Deal With Risks and Liability Issues at Your Nonprofit’s Special Event

Sensible precautionary measures plus checking into local rules will help make sure all goes smoothly.

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Making your special fundraising event profitable will require keeping costs down. It follows that you must consider any minor or major disasters that might befall it — such as a child getting injured on-site, a donor drinking too much and causing an accident driving home, or a thief taking your cash box or goods for sale.

Because a special event is outside your usual course of business and may involve large numbers of people, you’ll have to adjust your thinking to expect the unexpected—and plan to deal with the consequences. There are three important steps you can take to forestall mishaps and disasters:

  1. Make sure you’ve complied with all applicable laws and permit requirements.
  2. Put your own sensible safety measures into place.
  3. Consider buying special insurance for the event.

For smaller events, accomplishing Steps One and Two would probably be enough. For large-scale events attended by many people you don’t know, however, buying insurance may also make sense. And some event sites may require you to carry a specified type and amount of coverage as a condition of using their facilities.

Comply With Laws and Permit Requirements

Whether your event is on your organization’s own site or elsewhere, unusual attendance or activities may bring up legal issues. Large numbers of people impeding traffic flow or parking in one area may require advance discussions with your local police department. If you’ll be serving liquor, you may be required to obtain a license or permit, and should also read, “How do we safely serve alcohol at a nonprofit event?

If you’ll be holding an auction (particularly of luxury items) or a raffle or other gambling activities, these too may require licenses or permits.

As appropriate, talk to other nonprofits, your police department, or to a city official before proceeding. And, if you still have legal questions, look for a lawyer to help you find the answers.

Implement Appropriate Safety Measures

The best way to minimize damage is to avoid it in the first place, then create backup measures to deal with whatever can’t be predicted or avoided.

For starters, make sure that your event is well staffed and that every volunteer knows who to go to with a problem. The person in charge should give every volunteer his or her cell phone number, and that of the security guard if there is one.

Volunteers should wear something distinctive, so that members of the public know who to alert when the food has run out or they observe a burst pipe leaking in the direction of your sound system.

Also consider whether there are rules that you want members of the public to observe. For example, if it wouldn’t be appropriate to allow children below a certain age to participate, make this clear in your publicity materials, and be prepared to enforce it at the door.

Similarly, if people shouldn’t bring certain materials like alcoholic beverages or firearms, warn them in advance and be prepared to check for violations. This may require hiring a security person who is trained in dealing with such matters. Saying no to dogs and more exotic creatures is also a sensible move — the cleanup problems are immense, and there’s no upside unless it’s an animal-centered event. (Working dogs, such as seeing-eye dogs, are of course an exception.)

Think carefully about who you are going to trust with sensitive tasks such as handling money (never leave one person alone with it), serving alcohol, or transporting people by car or van. Don’t forget that these people will need to take breaks or spend some time enjoying the event themselves, so schedule additional people to spell them from time to time. Ask to see the license of every driver, and if they’ll be driving a large truck or bus, make sure they’re specially licensed for this as well.

All volunteers carrying out sensitive tasks such as cashiering should be told that they can’t just hand their responsibilities over to someone else; by the same token, other volunteers should understand the limits of their roles and responsibilities.

If you anticipate large amounts of cash changing hands, make sure to have a foolproof system in place for tracking it and keeping it secure. For starters, tell your cash handlers to put all large bills, as well as all bills in excess of what are needed to make change, into a special place — either under a plate in the cash register or, better yet, into a locked and hard-to-move box.

It is also sensible to schedule a two-person team to pick up cash at periodic points during the event. That team should keep records of exactly how much cash is taken from every cashier or box, in case questions arise later. Ideally, it should then transport the cash to the bank, to avoid having wads of money just waiting to be stolen or misplaced.

Disability access is an important consideration, too—and one to consider before contracting to use a particular physical space. Some building owners claim to have wheelchair accessibility, but then it turns out to be a makeshift ramp at a precarious angle. Restroom accessibility is also an area where many physical spaces fall short. The last thing you want is a situation where helpful volunteers try to carry a disabled person up a set of stairs or into a bathroom.

These are just a few of the safety measures you can put into place. You may need to develop others based on the type of event, the number of people and the type of activities people will be engaging in. Also consider any special needs that your guests are likely to have, and your own common sense.

Purchase Insurance

Ask your insurance broker or company to go over your policy with you, to explain how many of your activities will be covered. Chances are, there will be a number of gaps in your coverage. For example, someone who slips and falls while at your organization’s office will probably be covered — but not if they slip while at a picnic in your local park. And injuries caused by staff members—for example, if your ED accidentally drops a case of wine on someone’s foot — may be covered, while injuries caused by your volunteers may not be.

Fortunately, event-specific insurance is available at a reasonable cost. Events in private homes may well be covered by the hosts’ homeowners’ insurance.

Realize, however, that almost no insurance policy is a substitute for detailed planning, and most won’t cover harm caused by reckless or intentional acts (for example, if one of your volunteers drives a car filled with balloons at 90 m.p.h. and crashes or if a staff member gets into a wrestling match with a guest).

Having anticipated worst-case scenarios, you can enjoy your event knowing that the worst probably won’t happen!

NOTE: This article is an excerpt from The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising (Nolo). Please see that book for further guidance on special events and other grassroots fundraising methods.

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