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The Legal Quagmire of Online Community Volunteer Programs

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

In 2010, AOL settled a lawsuit brought by their volunteer community leaders for $15m.

The details are worth reading.

The Department of Labor, via the Far Labour Standards Act, doesn’t allow private-sector companies to accept the services of volunteers (non-profits and public sector organizations are generally ok). This is a problem for ambassador programs that closely resemble volunteer (or paid employment) programs.

Speaking with lawyers and community experts, any of the following could be problematic:

  • Calling a program a volunteer program.
  • Providing members with rewards linked to value tangible rewards (discounts or free products/services).
  • If the work undertaken by volunteers resembles (or displaces) work which could be (or is) performed by paid staff e.g. a community manager works alongside several volunteer members).
  • Setting tasks for members.
  • Monitoring and track member contributions.
  • Training members.

This isn’t a definitive list and the specific line in what constitutes ’employment’ is very open to interpretation.

But any legal team worth it’s salt will push to reduce this liability to the bare minimum by telling you to do none of the above. If they can reduce legal risk from 0.0002% to 0.0001%, they are doing their job. The overall 1 in a million likelihood of something bad happening isn’t relevant. It’s not their job to make your ambassador program succeed, it’s their job to minimize legal risk.

Understand that legal opinions are opinions. They can educate you and guide you. They are one factor of many factors that influence your decisions. Be informed of the risks and pursue accordingly (and confidently). Certainly don’t do all of the above, but don’t be afraid of doing any of the above. Don’t treat legal opinions as a hindrance but as an educational tool.

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