Five Considerations For Background Checks Of Nonprofit Volunteers

CATEGORY: Nonprofit News
CLIENT TYPE: Nonprofit
DATE: Apr 24, 2023

Many nonprofits are powered by dedicated volunteers, who assist with programs and special events, interact with the public, and serve as directors.  However, many nonprofits overlook background checks on volunteers as an essential risk management tool, particularly for volunteers that work with children or vulnerable populations. When proper background checks are not performed on volunteers, the nonprofit can be exposed to legal, financial, and reputational harm.  Accordingly, all nonprofits should have some volunteer background check processes and the following five factors should help in developing or refining the right processes for your organization:

  1. Which volunteers should get a background check?

When initiating a background check plan, consider which volunteers should undergo background checks.  Background checks are a must for volunteers that work with children and, in some cases, may even be required by law.  For example, as of January 2022, criminal background checks are required under California law for all “regular volunteers” of any “youth service organization” in order “to identify and exclude any persons with a history of child abuse.”  (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 18975).[1]  A “youth services organization” is an organization that employs or utilizes the services of administrators or employees of a private youth center, youth recreation program, or youth organization who are mandated reporters.  A “regular volunteer” is a volunteer aged 18 or older who has direct contact with, or supervision of, children for more than 16 hours per month or 32 hours per year.  Nonprofit youth organizations operating in California should consult with counsel about complying with this new law.

Even if your organization and volunteers do not fall into this law, background checks are essential for all volunteers that work with children or vulnerable populations to help flag potential abusers.  Your nonprofit can also evaluate the benefits and risks for requiring additional volunteers to undergo background checks.  For example, requiring background checks for a large scale event with many volunteers – such as a beach clean-up or a one day soup kitchen – may be too impracticable.  On the other hand, for a committed volunteer working regular hours in the office, a background check may be easily implemented.

  1. How to conduct a background check

There are many tools that can be used to conduct a background check.  Which and how many tools to use will depend on the nature of the position and qualifications needed of the position.  Background check tools include, for example, reviewing a resume, verifying information in an application (e.g., education and licenses), calling references, reviewing social media history, and checking for disqualifying criminal convictions.

Regardless of the type of tools being used, before conducting a background check, a nonprofit should obtain a signed written authorization from the volunteer applicant to inform them of the types of information that is being sought and to obtain their consent for the background check. Different types of authorizations and disclosures may be needed, depending on the type of tools being used. For example, extensive authorizations and disclosure are needed to pull credit reports, and counsel should be consulted before using that kind of tool.

  1. Privacy protection

Nonprofits should take steps to guard the privacy of volunteer applicants when conducting background checks.  Nonprofits should conduct their background checks in a focused matter to obtain only information relevant to whether the applicant is qualified and safe to volunteer.  Once that information is gathered, the nonprofit should implement steps to limit access to the information on a need-to-know basis.  Failing to do so could lead to potential violations of privacy laws.

  1. Establish policies and publicize volunteer requirements

Nonprofits should develop written policies and procedures explaining how it will screen 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.

Established volunteer screen policies can also help nonprofits create trust in the community.  Nonprofits can build on that trust be developing other appropriate volunteer policies and procedures, such as volunteer handbooks, training for volunteers on abuse prevention, safety procedures, and codes of conduct.  These policies and guidelines can help develop and reinforce partnerships with the public and the community the nonprofit serves.

  1. Consider screening potential board members

Board members are some of the most important volunteers of a nonprofit.  Board members are often established professionals with deep ties to the community.  For this reason, many nonprofits do not want to offend potential candidates with intrusive checks and believe it is unnecessary.  However, a more extensive background check may be warranted for board positions where a person may have access to funds.  This may be particularly important at smaller organizations where there are often fewer internal controls and more reliance on volunteer working boards.

For boards at larger nonprofits, reviewing a resume and interviewing a potential candidate may be sufficient to evaluate whether the potential candidate fits into the organization’s compositional matrix for Board diversity, skills, and experiences.  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.  Thus, each nonprofit should have its own individualized approach to vetting potential board members, tailored to the needs and work of the organization.

Evaluating these five factors will help your nonprofit find its own method for conducting volunteer background checks.  This will help your nonprofit focus on completing its mission while also mitigating risks and protecting the organization and the community it serves.

[1]  Please note that this law was amended in September 2022 in two ways:

Until January 1, 2024, youth service organizations that prior to January 1, 2022 did not require administrators, employees, or regular volunteers to undergo background checks are excluded for the background check requirement; and

An organization that provides one-to-one mentoring to youth that has adopted and implemented policies requiring administrators, employees, and regular volunteers to undergo training for identification and reporting of child abuse and neglect and has adopted and implemented policies to ensure comprehensive screening of volunteers, training of volunteers and parents or guardians, and regular contact with volunteers and parents or guardians.


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