What You Need to Consider During Background Checks for Nonprofit Volunteers
At many nonprofits, volunteers play critical roles, from staffing special events and keeping programs running to serving as directors on boards. They are often the most effective community ambassadors, but, increasingly, nonprofits must consider the risks associated with failing to vet potential volunteers, particularly volunteers who work with children or vulnerable adults.
When appropriate background check processes are not in place, great harm can happen to those whom nonprofits are entrusted to protect. Substantial legal, financial and reputational damage can also arise from failure to conduct appropriate background checks. It is essential for every nonprofit to have volunteer background check policies and procedures; and in doing so, they should consider the following.
Curate Your Approach
There is no one-size-fits-all approach for a background check. For example, it may not be possible or necessary to check every volunteer at the annual beach cleanup, but a thorough check for the volunteers working every Sunday in the church’s nursery is a must.
The tools your nonprofit uses to conduct the check will vary as well. Depending on the position and qualifications of the volunteer, a nonprofit may use some or all of the following background check tools: reviewing a resume, verifying information in an application, calling references, reviewing social media history and checking for disqualifying criminal convictions.
Nonprofits should take steps to protect the privacy of individuals whose backgrounds it checks. It is important to start with a curated approach so that the nonprofit is only accessing information needed to assess whether the person is qualified and safe to volunteer. Once that information is gathered, the nonprofit should also implement steps to limit access to the information on a need-to-know basis. Failing to do so could lead to issues under privacy laws.
Follow All Laws
In addition to privacy laws, nonprofits should ensure that they follow all federal, state and local laws related to their unique operations and volunteer positions. For example, in 2021, California passed a law, which requires that nonprofit youth organizations (e.g., scouts, teen centers and after-school providers) conduct criminal background checks on employees, administrators and regular volunteers who have direct contact with or supervise children. Nonprofit youth organizations operating in California should consult with counsel about complying with this new law.
Develop Policies and Publicize Your Requirements
Establish written policies and procedures outlining when and how the nonprofit will vet volunteers, then publicize those requirements. For example, if a nonprofit posts its background check requirements on its website, it may deter a problematic volunteer from applying.
It can also help the nonprofit build trust in the community. That trust can be reinforced by developing other appropriate volunteer policies and procedures, such as volunteer handbooks, training for volunteers on abuse prevention, safety procedures and codes of conduct.
Consider Whether to Vet Potential Board Members
This may not be necessary for many nonprofits, but it is worth some consideration. Directors are some of the most important volunteers, often established professionals with deep ties to the community, and many nonprofits do not want to offend potential candidates with intrusive checks. However, a more extensive background check may be warranted for board positions where a person may have access to funds, particularly at smaller organizations where there are often fewer internal controls and more reliance on volunteer working boards.
For other boards, reviewing a resume and an interview with a potential candidate may be sufficient to assess where the potential candidate fits into the board’s compositional goals or complements the talents needed on the board. For organizations working with children, it may be imperative to convey to the community how seriously the organization takes safety by having directors participate in the same background processes as regular volunteers. Each nonprofit may have its own curated approach
These considerations should help your organization find the right approach to background checks for volunteers, mitigate risks, and protect your organization and the people it serves.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Casey Williams is an attorney with Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, working solely with nonprofits on employment, governance, and business matters. Based in the San Francisco office, her practice is focused on helping mission-driven organizations achieve their goals while staying compliant and working through complex disputes.