4 Key Tips for Highly Effective Volunteer Vetting

Posted Thursday, June 10th, 2021 by Kimberly Chochon, Sterling Volunteers, Mark Hopwood, VolunteerMatters

To reach our goal to provide highly effective vetting and onboarding for nonprofits and their volunteer programs, our valued partnership with VolunteerMatters quickly became a successful collaboration. Since joining forces with VolunteerMatters — a cloud-based volunteer management solution designed to help organizations recruit, train, and manage volunteers on a unified platform — we have launched a special offering for nonprofits and developed some helpful tips along the way. So, let’s dive in.

Certainly, volunteers bring tremendous value to nonprofit organizations by contributing in many capacities. You may have firsthand experience with the impact volunteers can make. They might help with in-person or virtual events, facilitate fundraising, promote advocacy, partake in programs and service delivery, or be involved on a leadership board — to name a few. It’s important to keep in mind that with each type of volunteering, there is a necessary process for properly vetting volunteers as you onboard them.

How can you make sure they are the right people? You will want to take into consideration the volunteer position, required skills, whom they will interact with, and essential background screening needed to be effective and safe. When you leverage good background screening systems, you can lower barriers to volunteer engagement while improving quality, culture, and safety. Read on to learn about four key tips to help implement a highly effective volunteer vetting process.

Tip 1: Identify Volunteer Policy Profiles

Generally, most volunteer organizations have different types of volunteer opportunities that require varying responsibilities, skillsets, and degrees of autonomy, and which may work with diverse populations. A volunteer policy “profile” combines various volunteer jobs that have similar application, onboarding, and policy requirements.

A volunteer position should fit into one of these profiles. However, many jobs may belong to the same profile if they have similar requirements. The first step is to define all your volunteer positions, then group each position into different profiles based on:

  • Tasks volunteers perform
  • Populations with which volunteers interact
  • Level of autonomy given to volunteers

Tip 2: Examine the Intersection

Once you have outlined the above policy profiles, you will want to examine how the combination of elements intersect and evaluate if there could be an increased or decreased risk. Be sure to consider if the role requires specialized certification and whether specific risk is introduced. For example, a volunteer that gives facility tours may be relatively low risk, but there are still risks — such as tripping, falling, sensitivity training, etc. — and what if the tours include children with special needs? This introduces new risks, and additional vetting or training may be needed. Keep in mind that ‘one-size fits all’ is a rather shortsighted view. Instead, it’s important to identify risks by placing volunteer positions into the profiles where the responses to those risks are similar.

Tip 3: Define Credentials Per Policy Profile

Volunteer positions widely vary and may differ in tasks performed, level of risk, populations worked with, and the level of autonomy required. An evaluation of each of these elements reveals a necessary policy profile that determines the application and onboarding, and what requirements are necessary for the volunteer to safely perform their duties effectively. To assure a volunteer has been properly vetted before being onboarded, here are  some credential types to consider:

Core Application Form

The most basic element to have for any volunteer is a mechanism to easily gather their contact information. The goal is to eliminate a scenario where someone is working on your behalf and you don’t know who they are. Components that make up a good application form include:

  • Basic contact information
  • Skills
  • Interests
  • Schedule preferences

Collecting basic contact information (i.e., full name, email, and mobile phone) allows you to communicate with volunteers to confirm, remind, thank, request feedback, or contact them as needed. An application should also request skills, interests, and schedule preferences so you know which volunteer opportunities would be a good match for the volunteer when sending out invitations and making assignments.

Agreements or Waivers

Agreements are essentially anything the volunteer must read and confirm they have read by checking a box, inserting their initials, or providing their signature. Examples include a liability waiver, photo release, code of conduct statement, or a volunteer handbook. At a minimum, every volunteer should complete and submit an application. It is also encouraged to consult your legal counsel, human resource professionals, community partners, and insurers to develop your strategy. They can provide guidance and resources on reducing risk during volunteer onboarding.

Criminal Background Checks

Laws are being passed at both the federal and state level that are now mandating volunteer background checks, especially those serving vulnerable populations. Adopting a high-quality volunteer background screening program should be a core credentialing component to your operations to help mitigate risk.

Since there is no one comprehensive source that houses every single criminal record in the U.S., to achieve a quality, robust check on your volunteers, it’s important to layer a background screen by searching multiple sources. Fundamental components of a quality background check include:

  • Start where the volunteer lives — with State and County Court Record Searches. By checking county court records available in 3,340+ counties in the U.S., these searches identify potential criminal history information. A state’s repository or state police records can provide an alternative source for in-state criminal record information. Both are at the core of safe screening.
  • Run Department of Justice (DOJ) National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW) Search, especially when volunteers are serving vulnerable populations. The NSOPW is crucial because it is the most comprehensive database of registered sex offenders in 49 states, U.S. territories, the District of Columbia, and participating Indian tribes — all in one centralized place. Information in the registry is updated nightly versus other data sources where updates are less frequent.
  • Conduct Enhanced Nationwide Criminal Database validator searches. Used in conjunction with state and county court searches, and includes corrections criminal record databases to locate additional jurisdictions where a candidate may have committed a crime. Cases are verified against primary source court records to validate a record prior to reporting. While it casts a wide net over the U.S., it has limitations and should always be used in conjunction with other searches.
  • Search address history. Individuals may have committed a crime where they previously lived. Running a Social Security Number (SSN) Trace assists to broaden a background check to include jurisdictions that go back at least 7 years.
  • Don’t forget to check Alias and Maiden Name Criminal Search of volunteers. It is quite common for people change names and not just last names when married.
  • Keep in mind that crimes may be committed elsewhere — on a volunteer trip, vacation, or visiting a friend in the next county over. Using criminal locator tools can amplify a background check. For example, Sterling’s Locator Select has digital access to 2,400+ U.S. jurisdictions for queries — covering most of the incarcerated population in the U.S. — and locates possible felony and misdemeanor convictions as well as pending cases which are verified against primary source court records to validate a record before it is reported.
  • Be sure to prioritize Compliance. You’ll want to stay up-to-date on compliance and the latest regulations. Avoiding “instant” cheap checks that are typically lacking in compliance-enabled features is key to avoiding inaccurate, incomplete sources resulting in a low-quality check. The goal should be to minimize risk wherever possible for your organization.

Reference Checks

Performing reference checks acts as a safeguard from introducing mismatched or bad elements to your organization. There’s some debate over the value of a reference check if you are already doing a background check. However, the purpose of a reference check is to better understand a person’s temperament, reputation, and community standing, which cannot be determined via a criminal background check. Administering thorough reference checks can produce some red flags on a candidate with any history of bad behavior. If your organization works with children or other vulnerable populations, consider implementing reference checks, if you aren’t already.


A volunteer position may require documentation that certifies they have the qualifications to take on a specific volunteer job. This is likely for safety and liability reasons. For example, if a volunteer is driving on behalf of the organization, keeping a copy of their driver’s license on file is an example of a required certification. If someone is performing medical volunteering or providing tax or legal advice as a volunteer, copies of a medical license, CPA certificate, or state bar certificate should be required.

Tip 4: Revisit Vetting Frequency and Automation

For each type of credential, consider if any expire or need to be repeated, and whether the approval process can be automated. For example, if a position requires a driver’s license to perform a volunteer job, that record may need to be updated to check for license expiration. Is a one-time background check sufficient even if the volunteer has worked with you for many years? Determination of frequency and approvals of all credentials should be outlined within your policies and tracked within a volunteer management system to help with compliancy and automation.

Establishing good policies is critical to the success of any volunteer workforce, whether in-person or working remotely. However, a good policy is nothing without proper implementation, enforcement, and auditing. Using the appropriate systems enforce these policies, help with automation, streamline efficiencies, and contribute to maintaining safety and compliance. Without good systems, vetting volunteers and onboarding is time-consuming, and you could also find yourself in a non-compliant situation.

Check out our special offer from Sterling Volunteers and VolunteerMatters which highlights our latest collaboration — and provides organizations with a great opportunity to experience our automated, streamlined integration. Plus, for a highly effective approach to the volunteer onboarding and vetting process, consider using our helpful tips.

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The information contained herein is for informational purposes only. Sterling is not a law firm, and none of the information contained in this notice is intended as legal advice. Clients are encouraged to consult with their legal counsel about the impacts of any requirements. This, and other important information can be found on the Sterling website at sterlingcheck.com.