How to conduct volunteer screening

Donna Lockhart, April 12, 2010
(as it appeared in Charity Village)

In order to ensure healthy and safe organizations, we should develop an overall risk management strategy that covers all aspects of how we operate. "Screening" is just one element in a risk management program that puts the focus on volunteers. There should be no excuse for NOT having an overall risk management strategy given the excellent resources developed by Linda Graff (our Canadian guru of risk management) and Volunteer Canada.

"Screening is an ongoing process designed to identify anyone who may harm children or vulnerable adults." (Volunteer Canada - Safe Steps: A Volunteer Screening Process Resource)

Why screen volunteers?

  • To create and maintain a safe environment for client, volunteer, staff, and others involved in our work.
  • To ensure the appropriate match is made between the volunteer-task-client.

What screening tools are available to help with this task?

  1. Well-designed position or opportunity descriptions.
  2. An application process.
  3. Methods of recruitment.
  4. An interview process.
  5. Reference checks.
  6. Police checks.
  7. Observation of volunteers in orientation, training and during probation; plus, opportunities during formal or informal supervision or in evaluation and the methods you use.

Three ideas for screening volunteers

1. Involve the whole organization in risk assessment

Just because we are focusing on screening in volunteer programs does not mean that this should stand alone. We need to be advocates for overall risk management practices in the whole organization. I am amazed at the number of times I hear managers of volunteers indicate that it is difficult to implement screening measures for volunteers when similar procedures are not required of staff. If the whole organization, from board to direct service volunteers are engaged in the process, this will help staff and volunteers understand the context of how we work and want to work together to ensure a safe and healthy organization. A risk management audit or assessment can help us look at safety, injury, the environment, relationships, loss of finances, liability, and of course loss of reputation.

2. Identify the risks

It is important that organizations control the risk in their volunteer programs. Only by examining the potential for danger can we determine how we might go about minimizing, controlling, or eliminating the risk altogether. We can never eliminate all the risks (unless we eliminate the use of volunteers) but we can use tools to help us make better decisions.

Volunteer Canada suggests we look at risk as a "continuum" - a line where at one end we have minimal risk and at the other huge risk. We can begin to identify and assess risk if we consider such factors as the participant/client; the setting; the nature of the activity; the level of supervision and the nature of the relationship. Using these factors as a base line we can start to examine each of our volunteer positions and rank them according to level of risk.

Example: if you have vulnerable seniors as clients and a volunteer is entering their home for visitation (friendly visitor volunteer position), you would use the risk assessment process and categorize from low to high risk the following factors:

  • Participant/Client
  • Setting
  • Nature of the activity
  • Level of supervision
  • Nature of the relationship

I would consider this situation to be ranked as a high-risk client/volunteer situation from every angle. When we look at it this way, the tools we use to screen volunteers for this visitation role might be more intense than for other less risky situations. We will have to determine: "What can we do to control the risks this situation has created?" We should do this for each volunteer role in our program.

3. Implement steps to screening

Materials already exist to help organizations screen their volunteers. The surprising part is that many organizations use none or few of the steps today. The more vulnerable your client or the riskier you have assessed a volunteer position, the more vigilant you should be in your screening process. The tools you have available include:

  • Develop clear opportunity/position descriptions so expectations are clear and boundaries are understood
  • Establish a recruitment process that includes:
    An application process for volunteer positions
  • An interview process that is professional and serious
    Conduct reference checks
  • Complete successful police records check
  • Conduct orientation and training
  • Support/supervise and evaluate
  • Engage program participants

We live with risk every day. It should not frighten us or make us complacent. Mangers of volunteers have excellent tools, materials, and examples to use to understand risk, determine risk factors through assessment, and ultimately to lead to good practices for reducing, eliminating, or controlling risk. Determining level of risk and applying screening practices is one best practices that managers of volunteers have identified as a "standard of practice" for the profession.

  • Some additional resources:
    CharityVillage - good research and topical articles on all areas of volunteer management.
  • Graff, Linda. Beyond Police Checks: The Definitive Volunteer and Employee Screening Guidebook. Dundas, Ontario: Linda Graff and Associates Inc., 1999.
  • Graff, Linda. Best of all. Dundas, Ontario: Linda Graff and Associates Inc., 2005.
  • Noble, Joy, Louise Rogers, and Andy Fryer. Volunteer Management: An Essential Guide, 2nd edition. Volunteering SA Inc., 2003.
  • PAVR-O: Standards of Practice for the Profession of Volunteer Management..
  • Volunteer Canada Safe Steps process
  • Volunteer Canada and The Ontario Volunteer Centre Network series: Fact Sheet No. 11 of 14: Have you Risk-Proofed Your Operations?

Donna Lockhart is a trainer and consultant with The RETHINK Group. Her focus is on "developing volunteer capacity." Donna designed the CharityVillage Building a Great Volunteer Program campus course. She facilitates a wide range of workshops and training sessions in volunteer engagement. For more information visit:

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