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No Surprises

By Erin Gloeckner - May 1, 2013

Volunteers are at the heart of most nonprofits, but your nonprofit’s heart might beat a dangerous rhythm without volunteer risk management. Every nonprofit with volunteers is at risk of experiencing these surprises:

  • The risk of a volunteer abusing a client;
  • The risk of a volunteer’s actions harming the nonprofit’s reputation;
  • The risk of losing a key volunteer who leads and motivates others;
  • The risk of volunteers considering themselves employees;
  • The risk of volunteers misusing private client information or financial assets; and,
  • The risk of harm coming to a volunteer.

You avoid surprises and setbacks when managing your volunteer team.  Here are eight volunteer screening tips from the book No Surprises: Harmonizing Risk and Reward in Volunteer Management by Melanie Herman, executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center in Leesburg, Va.

TIP #1: Create a written description for each volunteer position. Formal position descriptions convey expectations between the nonprofit and the volunteer. These expectations may include: assigned duties, qualifications, time commitment, which staff member to report to, and dress code, among other things. Formal, written descriptions encourage appropriate applicants to apply for the volunteer position.

TIP #2: Address blank answers on volunteer applications. Applications are uniform methods for screening candidates. If an applicant feels uncomfortable divulging info on an application, the volunteer manager should seek out that information. If an applicant refuses to share requested information, con­sider why and whether it might be risky to engage that person.

TIP #3: Be selective when recruiting volunteers. Many managers believe that “the more, the merrier.” This mentality leads organizations to engage more volunteers than they can handle, or to indiscriminately select volunteers. Thought­ful selection reduces the chance of engaging a volunteer who presents a risk, or who is not compatible with the needs of the nonprofit. Selective recruitment also allows you to engage only the number of volunteers you can supervise, given your resources.

TIP #4: Interview volunteers based on position requirements. Devote your time and resources to interviewing candidates for volunteer positions. Ask specific interview questions that relate to the responsibilities of each position. For example, you may ask an applicant for a driver position questions about the person’s driving record. If another applicant seeks to mentor children, you might ask that person why helping children is satisfying work.

TIP #5: Question your initial impressions. Researchers at NYU found that people solidify first impressions within seven seconds of meeting. When selecting volunteers, challenge yourself to set aside your first impression and assess the applicant’s behavior and qualifications objectively. Take a step back before making a full decision; you may catch something you didn’t notice before.

TIP #6: Screen friends the same way you screen strangers. If the board chair’s sister wants to volunteer, she might not be asked to provide references because you already trust the board chair. Whether volunteers are friends or strangers, you should screen them using the same methods. What you see isn’t always what you get, so be sure to screen familiar applicants.

TIP #7: Complete additional screening for high-risk positions. Require ad­ded screening when selecting volunteers for high-risk positions, such as po­­si­t­ions pro­viding one-on-one support for vulnerable clients. Advanced screen­ing might help determine which volunteer applicants are not suited for high-risk work. Standard volunteer screening could include applications and orientation, whereas advanced screening for high-risk positions may include: applications, interviews, reference checks, criminal history background checks, home visits, orientation, and extra training.

TIP #8: Don’t be afraid to reject a volunteer. Like a screen door, the screening process can keep ill-fitting applicants out, but it can also let the wrong applicants in. You must open the door if you recognize that a candidate cannot fulfill expectations. Before rejecting a volunteer, consider reassignment and added training as alternative actions. By removing a mismatched volunteer, you open the position for a suitable volunteer to fill.  NPT

Erin Gloeckner is project manager at the Nonprofit Risk Management Center in Leesburg, Va., where she coordinates and supports consulting projects. She’s also working on a new book on managing partnership and fundraising risks. Her email is


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