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Nonprofits Relying on More Volunteers - and More Vetting, Survey Says

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Date: December 12, 2016

As their volunteers interact more heavily with vulnerable populations, some nonprofits are checking their backgrounds more thoroughly, according to a recent survey.

A survey of volunteer managers, executive directors, and other volunteer program professionals across the United States found that the percentage of nonprofit organizations using 50 or more volunteers has increased from 55 percent to 76 percent over last year. The survey, Volunteer Screening Trends and Best Practices Report: 2017, was conducted by Sterling Volunteers, a provider of volunteer screening services.

The survey included 785 professionals who work for nonprofit organizations that conduct background checks on their volunteers. The survey report notes that baby boomers filled the volunteer ranks about a decade ago, and now organizations are seeing a new generation of socially conscious millennials stepping up.

Volunteers are increasingly serving vulnerable populations—such as children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. This year, 88 percent of the respondent organizations served vulnerable populations, up from 77 percent in 2015. That change has led to an increase in the number of respondents saying that they expect to do more comprehensive background screening of their volunteers in 2017—61 percent compared with 48 percent the previous year.

“Volunteers expect that people working next to them—at a food bank, for example—have been screened. They expect to be in a safe environment,” said Sterling Volunteers Executive Director Katie Zwetzig. She added that heightened scrutiny also helps organizations monitor volunteers as they move around within an organization, such as going from working behind the scenes to interacting with people.

Nonprofits also may want to screen volunteers because of the potential risk they pose to the organization, including endangering staff or clients, stealing funds or assets, destroying property, and damaging the organization’s reputation, the report notes.

The report suggests that organizations can mitigate risk by ensuring that volunteers are well trained. Eighty-three percent of responding organizations said they conduct formal training programs, up from 74 percent the previous year. Most of them use staff to train volunteers.

Zwetzig explained that nonprofits are better educated about what constitutes an appropriate background check than they were a few years ago. For example, many believed that checking a national criminal database was sufficient—they didn’t realize that the database relies on individual counties to submit their own data, and half don’t share it. Now, “organizations want to search more thoroughly,” she said. The survey found that the percentage of organizations spending more than $30 per background check has doubled.

A better search involves starting with the person’s current county records and then overlaying other reports as needed and as budget allows, Zwetzig said. These other sources might include the national criminal database, the sex offender registry, driving records, jail bookings, and Social Security traces (which indicate other places people have been, in case further county searches are appropriate).

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