Volunteer.gov is the official recruitment portal for all federal land management agencies: all NPS volunteer opportunities must be posted here. Other tools used for recruiting volunteers must refer back to volunteer.gov so that volunteers can officially apply online. The regional volunteer manager (or NPS VIP program manager for national programs) will assign a username and password for volunteer.gov. See the volunteer.gov toolkit for more information and instructions.
Who Is an NPS Volunteer
Volunteers are individuals or groups of individuals who perform work for, and are under the direction of, the NPS, for which they receive no financial compensation from the NPS. Individuals, groups, and children may volunteer under a signed volunteer service agreement (see Formalizing the NPS/Volunteer Relationship: Volunteer Service Agreements).
While volunteers are not NPS employees, the same workplace policies apply such as facility access, anti-harassment, and safety.
Types of Volunteers
Children, Youth, and Family Volunteers
Like all volunteers, children, youth, and families volunteering for the NPS must have a signed volunteer service agreement that clearly and appropriately identifies and describes their duties. All duties performed by volunteers who are minors must be safe and appropriate for the age and the individual (see Safeguarding Children, Youth, and Family Volunteers). Volunteers under 18 years of age must have signed permission from their legal guardian on the volunteer service agreement that includes a full description of duties.
K-12 Education Volunteering Programs or Service-Learning Volunteers
Service-learning is the formal integration of community service into student education. Service-learning connects students with the community in partnerships that provide effective and far-reaching assistance to address local needs while meeting existing academic goals. It is important programs that engage K–12 students are designed with their health and safety in mind, not just the educational benefit. This goes beyond the parental approval currently in DO-7 to include age-appropriate activities.
Accredited Volunteer Internships
Volunteers may receive academic credit from their academic institution for their work with the NPS. Accredited volunteer internships create learner-centered opportunities for students in higher education to forge personally meaningful connections with park resources and staff and foster a deeper understanding and appreciation for the nation’s intertwined natural and cultural history found in national parks. Students may have the opportunity to earn academic credit while serving as a volunteer. Accredited volunteer internships, through an Interpretation and Education Services Agreement with a higher education institution, establish a foundational framework to guide and enhance NPS partnerships with an institution of higher learning. These internships can provide high-quality, meaningful educational and interpretive services in national parks and are encouraged.
Cooperating Association Employees
Cooperating association employees who perform work on behalf of the NPS as volunteers must function under a signed volunteer services agreement. This type of arrangement is permitted only in these circumstances:
The NPS and an association mutually agree association employees may perform work on behalf of the NPS
The association employees performing such functions receive appropriate training and work under direction from the NPS
Association employees’ hours are not counted as volunteer hours if their salary costs are already reported as an aid to the NPS (NPS Form 10-40) through agreements set up between the NPS and cooperating association partners. See Director’s Order #32: Cooperating Associations (DO-32) for additional information about cooperating association activities.
To be considered an NPS volunteer, individuals serving in coordination with a partner organization (including friends groups and philanthropic partners) must perform specific volunteer duties assigned by the administering park or program. It does not matter if the person receives pay, work credit, academic credit, or other types of compensation from sources outside of the NPS. If the NPS is not paying that person for their work, they should sign a volunteer service agreement.
As with other organizations, employees (or volunteers) of park friends groups or other organizations operating under a philanthropic partnership agreement may be interested in volunteering in support of NPS programs or projects. Work performed by employees, volunteers, or members of friends groups and partners under the direction of and for the benefit of the NPS, as described in the volunteer service agreement, may be counted as volunteer time. This is separate from volunteer work they may do to support the philanthropic partner. Volunteer managers and supervisors must ensure duties and hours performed by these individuals are reported separately to the appropriate organization (NPS or philanthropic partner).
Time spent serving on the board of friends groups or philanthropic partners is not considered volunteer time. Further, fundraising, a common function of friends groups and philanthropic partners, is a prohibited activity for NPS volunteers when on duty.
See Director’s Order # 21: Philanthropic Partnerships (DO-21) for additional information or consult the park’s or region’s partnership coordinator.
NPS Employees as Volunteers
An NPS employee can serve as a volunteer as long as the duties they perform as a volunteer are not the same types of duties for which they are paid in the same NPS unit. For example, an administrative assistant in the superintendent’s office can volunteer to give an interpretive program in the park on their own time as a volunteer but cannot volunteer to do administrative work for another park manager. Employees cannot work as a volunteer in their paid position while on furlough.
The NPS prohibits allowing seasonal employees to volunteer in roles similar to their paid work (including collateral duties) in the same park or program once a seasonal position is terminated. Issues associated with people volunteering before or after 1039 appointments may appear to contradict the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and take advantage of an employee’s willingness to work without pay. Affected individuals include those who have been offered and have accepted a 1039 position or who are eligible for rehire into a 1039 position. The recommendation does not preclude employees from volunteering in the same park or program for an entirely different position or in a different park or program for a similar position.
Individuals should never be signed up as volunteers for the purpose of attending training required for a position for which they will be paid. Additionally, they must never be signed up to volunteer for the position for which they were expecting to be paid over the same time period, but for which their background investigation has not yet cleared. That individual may volunteer in a completely different position, provided the alternate position does not also require a background investigation.
Family Members of NPS Employees
Relatives of NPS employees may serve as volunteers if they are qualified and fit for duty for the position and follow proper application procedures. However, the volunteer position may not be supervised by an immediate family member, or the direct report of an immediate family member, without consulting DOI’s ethics standards or an ethics counselor. If reimbursement is involved, an ethics counselor should be consulted before a volunteer service agreement is signed. A conflict of interest or impartiality issue could result if a relative or household member of an employee were to benefit financially from the program. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest is a violation of DOI’s employee conduct policies and should be avoided.
Family members must never be signed up for the sole purpose of being permitted to use government equipment, such as driving or riding in government vehicles or borrowing landscape or recreational equipment.
(see DO-7, § 5.8)
Generally, non-US citizens may become NPS volunteers as long as they are not being compensated for their volunteer work. It is illegal for foreign nationals to receive any form of payment, whether for housing, meals, or other types of compensation, including reimbursements. Legal permanent residents (informally called “green card holders”) or persons possessing a J-1 or F-1 visa are exceptions. There may be other visa types and/or programs authorized by the Department of State or Department of Homeland Security that allow for lawful work in the United States. Parks and programs should check for these exceptions and provide proof if they authorize reimbursement.
See more information about US visas on the Department of State website.
International Volunteers-In-Parks (IVIP)
The NPS Office of International Affairs manages the International Volunteers-In-Parks program (IVIP), which permits citizens from other countries to become NPS volunteers. The IVIP program differs from regular NPS volunteer programs because of legal requirements of the Department of State and United States Citizen and Immigration Services. Due to the complexity of visa and immigration policies, the NPS IVIP coordinator plays a critical role in assisting the NPS with foreign applicants. Applicants need a J-1 visa to receive any compensation from any US funding source (including housing, recognition items, etc.). The one exception is for F-1 students with training approval from their universities. Before hiring international volunteers, NPS staff should contact the IVIP coordinator, who will help determine whether or not individuals are eligible to legally volunteer.
For a complete information packet to begin an IVIP program, contact the international volunteer manager in the Office of International Affairs or visit the International Cooperation website.
Who Is Not an NPS Volunteer
Department of the Interior requirements state any person receiving taxable compensation originating from an NPS fund source may not be considered a volunteer.
Therefore, any person serving under a financial assistance agreement where the service is funded by NPS funds is not considered an NPS volunteer and should not sign the NPS volunteer service agreement. The park or program should review the terms of agreement with the organization to determine if the participant is receiving a wage, stipend, and/or living allowance (also known as direct costs). If yes, the individual is considered a service contractor whose work is paid under the agreement. The participant’s official employer of record is the partner provider; the partner is required to have liability for this type of personnel.
If the NPS funds a youth organization using a financial assistance agreement to provide wages, stipends, and/or living expenses, the youth is not an NPS volunteer. These participants must be covered for liability through the youth organization, not the NPS, as stipulated in the legal agreement between the NPS and the organization.
(see DO-7, § 5)
Volunteers are recruited and accepted from the public without regard to race, creed, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, color, national origin, disability, gender identity, or OPM classification laws, rules, and regulations.
Volunteers must not engage in any work they are not qualified to perform. They must be adequately trained and feel comfortable doing and willingly agree to do the work. Volunteers also must be fit for duty for the position they will perform. The definition of “fit for duty” depends on the service description and the requirements of that position. Parks and programs have the flexibility to include restrictions and requirements in the service description and screen applicants accordingly. If there is a question regarding the volunteer’s ability to perform the assigned duties, the superintendent/manager may request the volunteer complete a Self-Identification of Medical Disability form (SF-256), request a doctor’s note (using medical clearance form) or obtain a medical examination at the government’s expense.
The NPS is not required to provide accommodation to volunteers unable to perform the duties of the position.
Individuals Convicted of Minor Crimes
Individuals convicted of minor crimes who are participating in court-approved probation, work release, or alternative sentencing programs may serve as volunteers at the discretion of the superintendent/manager. Generally, a person who has been convicted of a felony, violent crime, crimes against persons, or crimes involving the use of a weapon will not be accepted in the NPS VIP Program. However, the superintendent/manager may permit that person to volunteer based on an analysis of the nature of the crime, date of conviction, evidence of rehabilitation, or other factors. It is the volunteer’s responsibility to ensure proper documentation of required hours and to keep these records for their own needs.
(see DO-7, § 6)
Volunteers may be engaged in nearly all parts of park operations in nearly any type of work, as long as it is work that:
Does not displace paid employees (see 54 USC 102301(a))
Would not otherwise be completed during a particular fiscal year
Enables paid employees to accomplish work that would not otherwise be completed during a particular fiscal year
Does not include commissioned law enforcement duties, hazardous duties, or policymaking, with some additional qualifications:
Volunteers who perform work that requires additional training or certification must receive the same level of certification and training as paid employees.
Volunteers should not perform law enforcement duties such as serving as a backup on patrol, riding along in an on-duty law enforcement vehicle on patrol, and issuing citations. Volunteers could perform protection work, however, such as traffic/parking control, backcountry roves, and clerical support.
Hazardous duty is duty performed under circumstances in which an accident could result in serious injury or death (see the OPM definition of hazardous duty). However, volunteer service by individuals with the required credentials and certifications to perform certain hazardous duties may be accepted upon superintendent/manager approval.
Volunteers may apply pesticides or herbicides in the course of their duties, provided they are at least 18 years of age, are willing, and have the proper training, certification, and supervision (see Director’s Order #77-7: Integrated Pest Management).
Volunteers may sell permits and passes, and collect fees, as authorized by the Federal Lands and Recreation Enhancement Act (16 USC 6810). Fee-handling volunteers must be bonded, have an appropriate background investigation, and be adequately trained in the sale of permits and fee collection as outlined in RM-22A: Recreation Fees and Fee Policy. See the Regional Volunteer Program Resources for additional guidance regarding Background Check Requirements. Appropriated funds, including volunteer funds, may be used to cover the cost of the volunteer surety bond. Volunteers under 18 years of age should not collect fees or sell permits.
Spectra of Engagement
The many different types of volunteer positions can be placed somewhere along the spectra of engagement. The spectra place volunteer positions along two axes: length of service and skill level. Length of service refers to the time spent volunteering with the park, from micro-volunteering (i.e, crowd-sourced citizen science, drop-in trash pickup), one-time service events, and short-term volunteers to episodic and long-term volunteering. The spectrum of skill refers to the skill level required for the volunteer service, from lower-skilled, hands-on volunteering (trash pickups, basic maintenance, events. etc.) to skills-based volunteering (preservation carpenters, medical professionals, paleontologists, dive teams, etc.). Where a volunteer position sits on the spectra informs what sort of credentialing and support are required for proper job training, mitigating risk, ensuring safety, and providing proper legal protection for the NPS and the volunteer.
Micro-Volunteering and Hands-on Volunteering
Micro-volunteering or hands-on volunteering consists of a volunteer, or a group of volunteers, completing small tasks that make up a larger project. It differs from traditional volunteerism as the tasks take only minutes to a few hours, and the volunteer does not make a long-term commitment. As a form of virtual volunteering, tasks may be distributed and completed online via an internet-connected device, including smartphones. The application process is typically quick requiring less paperwork (mainly 301b), screening, or training, takes only minutes or a few hours to complete, and does not require an ongoing commitment by the volunteer. Common opportunities include crowd-sourced citizen science, drop-in programs, and volunteer events.
Some volunteer projects, such as crowdsourcing citizen science, may have additional regulations.
Also called e-volunteering or online volunteering, virtual volunteering is a volunteer opportunity that does not have to be physically in a park or NPS office to complete tasks. The volunteer may work remotely to complete tasks, in whole or in part on projects such as data entry, research, editing, special projects, and outreach. They must complete a volunteer service agreement (which indicates whether expenses are reimbursed) and clear service description, have an assigned supervisor, and report their hours. Home office assessments are not necessary for virtual volunteers. As with all volunteers, any personal property used to perform the volunteer duties and the liability threshold for any damage or loss should be specified in the volunteer service agreement. Virtual volunteering is similar to telecommuting, except that instead of employees working off-site who are paid, these are volunteers working off-site who are not paid.
Skills-Based Volunteering (Including Hazardous Duties)
Volunteers with specialized professional skills uphold the standards of their given profession, such as scuba divers, fire fighters, doctors, nurses, pilots, scientists, heavy equipment operators, commercial bus drivers, and individuals or groups who provide pro-bono services. These volunteers provide expertise to directly support operations or projects or strengthen infrastructure and capacity. They must complete a volunteer service agreement and clear service description, have an assigned supervisor, and report their hours. See more information about skills-based volunteering.
The NPS can engage volunteers to perform hazardous duties if they have the required credentials and certifications needed to perform the work (as defined in the appropriate NPS operating manuals or policies for those disciplines). The authority to allow these volunteers to perform hazardous duties is part of the delegation of general management authority to the agency, and no special approvals are required.
Prohibited Volunteer Activities
Volunteers, although not beholden to ethic rules like government employees, are still representatives of the NPS. They are, therefore, specifically prohibited from the following activities while acting in an official capacity providing volunteer service or wearing a volunteer uniform (not including meal breaks out of public view, in some cases):
Consuming alcoholic beverages, gambling in any form, or sleeping
Smoking or carrying cigars, pipes, cigarettes, or E-cigarettes in their mouths or chewing tobacco while in the public view (see Director’s Order #50D: Smoking Policy and Policy Memorandum 15-03: Use of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems)
Engaging in partisan political activity (even though the Hatch Act does not apply to volunteers)
Promoting any private business or religious faith or doctrine
Engaging in any activity prohibited by law or NPS regulations
Soliciting funds and fundraising
Interviews and Reference Checks
Interviews and reference checks are not required but are strongly recommended for volunteer positions working with the public—especially minors and vulnerable populations—and with duties requiring access to controlled environments, such as buildings and computers. This also applies to former NPS employees seeking volunteer positions.
Interviews can identify the individual’s skills, interests, and limitations. Interviews also offer the opportunity to provide information on training, orientation, equipment, liability protection, injury compensation, uniform or special clothing requirements, and other benefits or requirements relating to the volunteer service. Discussing relevant workplace policies, such as anti-harassment, during the interview is highly recommended.
Interviews are not necessary for volunteers taking part in group or special event activities. However, it is still appropriate to determine whether a group will have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to complete the tasks assigned to them. Volunteer managers may interview a group leader to determine whether they will be an effective leader and whether their group is a good match for the project.
Parks and programs may use their discretion and not conduct a reference check when they believe the risk to the park, other members of the public, or employees is low. Examples of low-risk positions may include those not requiring controlled access to systems or facilities or any specialized skills or access and working only with other adults.
The Office of Personnel Management’s Reference Checking 101 provides guidance on this topic. In addition, all reference checks must ask the following question:
“Are you aware of any misconduct that may interfere with the applicant’s ability to perform this volunteer position?”
Volunteers must meet the same background investigation requirements for Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (HSPD-12) as NPS employees, based on their service description (see guidance on NPS volunteer background investigation requirements [internal link]).
HSPD-12 deals strictly with physical and logical (computer systems) access. All other circumstances, including working with children, fee collection, etc., are covered under other existing policies. For fee collection, see Director’s Order #22: Recreation Fees (DO-22).
Superintendent/manager have the authority to require a minimum of a Special Agency Check (SAC) to mitigate risk for volunteer positions that do not need an HSPD-12–compliant ID. The SAC consists of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) fingerprint and name check.
Additional information to help determine who may be subject to these requirements is available within the guidance document in the VIP Resource Toolkit or from each region’s HSPD-12 coordinator.
Fit for Duty
Parks and programs have the authority to request medical clearance based on the duties of the position, specifically when duties are physically demanding. When formulating position duties, they must determine the rigor of the duties of the position the volunteer will perform. Medical clearance is recommended for all strenuous, and some average, position duties. This is determined at the local-level and must be defined when establishing local policy.
Last updated: November 20, 2020