Your volunteers represent your organization in your community, so you need to be able to trust each of them. In an ideal world, volunteers would be able to simply show up at your organization each week and immediately become productive members of the team. Unfortunately, this isn't what always happens. Some volunteers may have ulterior motives or be unstable and put your organization at risk. Background checks are a necessary way to verify that you have safe volunteers with good motives. 


In this guide we will cover:

  • Why you should screen your volunteers
  • Stats about background checks
  • What disqualifies someone from volunteering
  • Answers to all of your FAQs
  • How to automate background checks


Do you need to screen your volunteers?

In short, yes. Screening is a valuable process that helps organizations keep their staff, other volunteers, and those they are serving, safe. It is especially important if your volunteers are serving or working alongside vulnerable populations such as children or seniors. 

The benefits of screening include:

  • A safer workplace environment for all participants in your organization’s activities or events

  • Maintaining your organization's untarnished, positive reputation

  • More efficient use of time when training new volunteers on policies and procedures (such as appropriate interaction with children)

The risks of not screening could be:

  • Liability for consequences due to background checks not being conducted

  • A fractured reputation for your nonprofit and mistrust within your community

  • Wasting time and resources on volunteers that are a threat to your organization


Stats about background checks

Did you know that 1 in every 4 Americans volunteers?*

It's true! And with so many people volunteering their time and effort to causes they believe in, it's important to keep them safe.

A study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service found that 1 in 3 volunteers has a criminal record. The most common offense: failure to pay child support (20%). But other serious offenses were also uncovered, including rape or sexual assault (8%), larceny (6%), burglary (2%), and homicide/murder/manslaughter/aggravated assault (1%).

The good news is that nearly all organizations conduct background checks on potential volunteers—98%, according to research done by VolunteerMatch.


Criminal act convictions that disqualify a candidate from volunteering

These are commonly used volunteer disqualification guidelines when criminal records are found, according to USA background.

The following criminal act convictions or pending case dispositions should lead to a judgment of character assessment that a volunteer is not qualified to be in a volunteer organization:

  • Felonies that include a component involving physical violence
  • Any criminal act involving sexual nature, no matter how long ago it occurred
  • Non-violent felonies within the past five (5) years
  • Any criminal felony or misdemeanor conviction that resulted in physical and/or mental harm to a minor (no time limitations)
  • Any volunteer who presently is or has been registered in a local, state or national sex offender registry

The term “conviction” applies to the final disposition of any given criminal act. You must also consider if the felony was pleaded down to a misdemeanor, in that case then the following misdemeanors guidelines should apply:

  • Misdemeanors concerning physical force or intimidation of force towards an individual (adult or minor) in the past ten (10) years
  • Misdemeanors whereby sexual-based conduct took part, including prostitution, and solicitation. Said acts including but not limited to pornography, lewd conduct, and indecent exposure irrespective of how long ago they took place
  • Both felony and misdemeanor convictions concerning controlled substances within the last five (5) years
  • Both felony and misdemeanor convictions relating to cruelty to animals within the last ten (10) years


Volunteer screening FAQs

  • What is the difference between a background check and a criminal background check?

    • A criminal background check looks at an individual's arrest history, conviction history, and current status in the community. A background check also includes this information but can also include other non-criminal information such as civil court records, driving, and employment histories. For example, if someone had been sued for unpaid debt and lost their case, that would be considered part of their "background."


  • How do you screen volunteers who are minors?

    • Suppose you volunteer with minors (those under 18 years old). In that case, we recommend requiring parental consent to release any non-criminal record information from our database or other sources when necessary to complete your child's volunteer application process.


  • What do I need to collect for volunteer background check requirements?
    • First & last name
    • Date of birth
    • Current & past addresses
    • Social security number and/or driver's license #


  • What happens when a volunteer candidate is disqualified for a position based on what is found in their background check?
    • The FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) requires Pre-Adverse Action and Adverse Action, which must be completed by a volunteer manager.
      • Pre-Adverse Action: Volunteer managers must send a notice to the candidate along with a copy of the background screening report, federal summary of rights, and any appropriate state summary of rights. The candidate has the opportunity to contest the information within 5 days. If a re-investigation confirms the original findings, then the candidate may take adverse action
      • Adverse Action: Volunteer managers must send an Adverse Action letter with another copy of the federal summary of rights and any appropriate state summary of rights. If specific Adverse Action steps are not followed, it could lead to litigation.


  • How long does the process take? 
    • The majority of searches are returned within 24-72 hours, however, it can vary. Longer searches could mean that criminal information was found. 


  • Does a volunteer applicant have to consent to a background check?
    • Yes. You must obtain written or electronic consent from the applicant prior to a third party conducting any criminal record search, credit history check, or reference check. 


  • What are some additional ways I can protect my organization?
    • Ask for references from each applicant
    • If you are a religious organization, ask for a faith statement
    • Conduct thorough training
    • Require CPR certification if caring for vulnerable people, such as children


  • How much do background checks cost?
    • A volunteer background check can cost your organization anywhere from $50 to more than $100 for each volunteer. The cost of a background check depends on the size of your organization, what kind of information you're requesting, and whether you want a full-blown criminal history report or just basic information about the applicant.
    • Note that there can be additional costs if you need an employee to follow up on each search and communicate results to applicants.


How to Automate the Screening Process 

With WhoCanBeThere, background checks can be automatically initiated once someone fills out a form with the necessary information and gives consent. This way you can protect your organization without giving it another thought. We partner with Yardstik to enable our clients to conduct these checks easily and inexpensively. Our searches are only $8 and typically return in minutes (if there is a criminal history then we charge another $7 to go get the data at the county level).