Working with Vulnerable Populations? Our Nonprofit Attorneys Recommend These Documents and Policies

This is part of our series on legal documents for nonprofit organizations. You can read our previous installment about documents for churches here.

We work with several nonprofits that deal with what we’d call vulnerable populations—groups of people that are at greater risk for physical, psychological, or social harm or who depend on others for their care and wellbeing. Examples include young children, the elderly, refugees, or those with special needs. 

Most nonprofit leaders that work with vulnerable populations have the best intentions and care deeply about the safety and dignity of those they serve. However, when a questionable situation arises, it’s important to make sure both your nonprofit and those it serves are protected. 

Below are some helpful documents and policies we recommend to get your staff, volunteers and patrons on the same page.

Code of Conduct

Your code of conduct outlines the principles and responsibilities your nonprofit’s staff and volunteers are asked to uphold. This can include interactions with both those the nonprofit serves and each other. Your code of conduct might outline certain moral or religious values, how people associated with your nonprofit are expected to behave, and what practices are prohibited. 

Typically, the code of conduct is not a list of specific procedures. Rather, it is a document outlining the nonprofit’s “way of life” and high-level rules. Your policies and agreements are where you’ll want to go more in depth with how these principles play out in an actionable way. 

For example, Sally Student Worker is a volunteer at a nonprofit after school program. It’s clear to her that one of the children in the program is being ignored by other students during group games due to her accent. Sally remembers that modeling inclusivity is one of the values outlined in the organization’s code of conduct, and she has a conversation with the offending students about their exclusive behavior.She makes an effort to include the child who has been excluded because the code of conduct guides her behavior by telling her what the nonprofit values.

Safety Policies and Agreements

When working with vulnerable populations, it’s essential to have written policies that outline how staff and volunteers handle sensitive situations as they carry out the organization’s mission. 

A policy communicates the organization’s rules for a particular position. For example, many churches have implemented safety policies for volunteers who assist with childcare. This policy might outline youth safety measures regarding:

  • What affectionate behaviors are acceptable vs. inappropriate; how to spot and prevent abuse; prohibiting 1:1 interactions in person or online
  • What the nonprofit’s procedures are for people dropping off and picking up children, or if staff and volunteers are allowed to give them a ride home
  • Who can serve in certain programs (for example, only those who have passed a background check and have positive references). 

Agreements, on the other hand, are the documents that staff or volunteers sign to acknowledge and agree to these policies. Or, depending on the project, it may be a release of liability or a commitment to a certain task. These agreements ensure there is a clear understanding of all parties’ rights and responsibilities. So generally, policies communicate the rules, while agreements communicate the roles and obligations. 

We’ve helped nonprofits of all kinds draft several kinds of agreements, so reach out to us for assistance if you’re seeking a nonprofit attorney to draft policy or agreement language for your organization.

House Rules

Nonprofits that serve people facing homelessness, people with disabilities, the elderly, or people transitioning out of incarceration often provide housing as one of their charitable programs. We’ve helped nonprofits create “house rules” or agreements that hold everyone accountable to a common way of life in their shared space. 

These house rules may answer some of the following questions, in addition to any program-specific concerns that may be relevant to your organization:

  • What is the protocol for when residents have complaints or grievances about the space, the staff, or each other? 
  • Are there quiet hours? A curfew? 
  • Assuming explicitly illegal activities are prohibited, can your residents bring legal firearms, alcohol, cigarettes or legal recreational substances into the space? Can they smoke anywhere on the property?
  • What happens when appliances or other items in the home are in need of repair? What if the resident is the one who damaged the property?
  • Can residents have visitors or overnight guests?
  • Are there any programs in the house where participation is mandatory?
  • When someone breaks the house rules, what happens? 

As you consider these questions, be sure to make sure the residents’ rights are protected as well. Vulnerable populations are as entitled to some level of privacy, avenues to voice their concerns and be heard, and the ability to feel safe in their environment as populations who are not vulnerable. Make sure that the house rules are not one-sided: both your nonprofit and the populations you serve should be considered when creating this document. 

Other Documents, Policies and Agreements

To supplement the above documents, many nonprofits also implement consent forms and accident report forms for unique situations like overnight trips or activities where people might get hurt. This not only protects your nonprofit from liability, it also makes sure communication lines are open for everyone involved. 

Overall, when working with vulnerable populations, it’s always important to ask yourself, “how would I want to be treated if I were in this situation?” Even in nonprofit law, the Golden Rule is still a helpful standard when it comes to protecting yourself and others. And if you’re looking for help drafting one of these documents, our nonprofit attorneys are always happy to help. Reach out to us for a consultation with one of our experienced attorneys. 

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