Volunteer Checks

Guide to Volunteer Background Checks

Volunteer Checks

When background screenings are discussed in the context of businesses or organizations, they are often referred to as “pre-employment background checks.” But while this terminology does a good job of explaining when and why a background check might occur in an organizational setting, it also overlooks a type of labor group that should be a part of this conversation: volunteers. Whether your organization has a mix of employees and volunteers or relies primarily on volunteer labor, background checks for those volunteers are an essential step to protect against legal liabilities and risks.

There are many reasons why volunteers might be overlooked in designing and implementing a background check policy. One of the top reasons is money. When a business hires an employee, there is a true cash investment in the form of the salary the person will receive. The same applies to contractors, temps, consultants, or other paid labor. Business leaders view it as a form of due diligence to do their homework and vet these people. Those background checks may serve multiple purposes, from ensuring the employees are qualified to do the work to determining whether they pose a risk to the company, its employees, or its customers. Crucially, though, background checks are often viewed in this context as a means of protecting the employer’s investment in a person.

If the employer also has volunteers on its roster, there is no monetary investment there, which means those personnel may become lower-priority on the background check flowchart. Similarly, an organization that relies mostly or exclusively on volunteers may not run any background checks at all if staffing leaders believe that the core purpose of a background check is to prevent monetary losses due to a bad hire.

Other reasons abound. Volunteers are often viewed more as “temporary” or “one-off,” rather than as long-term players in an organization’s success. Some business leaders also don’t think of volunteers as being able to do the same amount of damage that a bad hire might, whether due to access (volunteers might not be given the same level of responsibility as full-time employees) or because of significance (the common assumption is that employees are a “face” of an organization in a way that volunteers aren’t).

These assumptions leave organizations vulnerable for myriad reasons. The truth is that volunteers are also an investment, simply in terms of training and trust. They also often hold important roles and sometimes have just as much responsibility as employees. It’s not uncommon for volunteers to be entrusted with organizational credit cards, files, resources, or other assets, which means they can theoretically commit embezzlement, fraud, identity theft, or other employment crimes. Finally, volunteers that are given any level of trust within an organization are a face of that organization, which means the organization can be liable for their behavior – either legally or in the court of public opinion.

For all these reasons, volunteer background checks are a crucial consideration for any organization that relies on or utilizes volunteers. In most cases, the best practice is treating volunteers like employees, which means having standards and protocols while “hiring” and onboarding these individuals. At backgroundchecks.com, we proudly provide detailed background check services to a long list of volunteer organizations, from schools to churches to non-profit organizations.

When Schools Need Volunteers

One of the contexts where volunteer checks are most needed is in the school environment. From classroom aides to field trip parents to assistant athletic coaches to parent volunteers who help with school drama productions, the list of ways that schools utilize volunteers is lengthy. Often, these volunteers are implicitly trusted because they are parents of children enrolled at the school. However, the truth is that not every parent is necessarily safe or trustworthy. It is better to be safe than sorry, and school volunteer background checks are one of the ways that schools can practice that mantra.

Education tends to have rigorous background check requirements for employees. Principals, teachers, bus drivers, and even custodians will typically undergo detailed background checks to get those jobs. Many positions in the academic world also require special licensing or certification, steps that often come with their own background check requirements. Background checks in education are there because children are a vulnerable population and need to be protected from those who may do them harm.

Volunteers don’t always have the same access to children – and, therefore, the same opportunity – to harm. For instance, schools will customarily have policies that don’t allow volunteers to be alone with children without teacher supervision. However, volunteers have some level of access in most situations, which can pose a potential risk. Thorough background checks for volunteers at schools can minimize those risks.

At background checks, we can help any district design school volunteer background checks that make sense for their different types of volunteers. Whether you vet volunteers to help in a middle or high school environment or navigate the many questions surrounding the conversation around pre-schools and volunteers, we can help.

Screening Church Volunteers

While churches have historically been viewed as places of safety and sanctuary, the sex abuse scandal that broke in the early 2000s exposed how that reputation had enabled bad actors to hurt children. Since then, background checks have become dramatically more common in churches for employees and volunteers alike. At backgroundchecks.com, for instance, we have conducted tens of thousands of background checks for churches and religious organizations.

Volunteers in a church environment can take on a wide array of different roles, from cleaning the sanctuary to playing music for services to teaching Sunday School. While churches might not necessarily find a need to conduct background checks for less involved or less formal volunteer roles, there are absolutely volunteer capacities that involve more responsibility, and that should entail a background check of some sort.

Caregiving and the Role of Volunteers

Increasingly, caregiving is more likely to be a matter of employment than volunteerism. Nationwide, there is a shortage of people to fill childcare or elder care roles. In some cases, volunteers may still work within caregiving institutions like nursing homes or senior living communities. It isn’t uncommon, for instance, for high school or college students to get community service time by volunteering to help the elderly or disabled in these environments.

In any caregiving situation, there is an inherent imbalance in power. The person receiving the care is vulnerable, whether due to age, physical or mental faculties, or other factors. As such, there is an opportunity for the caregiver – whether that person is an employee, a volunteer, or even a family member – to take advantage of their charge. Abuse, neglect, theft, and fraud are just a few of the crimes that often occur in caregiving situations at the hands of unscrupulous care providers.

Therefore, background check policies for volunteers and caregivers should always incorporate strategies devised to protect the most vulnerable. Typically, checks in these contexts look for signs that might predict bad behavior – such as a history of abuse or neglect, past sexual offenses, financial crimes, and more. These checks are worthwhile even for volunteers, simply due to the potential for harm.

Organizations should also remember that caregivers' background checks are important even when short-staffing or amplified needs exist. Issues with staffing and capacity sometimes create a risk of care providers cutting corners to fill a need rather than going through proper protocol to keep everyone safe. The pandemic shined a light on this push and pull when vaccination providers were fast-tracking volunteer background checks to onboard new volunteers rather than skipping those checks due to a pressing need.

Non-Profits and Volunteer Organizations

Many volunteer organizations fall into the non-profit sector. Because non-profit organizations have tight budgets and often rely on donations and grants for funding, they regularly try to fill key roles with volunteers.

Volunteers’ jobs in the non-profit world can vary dramatically, depending on the nature of the organization itself. However, for numerous reasons, these roles will regularly have enough responsibility to necessitate the same level of background check that the organization would likely run on an employee. In non-profit arts organizations, for instance, volunteers may manage ticket sales, staff the box office, or work in similar capacities. These jobs may involve interacting directly with the organization’s finances, including cash, credit cards, and accounts. Background checks can help in this situation to prevent risks of theft, embezzlement, or fraud.

Non-profit volunteers may also interact significantly with the public on behalf of the organization, which means they are technically a face of that organization. A criminal background check for a non-profit organization can prevent instances of a volunteer harming a customer or otherwise behaving in a way that tarnishes the image and reputation of the non-profit.

At backgroundchecks.com, we pride ourselves on helping non-profit clients learn how volunteer organizations can better serve their communities. Build a volunteer screening policy with us today.

Youth Sports Need Volunteer Background Checks

Youth sports affiliated with schools or school districts are often covered by the same policies as the educational institution they belong to. School sports coaches are unlikely to slip through the cracks without a background check simply because most schools already have firm background check policies for teachers and staff that they extend to their athletic departments. Many school sports coaches are also teachers in their respective schools, meaning they would have to go through background checks for those jobs.

However, the fact is that youth sports go beyond the schoolyard. From little league organizations to summer sports camps, countless organizations exist solely to provide youth sports opportunities. These organizations are often not tied to a school or any other organization, so they do not usually have a higher-level parent organization requiring them to follow specific background check protocols. Instead, youth sports organizations must devise their own background check protocols to keep kids safe

Unfortunately, recent history has highlighted the opportunities in youth sports for adults to take advantage of vulnerable kids. Tales of predators like Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar, who used their roles in the athletic world to sexually abuse children, have shaken the system and pushed youth sports organizations and the bodies that operate them to reform their policies for background checks and oversight. Read our blog post, “Town Aims to Improve Background Check Compliance for Youth Sports Coaches and Volunteers,” to learn about one such situation.

Volunteers play considerable roles in most youth sports organizations. They can act as coaches, assistant coaches, umpires, referees, judges, drivers for out-of-town competitions, equipment managers, and more. Most of these roles will bring volunteers within close contact with kids or teenagers. Volunteer checks are a crucial safeguard to ensure those close contacts don’t jeopardize the safety of young athletes. Criminal background checks, screenings that check for a history of abuse and neglect, and sex offender registry checks are all essential for employees and volunteers in youth sports.

Community Services

Especially in smaller towns and more rural areas, volunteers are often called upon to play key roles in essential community services. Emergency response teams, like fire departments and search-and-rescue, regularly include volunteers among their ranks.

Community service is one category where department leaders face a difficult balancing act regarding background checks – volunteer checks especially.

On the one hand, emergency response of any kind is a high-responsibility capacity, and there needs to be trust there – between leaders and team members, among team members themselves, and between the community and the response teams – for everyone to do their jobs safely and adequately. Background checks that scrutinize criminal history, past behavior, relevant experience, and other factors are one way to establish this trust.

On the other hand, background checks take time, cost money (with volunteers often expected to pay some or all of the associated fees), and are viewed by some to be an invasion of privacy. As a result, there are situations where background checks can be a deterrent to attracting workers or especially volunteers. Read our blog about what to do when would-be volunteers bristle at volunteer background checks to learn about a county that faced this same challenge when trying to find volunteers for its fire and emergency response teams.

Ultimately, background checks are essential for community service volunteers, even when would-be volunteers push back against the process. Fire departments, search-and-rescue crews, and other emergency response teams are units deployed in intense, urgent situations where trust and discipline are essential. A volunteer who hasn’t been vetted thoroughly in such scenarios could feasibly put their fellow volunteers at risk, not to mention the people they are trying to save.

Even if skipping the background check should be out of the question, there are questions worth discussing here – specifically, “Who should pay for volunteer background checks?” Requiring volunteers to cover the costs of background checks can be a money-saver for cash-strapped entities like non-profit organizations, government agencies, or community service offices. However, this option also runs the risk of pricing low-income individuals out of volunteer opportunities that they would otherwise happily take. It can even be an inconvenience or turnoff to people who can technically afford to pay for their own checks. In most volunteer situations, the best option to avoid losing prospective volunteers will always be for the entity requiring the background check to pay for the cost of that check.


Do I need a social security number to run a background check on a volunteer?

No, having a Social Security Number to run a background check on a volunteer is not necessary. Do note, however, that the more personally identifiable information you have about a subject (SSN included), the more accurate your background check results are likely to be.

Do I need to ask volunteers for a release form to run a background check?

Yes. Technically, volunteers fall under the same rules as employees regarding the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the federal law that dictates permissions and disclosures around background checks. As such, volunteer organizations should get written consent before proceeding with volunteer screenings. Read our post, “FTC Says Screening of Volunteers is for Employment Purposes Under the FCRA,” to learn more about these requirements.

Why Background Checks for Volunteers Are Necessary

A common assumption is that volunteers aren’t linked to a business or organization in the same way employees are. In truth, volunteers often serve roles that staffers could easily fill with employee-like responsibilities. As a result, unvetted volunteers can pose all the same risks to an enterprise as unvetted employees. A volunteer with a violent past could still harm a customer, which could lead to legal liability and negligence on the part of the organization. A volunteer could still steal money or property from the organization. A volunteer could still behave in a way that reflects negatively on the organization. Thorough volunteer checks can minimize these and other risks.

Currently, there is a growing push for volunteer background checks. Explore our volunteer check resources on backgroundchecks.com to learn more about this trend, including blog posts like “More Organizations Embracing Background Checks for Volunteer Positions” and “Lansing Non-profit Adds Background Checks for Volunteers.”

What is a volunteer background check?

A volunteer screening is a background check aimed at vetting anyone hoping to serve an organization or business in a volunteer capacity. These checks can vary depending on the organization’s needs but will often focus on aspects such as criminal history, sex offender registries, and past instances of theft, embezzlement, or fraud.

What is a background questionnaire for employment?

Some organizations may start the background check process by having volunteers fill out a “background questionnaire.” This questionnaire may ask prospective volunteers to disclose criminal history, share previous volunteer experience, provide references who can speak on their behalf, and more. Think of the background questionnaire as the volunteer equivalent of a job application.

Can I volunteer with a criminal record?

The answer to this question will depend entirely on the organization(s) you are trying to volunteer for. Some entities, such as schools, may have stricter rules in place about whether they let individuals with criminal backgrounds volunteer or not. Meanwhile, organizations filling volunteer roles that don’t involve close contact with children may be a bit more lenient regarding criminal records.

What should be verified when conducting a volunteer background check?

Most volunteer supervisors attempt to flag past behaviors that indicate trouble in the future. Volunteers with histories of violence, sexual offenses, theft, fraud, embezzlement, or other more serious crimes can theoretically pose risks, hence the desire in volunteer organizations to identify this background information upfront. Therefore, criminal history and sex offender registry checks are usually the top priorities for volunteer background checks. Some volunteer organizations may wish to incorporate other checks, such as reference checks, past employment or volunteer engagement verifications, drug tests, driving history checks, and more.

Read about backgroundchecks.com and our SelectCheck solutions for volunteer background checks to learn more.

What clearances do I need to volunteer?

Again, the answer to this question depends on the volunteer role. Most volunteer organizations don’t require specific “clearances,” but will require an upfront background check before they allow you to volunteer.

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