(see DO-7, § 13)
Note: This page contains Chapter 4 of Reference Manual 7 that accompanies Director's Order 7, Volunteers-In-Parks. Users of RM-7 are strongly encouraged to check this page for updates before utilizing previously viewed, printed, or downloaded materials.
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 must volunteer under a signed and current 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 but not limited to: facility access, anti-harassment, standards of performance or conduct, and safety.
Recruiting for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility
In support of the National Park Service’s core values [internal link] and commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (see Director’s Order 16B), the VIP program seeks to actively engage the many communities, identities, races, ethnicities, backgrounds, abilities, cultures, and beliefs of the American people, with particular emphasis on historically excluded communities. The VIP program seeks new and innovative ways to diversify our volunteer base, to create inclusive work environments and service experiences [internal link], and to eliminate barriers to inclusion for all our volunteers. The VIP Program recognizes that the full potential of volunteerism in national parks cannot be achieved unless we welcome and embrace the full spectrum of an increasingly diverse and multi-cultural American public.
Volunteer.gov is the official recruitment portal for all federal land management agencies: all NPS volunteer opportunities must be posted here. Other supplemental tools used for recruiting volunteers, such as local advertisements, must refer back to Volunteer.gov so that volunteers can officially apply online. The Regional VIP Manager (or Servicewide VIP Program Manager for national programs) will assign a username and password for Volunteer.gov (see the Volunteer.gov resource page [internal link] for more information, training materials, and instructions).
Types of Volunteers
This following section is a non-exhaustive list of the common types of volunteers.
Children, Youth, and Family Volunteers
Like all volunteers, children, youth, and families volunteering for the NPS must have a signed and current 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 Volunteers and the Fair Labor Standards Act and 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 who are students may have the opportunity to 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. For interpretation or educational services, an Interpretation and Education Services Agreement with a higher education institution may be used to establish a foundational framework to guide and enhance NPS partnerships with an institution of higher learning. Alternatively, or for other career fields, the higher education institution may request the NPS utilize an agreement unique to the institution. Any agreement should outline the internship requirements and expectations for both NPS and the institution of higher learning. Accredited VIP internships can provide high-quality, meaningful educational experiences 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 and current 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 Aid to the NPS (NPS Form 10-40) through agreements set up between the NPS and cooperating association partners. Separately, associations may operate their own volunteer programs administered independently of the NPS VIP Program to assist with Association activities. In this instance, volunteers are not considered VIPs for purposes of this policy. The association may report those volunteer hours as indirect aid-to-NPS, but the park or program may not count those hours as VIP hours.
See Director’s Order #32: Cooperating Associations (DO-32, Section 4) for additional information about cooperating association activities.
To be considered an NPS volunteer, individuals serving in coordination with a partner organization (including authorized philanthropic partners such as friends groups, or partner volunteer organizations such as trail associations) must perform work for and under the direction of the NPS. These individuals must have a signed and current NPS volunteer agreement . 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 funds are not paying that person for their work, they typically should sign a volunteer service agreement (see Volunteer Partnership Organizations” and “Who is an NPS Volunteer).
As with other organizations, employees (or volunteers) of park or program 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 NPS volunteer time. This is separate from volunteer work they may do to specifically 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 NPS volunteer time. Further, fundraising, a common function of friends groups and philanthropic partners, is a prohibited activity when on duty as an NPS volunteer.
See Director’s Order # 21: Philanthropic Partnerships (DO-21) for additional information or consult the park or program’s or region’s partnership coordinator.
NPS Employees as Volunteers
The NPS does not allow an NPS employee to serve as a volunteer in a manner that takes advantage of an employee’s willingness to perform their paid work without pay. Generally, 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. For example, an administrative assistant in the superintendent’s office can volunteer to give an interpretive program in a park on their own time, but cannot volunteer to do administrative work for another park manager. Employees cannot volunteer in their paid position while on furlough.
For example, the NPS prohibits allowing seasonal employees to volunteer in roles similar to their paid work (including collateral duties) once a seasonal position is terminated. Issues associated with people volunteering before or after temporary appointments of less than 1040 hours 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 temporary position of less than 1040 hours or who are eligible for reappointment into a position that requires less than 1040 hours in a year. This does not preclude employees from volunteering in the same park or program for an entirely different position.
Individuals must 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 for the position, including health and physical condition requirements, 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 to this compensation rule. 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 (IVIP) program, which permits citizens from other countries to become NPS volunteers. Although international volunteers can serve as NPS volunteers, there are specific legal requirements from 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 bringing on international volunteers (either in person or virtually), 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
Anyone not serving under a signed volunteer service agreement is not an NPS volunteer (see Who is an NPS Volunteer).
Furthermore, 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. This individual is not a volunteer. The participant’s official employer of record is the partner provider; the partner is required to have liability for this type of personnel.
For example, 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, and their work hours cannot be counted as VIP hours. In addition, 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.
Health and Physical Condition Qualifications
When formulating the volunteer service description and job hazard analysis or job safety analysis (JHA or JSA), parks and programs must determine and document the health and physical condition requirements for completing the activities required and at the project location, as well as required qualifications (knowledge, skills, experience, ability), and required training, certifications, or licenses. It is the responsibility of the volunteer manager or the volunteer supervisor to ensure volunteers are educated with this information. When signing the OF301a or OF301b, the volunteer must select “I understand the health and physical condition requirements for this position, and I know of no medical condition or physical limitation that may adversely affect my ability to provide this service.” The NPS is not required to provide accommodation to volunteers unable to perform the duties of the position.
Fit for Duty Qualifications
Parks and programs have the authority to request medical clearance of volunteers only if the volunteers are performing duties equivalent to a staff position for which there are medical qualifications, such as firefighting. For example, it is not permissible to apply a fitness standard to a volunteer when there is no equivalent standard for staff performing the same duties. To document volunteer medical clearance for applicable positions, parks and programs may follow the same process used for staff or may have the volunteer complete a Self-Identification of Disability form (SF-256), request a doctor’s note (using medical clearance form), or obtain a medical examination at the government’s expense.
See Director's Order #57A: Medical Standards Program for more information.
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 and program 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 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”).
- 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 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.
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 WASO VIP SharePoint [internal link] for additional guidance regarding Background Check Requirements [internal link]. 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 places volunteer positions along two axes: length of service and skill level. Length of service refers to the time spent volunteering with the park or program, from micro-volunteering (i.e., crowd-sourced citizen science, drop-in trash pickup), one-time service events that last a few minutes to a few hours, and episodic or occasional volunteering, to short-term volunteers and long-term volunteers that serve over weeks, months, or years. The spectrum of skill refers to the skill level required for the volunteer service, from hands-on volunteering (trash pickups, basic maintenance, events. etc.) to specialized 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 may be 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 drop-in volunteering differs from ongoing volunteerism as the tasks take only minutes to a few hours, and the volunteer does not make a long-term commitment. This may be done in-person or virtually. 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 for group members), screening, or training. The volunteer service takes only minutes or a few hours to complete, and does not typically require an ongoing commitment by the volunteer. Common opportunities include crowd-sourced citizen science, drop-in trash pick-up, and one-time volunteer events.
Some volunteer projects, such as crowdsourcing citizen science, may have additional regulations. For more information on citizen science volunteer projects, visit the Citizen Science page on the Common Learning Portal and the citizen science subject site on nps.gov.
Also called e-volunteering or online volunteering, virtual volunteering is a volunteer opportunity that does not have to be physically in a park or program to complete tasks. The volunteer may work remotely to complete tasks such as data entry, research, editing, transcribing or translating documents, special projects, and outreach. As with all volunteers, they must complete a full volunteer service agreement, have an assigned supervisor, and report their hours. Home office assessments are not necessary for virtual volunteers. As with all volunteers, the volunteer service agreement should specify any allowable reimbursements and any personal property used to perform the volunteer duties and the liability threshold for any damage or loss. Virtual volunteering is similar to telework or remote work, except that instead of employees working off-site who are paid, these are volunteers serving 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 full volunteer service agreement, have an assigned supervisor, and report their hours.
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.
Prohibited Volunteer Activities
Volunteers, although not beholden to the same requirements of 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 (follow the same standards as for NPS staff as found in Reference Manual 21, Chapter 3)
Interviews and Reference Checks
Interviews and reference checks are not required for volunteers, but are strongly recommended, particularly for volunteer positions working with the public (especially volunteers working with minors and vulnerable populations) —and for volunteers 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 during the interview, such as anti-harassment, is highly recommended.
Interviews are not necessary for volunteers taking part in group or special event activities. However, it is still necessary 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 or program, 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, any specialized skills, or access to minor or vulnerable populations.
While volunteers are not federal employees, the Office of Personnel Management’s Reference Checking 101 provides helpful guidance on this topic. In addition to these questions, all reference checks should 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).
Superintendents/Managers 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 at Background Check Requirements [internal link] or from each region’s HSPD-12 coordinator.
Last updated: May 19, 2022