News & Updates

Nonprofits relying more on volunteers - and screening

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Date: May 12, 2017

New research shows that nonprofits are relying more and more on their volunteers to fill critical staffing gaps in their organizations. Accompanying that is an upswing in the use of background checks, which are eating up an increasing share of charities’ budgets as a result. But according to experts, the expense is well worth the peace of mind that comes with knowing your volunteers are on the up-and-up, and is now even less of a concern in light of the tight labor market that leaves nonprofits little choice but to draw on volunteers to keep pace with demands for their services.

Nonprofit Business Advisor recently spoke with Katie Zwetzig, executive director of background screening company Sterling Volunteers, about the organization’s research report, Volunteer Screening Trends & Best Practices Report: 2017, and what it means for volunteer-reliant charities.

Q: Your new report notes that the use of volunteers by nonprofits is growing. What’s driving this? How are these new volunteers being put to work?

A: Overall, the number of volunteers is staying relatively flat at 64 million volunteers in the United States. Those organizations that responded to our report are seeing an increase in volunteers at their particular organizations and forecast a continued increase. Our report also found that organizations were using volunteers in new ways. Volunteers are no longer just paper-pushers. This shift comes at both the request of the organization, who is seeking higher-skilled volunteers, and the volunteer, who is also looking for opportunities to utilize their skills. As the job market tightens, experience as a skills-based volunteer can help an individual gain experience that they otherwise may not be able to, certainly to the benefit of both the volunteer and nonprofit. Organizationally, volunteers are being used in fundraising, strategic operations, human resources and other ways. Organizations that have access to skilled volunteers may reorganize their staff to accommodate volunteers. But, a word of caution: while volunteers can fill in many gaps, relying solely on volunteers for your strategic positions is risky for a couple of reasons. First, remember that the volunteer is just that—a volunteer. When the semester is over or their schedule changes, they may not be able to commit to the organization at the same level. Second, an organization that changes positions that were previously paid positions to volunteer positions may find itself scrutinized by the Department of Labor. Best practices include making sure you have legal and human resources knowledge in your organization (perhaps as a volunteer position on the board of directors), job descriptions and an understanding of Department of Labor rules.

Q: Your data shows that organizations are doing background checks, and generally spending more on them to get more detailed information. What are the benefits to these more expansive screenings?

A: It is important to screen your candidates in a number of ways—applications, interviews, background checks, reference checks—to ensure they are a good fit for your organization. Background checks are one critical element of a successful vetting program. Most nonprofits we work with provide services to vulnerable populations. All nonprofits we work with are concerned about their brand and reputation. From both a risk and reputation standpoint, it is important that the people an organization brings on board are a good fit, do not cause harm or tarnish the organization’s reputation and brand. This is critical for fundraising as well.

Within the United States, approximately 8 percent of individuals have a criminal record of some kind. Research also shows that predators go where their targets are. Sexual predators are good actors and are very patient, often taking months to “groom” a target. Thus, those organizations serving vulnerable populations are actually at higher risk. Organizations often tell us they want to make the volunteer process fast and easy. While I think it is important that the onboarding process is efficient, making it too “easy” on the volunteer can encourage predators. Having the volunteers go through a background check is crucial, and knowledge that an organization has a strong screening program can help ward off predators.

While 80 percent of criminals stay in their current jurisdiction, our research shows that nearly 30 percent get convicted outside of their current county of residence. As people travel, move and change their name (court records are housed by name so if I got convicted under my maiden name and you searched my married name, you would not find the conviction), it is important to check those counties where people have lived, worked and played. Thus, using various “locator” products to determine the footprint of a volunteer is critical. Checking the Department of Justice Sex Offender Registry is critical as well. This is a free search ( From there, depending on budget and position, an organization should consider adding other products—driving records and abuse registries, for instance. The more you layer various types of checks, the more you will ensure a stronger volunteer pool, a stronger program, a stronger reputation and, ultimately, stronger funding.

Q: Also, the report notes that some program areas, such as education, use checks more than others. Why is that?

A: While background checks have long been used in employment screening, they are relatively new in volunteer screening. Our research shows that adoption within the nonprofit sector is about seven years behind the adoption within the for-profit sector. Certain sectors, including mentoring, health care and education, were the earliest adopters of the sector. Within health care and education, this is generally because the organization’s human resources department put the same process in place for volunteer screening as for employee screening. The education sector has a higher number of volunteers than other sectors, and, generally speaking, tends to screen 100 percent of their volunteers. Most education organizations we work with also screen their volunteers every year.

Q: You say that organizations that use volunteers need a different risk management plan tailored to their needs. What makes this a unique situation compared to, say, a generic for-profit business with regular paid staff?

A: Our research found that organizations are valuing their volunteer programs more than previously and, ultimately, investing in them more. This is for a few reasons. From a risk management standpoint, no nonprofit wants to wake up and see their name in the news due to something heinous a volunteer did. Making sure that the volunteer is a good fit, vetted and properly trained for their position is critical. In many cases, a volunteer is working regularly with vulnerable individuals, often on a 1:1 basis. This is different than going to an office setting every day for a job. Also, tools to onboard, track and manage a volunteer and the outcome of a volunteer program have greatly improved over the past several years. There are many wonderful volunteer management systems available, and competition has made the pricing more reasonable than ever before. Finally, as previously mentioned, organizations are seeing a strong link between their volunteer program and their fundraising ability.

Your research finds that staffing costs have eclipsed those of screening, and are now the biggest expense for most nonprofits. With this in mind, is it a good time for volunteer program coordinators to make their case for bigger budgets?

I certainly think there is an opportunity to utilize more skilled volunteers as a means to reduce an organization’s budget (within DOL guidelines, of course). Volunteer managers/coordinators certainly should make the case for a bigger budget, citing the link between a strong volunteer program and fundraising. Utilizing a VMS can also substantially reduce a budget and build capacity without adding additional staff. And, one thing we talk about with many organizations is that volunteers tell us they are willing to pay for their own background check. We encourage organizations to have the conversation with a volunteer about contributing to the cost of the check, or paying outright. Organizations we work with that turn on that feature within our dashboard see over 30 percent of the volunteers making a contribution when asked to do so. Imagine reducing a screening budget by 30 percent just for asking a simple question!

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