How Can Volunteer Organizations Better Serve Their Communities

By Michael Klazema on 2/6/2019

Organizations that rely on volunteers are often the organizations that are directly serving their communities regularly. From churches to schools to nonprofit organizations to youth programs, these organizations and others like them can only provide vital services to the community because of the dedication of their staff members and the volunteers who donate their time and energy to serving the cause.

If there is one way that volunteer organizations could serve their communities better, it’s implementing more thorough volunteer screening policies.

Why Volunteer Background Checks Aren’t More Common

Per a 2016 CareerBuilder survey, just under three-quarters of employers (72 percent) conduct background checks on the people they hire. There is no comparable statistic for volunteer organizations, but background checks on volunteers are undoubtedly much less common. In fact, volunteer background checks are so uncommon that many people—both on the volunteering and administrative sides of the table—neither expect them nor consider them valuable.

Why don’t volunteer organizations value background checks? There are a few explanations. The first is that the people in administrative positions at these organizations just don’t think background checks yield results. Studies have indicated that volunteer organizations discover criminal histories (past misdemeanors or felonies) in less than two percent of prospective volunteers.

The second is the cost of the background check process. Paying to check a volunteer for criminal history is difficult to justify for churches, youth programs, and many other volunteer-driven operations. These organizations are often cash-strapped and struggling with shortages of volunteers. Building background check costs into their own budgets is expensive, organizations worry that shifting the cost onto volunteers will scare away people who want to help.

These factors combined with the low hit rate that volunteer organizations typically see from their background checks have led to a shortage of background checks in volunteer organizations.

Why Volunteer Background Checks Matter

Despite these deterrents, background checks remain highly important for volunteer organizations. They can keep sex offenders and other abusers out of churches and youth programs. They can keep people convicted of embezzlement, fraud, or theft away from a nonprofit’s accounts and finances. They can ensure that the only volunteers permitted to drive organization-owned vehicles are people with clean or mostly-clean driving records. They can even keep volunteer organizations from being sued for negligence. Overall, they enable volunteer organizations to serve their communities better.

Most people willing to donate their time to an organization do so with pure intentions. They believe in the mission of a nonprofit or church and want to take their passion to the next level. However, a single bad apple can spoil the bunch. It doesn’t matter if an organization has been around for 20 years and has never had a bad volunteer. If someone involved in that organization proves to have molested a child, assaulted a customer, or stolen charitable funds, the remainder of the volunteer organization’s clean track record is irrelevant. Someone has been hurt, or robbed, or otherwise affected, and it happened because the organization didn’t see value in vetting its people.

The Best Background Check Practice

What should a volunteer organization’s background check policy look like? The answer depends on what that organization does and who it serves, but some popular checks include criminal history searches, sex offender registry screenings, driving history checks, and drug tests. These checks, along with other niche background screening options—such as credit history checks or verification of education, work history, or professional licenses—can help validate good volunteers and weed out risky ones. For any organization, this knowledge is valuable and well worth the investment.

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