The Importance of Volunteer Checks

(Last Updated On: May 23, 2023)


[Article written by Raina Egan]

Opportunities to volunteer one’s time and energy are abundant, especially with more vulnerable populations. A few examples include working with:

• Low-income families or unhoused people
• Children’s sports and recreational activities
• Animal shelters or rescues
• Elder and hospice care
• Disability care

Some leaders of volunteer or non-profit organizations may be thinking, “Why should we have background checks done on volunteers? It’s not like we’re paying them.”

Many, but not all, states and jurisdictions require background screenings for volunteer positions just as they do for employments, especially for specific duties such as for educational facilities and healthcare.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act, which regulates requirements for background screenings, also requires that non-profit organizations that use volunteers must also abide by the same regulations as employers do, per a report issued by the Federal Trade Commission in 2011. It requires that these organizations obtain authorization from the candidate before performing a background check. It also describes protocols for creating an adverse action notice when an organization decides not to move forward with a volunteer because of information found with the screening. In that event, a candidate has the right to dispute any perceived inaccuracies found in the background check, and the background screening company would be required to re-check that information.

The main reasons that a volunteer or non-profit organization should consider conducting screenings on volunteers include:

1. Protecting the overall reputation of the organization.
2. Safety, for both the population the organization serves as well as other volunteers and employees within the company. A volunteer with bad intentions can easily take advantage of an organization’s money, resources, and/or those they serve.
3. To mitigate risk and liability. Just like any business, a non-profit or volunteer organization can face consequences for bringing in the wrong people. An important example is when someone is court-ordered to perform community service. It would behoove an organization to conduct a criminal background check on that person to see if they are even allowed to work with the populations they serve. If theft occurs or someone gets hurt under their watch, the organization can be held liable. One unfortunate incident with one bad apple can result in bad press (including on social media) or a costly lawsuit. These in turn can result in loss of funding and sponsorship from other organizations, as well as their trust.
4. To build trust. Knowing that everyone involved with the organization has successfully passed a background screening creates trust both within and without. A lack of trust among volunteers can result in some losing incentive to continue to volunteer. Thus, it can be challenging to keep the organization afloat if you lose the trust of the community and sponsors as well as losing manpower.
5. To ensure authenticity. Trust and safety of volunteers will help to fulfill the mission of the organization, better ensuring that they are in it for the right reasons. Unfortunately, there will always be those who would prey upon the very populations that these groups serve. Screenings make these organizations better able to weed out such people before they can enter. This allows leaders of the organization to focus on other matters, such as increasing outreach, and on performing the best work possible.

Some companies, often already on a shoestring budget, may require volunteers to pay for their own background screenings. Some might argue that this, or indeed performing a background screening on volunteers at all, may deter potential recruits, especially those willing to perform their services for free. Others may feel that this is excessive and an invasion of privacy, especially if checks are implemented after a volunteer has been a part of the organization for some time. However, a reputable background screening company will work with the organization to develop an affordable screening program. Using their expertise, your background screening provider can work with you to determine the minimal checks necessary to protect your organization and provide the tools needed to help you stay compliant with the FCRA.

That said, it is important that the organization be transparent with potential volunteers from the get-go about the necessary requirements. This can simplify the overall selection process as well. The organization should identify the depth and nature of the screening, choose a solution, and design a policy. The policy should include:

-The purpose of screening for the organization

-The scope of screening (i.e., is this needed for all volunteers?)

-Guidelines for getting volunteer consent for screenings

-Criteria for adverse action notices

The depth of a volunteer background check will depend upon the nature of the work as well as the populations they work with. For example, state-level checks do not include federal courthouse records and may not include driving records. It is ultimately up to the company how extensive they would like their volunteer checks to be. However, surface-level checks can lead to costly oversights.

Some examples of commonly done checks for volunteers can include:

-Criminal checks – felonies, misdemeanors, pending cases, arrests leading to conviction; can be done at the county, state, and/or federal level

-National Sex Offender Public Welfare Registry

-Driving record – can be done if a volunteer will be driving or operating a vehicle as part of their duties. This can provide information about any accidents the volunteer has been responsible for.

-Drug screen – can be a major requirement, especially for those working with children and put in a position of authority with them (such as with youth groups)

-Credit check: can examine a volunteer’s financial responsibility and situation, particularly for duties like handling money

Other requested services may include identification verification, employment verification, and education verification.

While an organization should not rush to judgement with a first impression of a volunteer or by any unfortunate past incidents with them, volunteer screenings allow an organization to make informed decisions about who they allow in. Overall, conducting a background screening on a volunteer is much more cost-effective than potential theft, resulting lawsuits, and loss of sponsorship and funding.