Photo Credits

Rafters in Whitewater

Whitewater fun on Tennessee’s Ocoee River.

© Jack Bivins

Subcontracting Outdoor Programs

Shaking Hands in Agreement

Subcontracting is a common occurrence in outdoor recreation and outdoor education programs. There are several potential benefits to subcontracting:

  • Allows for a broader spectrum of activities
  • Provides for specialized activity or area expertise
  • Allows access (when the primary organization cannot obtain a use permit)
  • Transfers risk to a better qualified organization

Examples of frequently subcontracted activities include:

  • Transportation
  • Whitewater boating
  • Climbing
  • Horseback riding
  • International travel/expeditions
  • Donor trips (development/fundraising)

OSI often encourages our clients to subcontract activities that are outside of their core area(s) of competency. Developing a new program with adequate risk management practices is often a more significant undertaking than it initially appears to be.

Subcontracting, however, is not an effortless solution, and presents a unique set of challenges. Among these challenges may be:

  • The subcontractor’s tolerance for risk may vary from your organization’s
  • Varied risk management standards for ancillary activities (e.g. transportation)
  • Staff members who aren’t skilled at working with your client population
  • Inadequate general liability or motor vehicle insurance
  • Crisis response procedures that vary from your organization
  • First aid training or supplies that do not meet your program standards
  • Instructional or educational practices that vary from your organization
  • Different programming objectives from your organization

While the list above presents a range of potential challenges, this article focuses primarily on selecting a subcontractor that provides an adequate level of risk management. A subcontractor with risk management practices that vary from your organization’s could expose your participants to unwarranted risk and your organization to potential legal liability. There may also be reputational risks, as participants and the public are unlikely to fully differentiate your organization from a subcontractor conducting activities on your behalf.

Selecting a Subcontractor

Perhaps the biggest challenge in subcontracting is selecting a subcontractor that is a good fit with your organization and that maintains appropriate risk management standards. The steps outlined here for selecting a subcontractor can be a prolonged process. This time may be best invested in a long-term relationship—regularly vetting new subcontractors can be very time-consuming.

Options for Vetting a Potential Subcontractor

The following are some of the steps your program can take in selecting and retaining a subcontractor:

  • Obtain References: References from past client organizations can be valuable, especially from an organization with which you have a relationship.
  • Talk to a Land Manager: Land managers in the area where the subcontractor operates may have a good feel for the practices of a potential subcontractor.
  • Participate in a Program: Participating in or observing a program can be a good approach to learning about a potential subcontractor’s practices. If feasible, participating in a publically accessible trip without identifying yourself can be most revealing (sort of a “secret shopper” approach).
  • Use the Questionnaire: The subcontractor questionnaire OSI has developed can be useful in assessing potential subcontractors. There are no “correct” answers, but the responses can be used to assess subcontractors and identify areas for further follow-up. The Questionnaire and a guide to utilizing it will be included in the upcoming edition of the free Outdoor Safety Newsletter and are also available to OSI clients.
  • Obtain an External Assessment: Third-party reviews, such as those OSI offers, or accreditation can be the strongest tools for evaluating risk management and other aspects of a potential subcontractor’s operations. Unless the third-party review has already been conducted (or the subcontract is a large one), this may be a high bar for potential subcontractors to meet.

Further resources on subcontracting outdoor programs are available as a download for Outdoor Safety Newsletter subscribers (in the June 2013 issue). It’s free, so consider signing up today! Contact us is you're a client or subscriber and would like to get access to these resources.

Posted by

Alex Kosseff

on 5/28/13
Field SafetyProgram ManagementResource


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