Trust: The Reason Nonprofits Should Do Volunteer Background Checks

Twenty-five years ago, a handshake was usually the gesture that conveyed trust between a nonprofit and their volunteer.  The volunteer was trusted to be a good person with no ill will towards an organization’s cause or clients, and the nonprofit was there to fill a great need for individuals who were not able to assist or advocate on their own behalf.

The Boy Scouts handshake with the left hand is explained in different ways, but one account is that a Native American chieftain said “In our land, only the bravest of the brave shake hands with the left hand because to do so we must drop our shields and our protection.”  I have also heard the reason is that it is the hand closest to your heart.  Whatever the meaning, the handshake represented trust between two parties.

Nonprofit businesses and organizations often work to do the impossible – serve a community or cause while operating on as little money as possible. Employees often have to work with what they have by stretching their resources and welcoming any and all who want to help.  Nonprofits often trust the person that volunteers because the need is so great and resources so low.  However, that level of trust can be life-changing or even end their existence.

Every day, millions of volunteers donate countless hours to good causes. Volunteers can, and do, perform many of the same duties as paid workers. But instead of a paycheck, volunteers contribute their time out of a desire to give back to their community or cause.  However, everyone may not be acting altruistically, and there are those that do not have the wellbeing of an organization in mind.

In a survey by the National Center for Victims of Crime they found:

  • 12 percent of organizations reported not screening volunteers
  • Nearly half of the organizations indicated that screening identified a volunteer who would be an “inappropriate” match.
  • The majority of organizations would disqualify a volunteer for an arrest or conviction
  • The majority of organizations report that they would disqualify a volunteer for a child abuse report.
  • The majority of organizations say they will not accept a volunteer who has been reported for elder abuse

Nonprofits are a business, and even though they would like to lay out a welcome mat for all, there is a safety measure that must be put in place to ensure those who contribute and benefit from volunteer services are safe and in good hands.

For a number of reasons, nonprofits must screen volunteers- preventing individuals with certain crimes from being a part of their organization.  Background checks are often legislated and the nonprofit has a certain level of due diligence and responsibility, especially when working with vulnerable populations.  We as a society trust that our volunteer organizations are doing all that they can to screen criminals from their volunteer pools.

There is a social awareness of the evil which could exist in a few volunteers, and even though the numbers are minuscule, one is too many for any organization.  It is this threat to the safety of clients that has increased the need for background screening over the past couple of decades.

The safety and well-being of other volunteers is often just as much at risk as that of the clients.  Not only does this compound the problem, but it elevates the seriousness of not doing a background check.

Trust has to be the foundation of any good relationship.  Having mutual trust between the volunteer and nonprofit is critical to being a successful organization.  Whether you are serving sandwiches or fundraising, the volunteer trusts the nonprofit has done all that is necessary to keep them from harm and that their effort, time and money are in good hands.

We have seen this level of trust erode through the years.  It is not just the concern that volunteers who have committed sex crimes or are convicted violent criminals may be among the volunteer corps, but also that the nonprofit may be in business for the financial gain of their owners and not for the cause.

Everyone knows all the reasons why a nonprofit should do background checks.  However, there’s a level of trust that the organization is conducting criminal checks, that they know which criminal checks to run and that they understand the ways in which criminals can avoid being discovered.

Today, more than ever, a nonprofit has to protect and manage their brand.  Brand identity and awareness is the life-blood of fundraising.  The publicity of just one incident in which a nonprofit did not screen their employees and volunteers or didn’t understand the right types of background checks to ensure maximum protection, can destroy the trust that clients, volunteers and donors have in them.

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