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The Volunteer Background Check: Why and How to Do It

We use volunteers as friendly support agents for our nonprofits, so why do we need to worry about a volunteer background check? Many nonprofit managers consider this question, only to discover upon a bit of inquiry that volunteer screening needs to be part of their volunteer recruitment and management system. 

In fact, your local laws or federal laws might actually require that you perform a background check. If your volunteers are transporting or working with any vulnerable groups, this is probably the case. Children, adolescents, homeless, prisoners, or disabled people might be on that list.  Your first step always needs to be a legal consultation with knowledgeable people in your community to determine which types of background checks are required for what type of work. 

Even if you are not legally bound to perform a volunteer background check, it is often a best practice to do so. Employers lose 72% of negligent hiring lawsuits. This means that if your volunteer does something wrong and you have not checked their background thoroughly, you could potentially be liable for simply allowing them to work with you. 

Another reality is that people can unintentionally or even intentionally misrepresent themselves. Indeed, one of the largest employment platforms in the world, publishes that at least 40% of people have lied on their resume. People go so far as to claim false titles and degrees and provide the wrong address. You might want to run a background check simply to confirm that someone is who they claim to be.

A volunteer background check process used to be, and if you don’t know how to do it, sometimes can still be expensive and/or time consuming. However, we can fortunately turn to technology tools to support the process. Volunteer management software can be an important tool toward this end. Before you choose your support tools, make sure you are well-informed as to the full reality of why you need to undergo volunteer screening and the steps and methods for doing so. Then, we need to be sure this process works with your volunteer management system of record.

Why Do Volunteers Need Background Checks?

We can summarize the main reasons why you need to worry about a volunteer background check system in 3 categories: maintaining your reputation, upholding public safety, and assuring that you are complying with liability and legal/insurance requirements for your organization. 

  • Reputation
    The people you serve, whether through a public event, daily events in schools, or through a museum or other venue you operate do not differentiate between your volunteers and your staff. This means that they are an equally important representation of your organization. If they are not honest, or people that are not qualified even for their unpaid post, it can reflect poorly upon you. 
  • Public Safety
    You have a responsibility as a community-based organization to ensure that your advocates, whether they are staff or volunteers, are advancing good behavior. It is amazing how many people steal. For one example, 14.7% of job applicants admit to theft from an employer. What is more, at least 30% of business failures are due to employee theft. It is a serious safety concern if your volunteer is a thief!

    While a volunteer background check may not rule out every person that has committed petty theft in the workplace, you can find out who has lied, and who has committed crimes in your state or other states.

    For a more extreme example, imagine if you failed to run a background check and ended up supporting a known sex offender. You could be putting people and children in danger and not even knowing you are doing so until it is possibly too late.
  • Liability, Legal Responsibility, and Insurance Requirements
    Check all viable laws to ensure you are meeting your legal needs, and also check with your insurance company. Even if your legal requirements are vague, your insurance may require that you screen staff and volunteers (basically anyone working for you regardless of pay). If you fail to have the volunteer background check in hand, you can be liable for their mistakes, however innocent.

    Federal law requires a volunteer background check for certain workers. People helping in medical settings almost always need checks because of HIPAA and other relevant legislation. This includes some care arrangements, like hospice. 

    Most states have at least some protections for children. This means that if your volunteers come in any contact with children, you need to perform one or several checks. Pennsylvania, for instance, has a Child Protective Services Law that requires volunteer screening and rescreening every 5 years in 3 different databases. Florida requires checks specifically for sports team coaches.

    Every state is different, so it is vital you are focused in your research and using the right software and tools to make sure you are meeting guidelines. 

How Should I Screen Volunteers?

There are, of course, many different methods to screen volunteers. You will want to establish a multi-system approach to ensure that you are cross-referencing and checking different angles. This way, you can ensure that you are checking for different aspects of potential problematic behaviors. Fortunately, Golden has an integrated background checking ability that produces these results in seconds.

How Should I Screen Volunteers?

  • Intake

    First and foremost, you may want to decide which of your volunteer opportunities are suitable for the general public (not requiring a check), and which expose volunteers to sensitive audiences, vulnerable individuals, or specialized responsibilities (that do require background checking an advance of scheduling). You want to develop a specific volunteer intake process for your organization and its needs. Framing your opportunities appropriately for your target audiences will help you streamline your volunteer background check process. It will also help the volunteer, as they can match their relevant experience and skills to your needs. It serves as a primary and fundamental communication tool for your process. Again, Golden handles all of this automatically when you list and manage your opportunities through your free or professional Golden Dashboard.

    You can streamline intake processes and applications online with a software service. Golden can help you develop a specific question list that any volunteer has to answer if considering service with you. You can extract the data into any number of formats to make it easier to manage and compare applicants.
  • Interviews, Orientation, and Training
    It’s important to treat volunteers like staff. This means you should make sure you speak with them first, and this is often in the format of an orientation opportunity, which gives you an opportunity to get to know individual volunteers, and position them for success with your organization moving forward.

    You want to clarify the information they provided to you. You also want to confirm their passion and interest for your mission. They will be representing you, and will be able to activate their friends to support you too!
    The volunteer generally just wants to be included and will appreciate this relationship-building step.
  • Background Checks

    An important part of the volunteer background check is the actual volunteer background check! This means that you will be asking them to validate their information with the relevant databases for your state or federal registers that are applicable to their post, and for you to hear back whether or not they produced records in their process. It is usually best to partner with a service to ensure that you are conducting the right checks, running them efficiently, and protecting personal information according to the law. Since these can vary in cost, you want to do your research first and pick the best service for your organization’s size and scope.

Golden is the best-in-class cloud software to schedule volunteers and track hours. Why not give it a try?

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What are the Different Volunteer Background Check Requirements?

There are 6 common types of checks. Many comprehensive services lump these together in one search. While it used to cost more than $100 in 2000, generally you can pay a service much less now to perform searches across databases. Golden will check all of these for $25, and charge the volunteer who performs the check themselves before even applying! You can alternatively pay the fee for them. 

  1. Criminal Background Checks - These are generally at the federal and county levels. 

  2. Sex Offender Checks - It could be illegal for you to hire a known sex offender, so you definitely use this database. 

  3. Watch List - This has all the potential terrorists in the country. 

  4. Identity Theft - Is the person who they say they are? This is good to know! 

  5. Government Document Check - Background checkers use government-issued documents that go through different databases at the local or federal level to check accuracy. 

  6. Motor Vehicle Checks - It is important to know if the person has a valid driver’s license, has committed any serious road crimes, and has their insurance and other necessary documents up to date. 

How Do You Let Volunteers Know Of Your Background Check Policy?

An important part of your volunteer background check system is clearly communicating to volunteers when and how they have to perform one. Golden’s volunteer management software lets you easily share the requirements. When a volunteer tries to sign up with you for a posted opportunity, they are informed that they have to perform a check and why. Then you can either give them the option to pay for it themselves or cover the cost. 

It’s that easy! Golden is the only background checking application from the consumer side on the market. It is instant and works across organizations. 

How Do You Address the Case of Minor Volunteers? 

How Do You Address the Case of Minor Volunteers? 

Most states prohibit you from doing so but sometimes you have to run a check regardless.  If you do need to run a volunteer background check on a minor, you are required to request parental consent. Be careful, too, because some states consider minors to be younger than 13, 18, or even 21. You will need to design a legally applicable consent form that requires a parent’s signature. 

Cases where you have to run a check most likely include summer camp counselors or other roles where young people are working with peers or even younger children. 

How Often Do You Perform Background Checks on Volunteers?

There are a few standard guidelines to help you decide the frequency of a volunteer background check (and type of checks). 

  • Shifting Roles

    If a volunteer changes their role, you might have to run an additional check. For example, a young person is working with you for 3 years as an office intern. She decides that he wants to volunteer for your youth counselor and mentorship program, helping younger kids learn how to read. You will have to run a background check on him to allow him to work with children.

  • Re-Hiring Seasonal Volunteers
    Are your volunteers seasonal? Some states require that you re-run the screening if they have not worked with you continuously over a set amount of time. Usually, this is a good practice if they work with you year-on-year, for example, at  a Christmas event. Golden can help you cover this case by keeping checks current.

  • Every 2 to 5 Years

    Most states and federal requirements have time limits on how long a volunteer background check is valid. In general, the check will be good for at least 2 years and maybe up to 5 years. Make sure you know your state’s specific rules, and keep a good database of your volunteer checks and their timeline.

Insights on Making Background Checks Easier

Your volunteer background check system is going to be a very complex process that can have tremendous implications for your organization. That is why it is critical to ensure you are using the best tools available to help you with the process. 

First, make sure you are being clear in your volunteer recruitment process with exactly what the check process for your organization is. 

It is possible that a volunteer will not want to pay a small fee for a check. This means that you have to be selective about your recruitment, and ensure you perform application checks and interviews before you get to a point where you invest resources in paying for the checks yourself. You want to make sure the volunteer is right on paper and in practice before you bother. 

Also, you want to make sure you are only requiring the most necessary checks and also that you are meeting all of the check requirements for your work. Consult with a legal professional on your board of directors or in your community before you set your requirements in stone! You might have to perform some of the check requirements for local databases in your office. 

It’s also important, if you are using volunteer management software, to ensure the software meets security and privacy standards. Golden, for example, conforms to the highest security standards including GDPR, COPPA, and other thresholds for responsibly handling, storing, and encrypting Personal Identifiable Information (PII). You want to make sure that any check data you are storing and any personal data that the applicant enters in a form are stored securely. 

Background Screening Automation Might Just Help 

It’s very important that you ensure a manual process when dealing with people. It can be equally helpful, especially as we aim to streamline processes and assure compliance, to use automation tools.

This is especially true with a volunteer background check system for your organization. You want a simple solution that can assure that volunteers have performed checks and keep them up to date. This is why 92% of businesses perform them for safety and liability reasons, though a much smaller percentage of nonprofits take the time. 

At the same time, they can merge with your other systems to make the whole volunteer management system more efficient. Golden seamlessly integrates volunteer hour tracking, for instance, and helps you reward your volunteers for their efforts with innovative gamified tools. It is definitely worth exploring how these tools can help you make volunteering not only more safe, but more fun!