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How to decide if you should do volunteer background checks?

Whether or not you should require volunteer background checks depends on the nature of your work and the potential risks involved. If volunteers will be working with vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, or individuals with disabilities, we recommend doing background checks to ensure the safety and well-being of the communities you serve.

For volunteers who will be driving, handling money, or accessing sensitive information, conducting background checks can help reduce the nonprofit’s liability in the event of an issue. And some states may have laws or regulations that require background checks for certain types of volunteer work. 

Ultimately, the decision to run volunteer background checks should be based on risk management that takes into account the specific responsibilities of each volunteer role and the potential harm that could result from a background issue. This harm could be to the nonprofit, the staff, the community served, and/or the volunteer.

volunteer background checks

How Volunteer Background Checks Help with Risk Management

Risk management is the process of identifying, assessing, and prioritizing potential risks to a nonprofit and implementing strategies to minimize or mitigate those risks. The goal of risk management is to ensure the ongoing viability and success of a nonprofit by reducing the impact of unexpected events, protecting against potential losses, and improving decision-making.

The best place to start is by identifying potential risks, threats, or hazards to the nonprofit, such as financial losses, data breaches, or reputational damage. Developing risk management strategies involves implementing measures to reduce the likelihood or impact of each risk such as integrating security protocols, buying insurance, or establishing contingency plans.

Volunteer background checks can help with risk management in several ways:

  • Identifying potential risks by revealing info about a volunteer’s criminal history or employment history. That may indicate potential risks to the nonprofit, its stakeholders, or the community. For example, a background check may reveal a history of theft, fraud, or violent behavior which could make the volunteer unsuitable for certain roles or responsibilities.
  • Protecting vulnerable populations by ensuring that volunteers who work with them do not have a history of abuse or assault. This can help protect these populations from harm and reduce the risk of liability for the nonprofit.
  • Protect the reputation of the nonprofit by conducting background checks. Nonprofits can reduce the risk of working with individuals who may bring negative publicity, damage the nonprofit’s reputation, or engage in unethical or illegal behavior.
  • Enhancing security by ensuring that volunteers who handle sensitive information do not have a history of cyber crimes or data breaches. This can help maintain the security of sensitive information about your nonprofit, your staff, and your clients.

Overall, conducting background checks can help nonprofits make informed decisions about which volunteers are suitable for certain roles and responsibilities and reduce the risk of harm, liability, or damage to the nonprofit’s reputation.

How to determine if your org needs volunteer background checks

Who does your nonprofit serve?

If your volunteers will be working directly with community members, it is essential to consider if the people served are part of a vulnerable population. Vulnerable populations are individuals who are at an increased risk of harm, exploitation, or disadvantage due to various factors such as age, race, ethnicity, income, health status, or social and economic status. Some examples of vulnerable populations include:

  • Children: They are one of the most vulnerable populations due to their lack of knowledge about how to escape harmful situations and dependency on adults for many things. This age group can include infants, toddlers, and minors who may be at risk of abuse, neglect, or exploitation.
  • Elderly: Older adults may be vulnerable due to physical frailty, declining cognitive function, and social isolation. The elderly are often vulnerable to financial exploitation, abuse, or neglect.
  • People with disabilities: They may be vulnerable due to their physical or cognitive limitations, making them more susceptible to injury, abuse, neglect, and exploitation.
  • Low-income populations and people living in poverty: Families and individuals may be vulnerable due to a lack of resources and support systems, making them more susceptible to exploitation, abuse, and other forms of harm.
  • Members of racial and ethnic minority groups: Many nonwhite communities may be vulnerable due to discrimination and unequal treatment making them more susceptible to abuse, exploitation, and other forms of harm. Immigrants and refugees may be vulnerable due to language barriers, cultural differences, or limited access to resources.
  • Homeless individuals: Due to their lack of physical shelter, they may have an increased risk of physical harm, abuse, or exploitation due to their lack of stable housing and limited access to resources.

It is important to identify and protect vulnerable populations. They may be at a higher risk of harm and require additional support and resources to ensure their well-being. It is important to note that vulnerability can arise from a combination of factors and that people can become vulnerable at different times in their lives due to changing circumstances.

When deciding if your nonprofit will conduct volunteer background checks, ask yourself. . .

  1. Will my volunteers work with people who may be more vulnerable to harm and exploitation?
  2. How would we respond if one of our community members was taken advantage of and we did not conduct a background check?
  3. Will my volunteers be driving, handling financial info or money, or will they have access to sensitive info?
  4. How would we respond if one of our volunteers committed theft and we had not conducted a background check? 

What tasks would be best suited for volunteer screening?

Conduct a background check for driving history if they will be driving your vehicles

Driving may require a background check because it can involve a certain level of responsibility and trust. When volunteers are driving on behalf of a nonprofit, they may be transporting vulnerable individuals, handling confidential information, or representing the nonprofit to the public.

Conducting a background check can help ensure that the volunteer has a clean driving record and does not have a history of dangerous driving behaviors. And does not have a criminal history that would make them a risk to the passengers or the nonprofit.

Additionally, a background check can help the nonprofit assess whether the volunteer driver has a history of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, reckless driving, or any other behavior that could put the passengers or the nonprofit at risk. By conducting a background check, the nonprofit can make an informed decision about whether it is appropriate to allow the volunteer driver to operate a vehicle on its behalf.

Conduct a background screening if volunteers handle money

Handling money can require a background check because it involves a level of trust and responsibility. When volunteers handle money on behalf of a nonprofit, they may be handling large amounts of cash, processing financial transactions, or managing bank accounts. A background check can help ensure that the volunteer handling money does not have a history of financial crimes such as embezzlement, fraud, or theft.

By conducting a background check, the nonprofit can make an informed decision about whether it is appropriate to allow the volunteer to handle money on its behalf, and it can take steps to minimize the risk of financial fraud or abuse. This can help protect the nonprofit’s reputation, financial stability, and the trust of its stakeholders.

If volunteers have access to sensitive information you may want to run a background check

Accessing sensitive information can require a background check because it involves a level of trust and responsibility. Sensitive information can include confidential information about individuals or the nonprofit, such as personal data, financial records, or trade secrets.

A background check can help ensure that the volunteer does not have a history of misusing sensitive information, such as identity theft, hacking, or other cyber crimes. By conducting volunteer background checks, the nonprofit can make an informed decision about whether it is appropriate to allow the volunteer to access sensitive information and take steps to minimize the risk of data breaches or other security incidents. This can help protect the privacy of individuals, the nonprofit’s reputation, and the trust of its stakeholders.

Get Started with a Volunteer Background Check Policy

A volunteer background check policy is a written set of guidelines and procedures that a nonprofit follows to screen volunteers and ensure their suitability for working with vulnerable populations or accessing sensitive information.

There are several reasons why nonprofits should have a background check policy, including protecting the nonprofit, protecting the community served, complying with legal requirements, fostering trust and credibility, and improving risk management.

By having a background check policy in place, nonprofits can ensure they are making informed decisions, protecting the safety and well-being of their constituents, and are maintaining the viability and success of their operations.

To build a volunteer background check policy, you can follow these steps:

  1. Determine what types of information you need to know about your volunteers and why, such as their criminal history or employment history.
  2. Choose the types of background checks that are appropriate for your nonprofit’s needs and the types of roles volunteers will perform, such as criminal history checks or simple reference checks.
  3. Create a process for obtaining volunteers’ written consent for background checks, and inform them about what types of background checks will be conducted, why, and how their information will be used.
  4. Determine what types of information will automatically disqualify a volunteer from serving in a particular role, such as a criminal record or a history of abuse or neglect.
  5. Provide a process for volunteers to dispute the results of a background check or provide additional information if necessary.
  6. Review and update your policy regularly to ensure it remains compliant with relevant laws and regulations and to reflect any changes in your nonprofit’s needs or the types of background checks you conduct.
  7. Provide training for your staff on the importance of conducting background checks and the procedures for doing so to ensure consistency and accuracy in the process.

By following these steps, you can build a volunteer background check policy that helps you make informed decisions about which volunteers are suitable for certain roles, reduces the risk of harm, liability, or damage to your nonprofit’s reputation, and protects the privacy of individuals and sensitive information.

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Photo Brandy Strand
Brandy Strand
Nonprofit Partnerships Account Executive

No guilt trips, no sad stories. Just a chance to do something good.