The Risks Of Nonprofit Volunteering

Tragedy has struck twice at fundraising events during the past month, resulting in the deaths of two volunteers, highlighting that special event risk extends beyond staff to fundraisers and volunteers who might not have a direct connection to an organization.

White House staffer and nonprofit technology expert Jake Brewer, 34, died Sept. 19 after reportedly losing con­trol of his bicycle and colliding with an oncoming car during the second annual The Ride to Conquer Cancer event in Mt. Airy, Md.

Just 10 days earlier, Dennis Rodeman, 35, a firefighter in Lansing, Mich., was killed after being struck by a vehicle while collecting donations near a traffic intersection for the Fill the Boot campaign, a partnership between the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA).

Grant Jacob Taylor, 22, of Lansing has been charged with homicide, failure to stop at the scene of an accident and two counts of fleeing police in connection with Rodeman’s death, according to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office.

Though the incidents vary greatly, they both illustrate risk of volunteer service. “Many nonprofits rely on volunteers who go out into the community to raise awareness or funds to support the organization’s mission,” said Melanie Herman, executive director of the Leesburg, Va.-based Nonprofit Risk Management Center, via an email. “Canvassing and charity bike rides/walks are just two examples of activities that require volunteers to work outside the view and reach of the nonprofit’s leadership.”
Rodeman was a seven-year member of the Lansing Fire Department and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps., Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said via a statement. “He served his country with great pride, bravery and ability, having survived a tour of duty in Fallujah, Iraq, one of the most dangerous places in the world,” said Bernero. “It is beyond comprehension that this American hero lost his life on the streets of Lansing while collecting charitable contributions for children afflicted by muscular dystrophy.”
Brewer was a senior advisor to U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith. In his role, Brewer worked toward expanding the nation’s broadband connectivity and advancing the Obama Administration’s TechHire initiative designed to provide Americans with the skills necessary to pursue well-paying jobs in technology. “I’ve often said that today’s younger generation is smarter, more determined, and more capable of making a difference than I was as a young man,” President Barack Obama said via a statement. “Jake was proof of that.”

Amy Sample Ward, CEO of The Nonprofit Technology Network in Portland, Ore., described Brewer as a “changemaker” and cited the outpouring of support and mourning in recent days as evidence of the impact he made across the country. “What gives me hope is the number of people, from the White House to individuals who might not have ever met Jake in person, who are moved by his efforts, his life’s work, and his story to redouble their own investment in creating the kind of world that Jake thought we could create, one where all of us have opportunity and justice,” Ward said in an email.
The Ride to Conquer Cancer has raised $4.7 million during its two years, including $2.1 million this year. Funds from the two-day ride benefit Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center and Sibley Memorial, Suburban and Howard County General hospitals. “All who are associated with The Ride are deeply saddened and our thoughts and prayers are with family and friends of the rider,” said Dr. Bill Nelson, director of the Kimmel Cancer Center, shortly following the accident.

The incident involving Rodeman was the first of its kind in the 61-year relationship between IAFF and MDA, according to Roxan Triolo Olivas, vice president of public relations and community programs for MDA. Over the decades, IAFF members have benefited MDA in a variety of ways, including benefit baseball and softball tournaments.

During the summer, firefighters across the country have been known to visit MDA’s summer camps, bringing fire engines or hosting barbecues. On many occasions firefighters have taken a week of vacation to serve as counselors during the camps. “MDA has always been the charity of choice for IAFF, so it’s a long, long standing tradition,” Olivas said.

The Fill the Boot campaign, during which firefighters collect donations in a boot, has been the primary means of assistance, Olivas said. Dating back to the beginning of IAFF and MDA’s partnership, Fill the Boot has grown during the past decade or so, Olivas said, raising in excess of $20 million in each of the past five years, including $26 million in 2014. IAFF has raised $558 million for MDA since 1954, according to Olivas.

It is not uncommon for firefighters to solicit donations near traffic, Olivas said, adding that, depending on location, firefighters might also collect money in parking lots or outside grocery stores.
Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group has not seen a claim involving a killed or seriously injured fundraiser in its 26 years, according to CEO Pamela Davis. Davis said that she would not recommend soliciting donations near traffic.

Emily Stumhofer, staff attorney for the Nonprofit Risk Management Center, too, said that she had never heard of a fundraiser dying while soliciting donations. Cognizant that active fundraising is important for many nonprofits, Stumhofer said that she would recommend some basic risk management practices before sending fundraisers out, including determining whether or not it is covered by the organization’s insurance policy.

Providing fundraisers with training to engage individuals, some of whom might be miffed by being be solicited, and reminding them of safe traffic practices would also be advisable, Stumhofer said.
Charity bike rides cross over into the realm of special events, according to Stumhofer, and might be covered with special insurance policies and liability waivers. Additional precautions might include requiring that riders wear a helmet, providing a wide enough track for riders to stay on, making sure there is sufficient space between the course and vehicular traffic and alerting nearby drivers of the race. Hard barriers are sometimes used during rides but are not always practical, Stumhofer said.
Such rides, charity or otherwise, create a situation in which an accident could take place as the experience of riding a bike alone or with a small group is very different from riding with a large group, an experience to which participants might not be accustomed, Stumhofer said.

Herman recommended taking the following precautions before sending volunteers to raise money or awareness on your organization’s behalf:
• Make certain that you have emergency contact information for each volunteer. At minimum, the name and contact numbers of the individual to be notified in the event of an injury should be collected;
• Conduct a mandatory orientation and safety briefing. For canvassing, consider having volunteers travel in pairs, offer safety tips on how to be mindful of their surroundings and make sure that a fully-charged mobile phone is accessible in case of an emergency;
• For participants in charity rides or walks, provide reminders such as making sure to stay in marked routes, follow all traffic signs and rules, and stop to rest if one feels unwell; and,
• Make plans to check in with volunteers after an event. Find out what additional information should be included in orientations and trainings to improve the readiness and confidence of volunteers.
“A nonprofit mission can’t be achieved without risk,” Herman said. “And the risk of physical harm suffered by a volunteer is simply one of the risks that arises from community-based volunteer service.”  NPT