they are a tool for protecting your nonprofit and your supporters, they also provide useful documentation for and about your supporters. By not having waivers, nonprofits can miss out an opportunity to learn more about their supporters and improve their donor and volunteer management. Plus, your supporters will be limited in what they can learn about your nonprofit’s activities. 

Waivers provide transparency. As mentioned, many individuals are so used to waivers they may see a lack of one as a sign that there are no potential risks to various activities. By contrast, others may become wary of participating in those same activities due to the lack of disclosed risks. 

For example, when you’re recruiting volunteers, many of them 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. For these volunteers, a lack of waivers can be a sign that a nonprofit hasn’t fully thought through the potential risk of their volunteer activities. 

For your nonprofit, waivers can also be a tool for learning more about your supporters. Waivers usually require participants to provide their name, contact information, and information about their ability to participate in events. If a significant amount of your guests choose or choose not to sign a waiver, you can learn more about what types of events are practical for your supporters to participate in. 

By keeping waivers on file, you can also maintain better data hygiene. For example, if a supporter participated in one of your events and a few days later thinks they might have a health issue due to their participation, you will have documentation on hand that details the activities that occurred at your event, which can help to discover whether there is a link between the event and the injury. 

Waivers are essential for nonprofits looking to protect their organization and maintain transparency with supporters. Without waivers, nonprofits can be liable for a variety of incidents and supporters may end up participating in activities they would have preferred to know about. While not every activity requires a waiver, take the time to assess your nonprofit’s activities and decide if they’re a logical investment for your organization.