Screening Volunteers

People are offering their precious time to help your organisation. You feel embarrassed about asking them questions, or checking up on them. What if they think you are rude and you lose their support?

First it must be made clear that screening is a risk management exercise. All good risk management strategies must deal with the possibility of the very rare and the very unlikely occurring.

For community organisations, the chance of volunteers causing serious problems is extremely rare.

The vast majority of prospective volunteers have no possible objections on checks to see if they have a police record. For example, in 1998 the Queensland police ran 4,011 checks on volunteers and turned up two positives. So there's no need to panic, or to lose perspective, or to inflate the problem.

When things do go wrong, however, they can go spectacularly wrong, and if you're dealing with a very small chance of a very large damage it's sensible to take reasonable precautions. You want to have procedures in place that as far as possible cover your clients and your organisation from avoidable risks without chilling or discouraging recruitment.

Why do we need to screen?

You need to think about screening because:
  • You're going to be assessing prospective volunteers to see if they fit the needs of your organisation - to see whether they're competent, whether they get along with people, whether they have the skills you're looking for and fit the position description. You need to assess their trustworthiness as part of the process.
  • You never know. All sorts of people can do wrong things. There can be no real guarantees about anybody, whether they've been screened or not. However, if a volunteer does go wrong and you hadn't screened, then your organisation could be prosecuted and sued, your public liability insurers will want explanation as will the press and your supporters.
  • In some Australian states, in some situations, the law says you have to. Even where there's no specific legislation, you have a duty of care to the people you have dealings with, and that means you must exercise reasonable care with respect to their interests, including protecting them from harm.
  • It protects all volunteers. Prospective volunteers will want assurance that all volunteers working for your organisation have previously been screened. They want to feel comfortable that existing volunteers are trustworthy, just as existing volunteers want to know the same thing about them

How much screening do we need to do?

This depends on the possible risk to others. Areas of possible concern are:

Dealing with money

      If a volunteer is handling money, you will want to know that they will leave it as they found it and will not divert it sideways. Some money handling is relatively small scale and low risk- shaking the tin, for example, while some banking cheques for example is larger scale and therefore higher risk.

      Calculate the level of risk for your organisation and ensure that you put in place risk minimisation strategies such as a well-documented and appropriately supervised set of financial procedures for everybody.

      Sensitive information and intellectual property

      If the volunteer is going to be able to access confidential personal data or your organisation's intellectual property, you'll need to be confident that they will observe the organisation's privacy and confidentiality policies. It is worthwhile having all people working in your organisation both paid staff and volunteers, sign a confidentiality agreement.

      Positions of trust

      If a volunteer is placed in a position of trust by the organisation - a position where he or she is placed in a position of authority (formal or informal) over another person in an ongoing relationship, then this presents the (remote) possibility of abuse. A position of trust implies that the volunteer has some degree of power over the client and that the relationship is unequal.

      Ensure that all members of your organisation understand your equal opportunity and harassment policies.

      Vulnerable Clients

      If the volunteer is dealing with vulnerable clients, he or she will need to satisfy stricter standards.

      Clients are vulnerable if they have difficulty protecting themselves and are at greater risk of harm than the general population. Clients may be vulnerable because of their age, because they have a disability or a handicap, or because of their circumstances. Vulnerability may be a temporary or a permanent condition.

      This definition is fairly broad, including (among other groups) children, youth, older people, people with physical, developmental, social, emotional, or other disabilities, and people who have been victims of trauma, crime or torture.

      What kind of screening do we need?

      To protect clients and workers, organisations need to fit their volunteer screening procedures into all aspects of their formal recruitment and management processes.

      Step 1. The position description

      For each position, undertake a risk assessment and determine the level of protection you need. Include a description of the risk and the level of screening required into the position description.

      Step 2. Advertisement

      When you're calling for volunteers, be sure to say that you do have a screening process. You do not want people getting upset in the office.

      Step 3. Application form

      As well as asking for contact information and (relevant) personal details, the form should ask about any special information you have decided you need for that position (medical clearance, driver's licence, criminal record) and ask the applicant's permission to check them. Remember, all this information must be held strictly confidential.
      Ask for referees.

      Step 4. Interview

      The interview has to cover much more than just security concerns, of course, and has to explore the whole range of issues about how well the needs of the prospective volunteer match the needs of the organisation, but along the way you will also want to explore any doubts you may have about their suitability. After the interview, do follow up their referees and check their references.

      Step 5. Police Records Check

      Obviously, this isn't going to be needed in all cases, or even in most. However, if you have volunteers working in positions of trust with vulnerable groups in circumstances where any abuse of their position is possible then, for the reasons given above, you must consider this option.

      Remember, just because the police check brings up something does not mean that you are obliged to turn away the volunteer. The offence may be something that happened when he or she was young and foolish, something like non-payment of parking fines that isn't particularly applicable to the job at hand, or something that for whatever reason you regard as not relevant.

      The responsible authority differs from state to state; in Victoria, the responsible agency is the Police Criminal Records Section Public Inquiry Service, while in NSW you go to an Approved Screening Service. Check with the Police Ministry in your state. Some states charge for the service, some do not.

      Step 6. After Screening Service - Reject

      If the screening process - form, interview, check - has thrown up information that has made you think again and reject the volunteer, you will need to tell the person in writing why their application was rejected and you will need to give them a chance to argue their case.


      After Screening Service - Accept

      Even if screening has indicated that applicants are in the clear, your organisation will still need a full range of protective policies and practices.

      Even full police checks

      • are only valid, at best, up to the day that they're processed
      • don't pick up interstate or overseas convictions
      • don't pick up cases who have managed to avoid prosecution

      Step 7. Work design

      It is possible to design work procedures and workplace layout to minimise the opportunity for abuse to take place, although this is of course only one of the considerations that you must take into account. You do not wish to make these fears the centre of your organisation's work

      Step 8. Training

      You should use the training period to observe the person working in the new situation of the workplace. Inform them of the policies and procedures to do with client protection. This should include those that engender a culture of respect for clients and their rights. If any concerns arise, discuss these with the volunteer.

      Step 9. Supervision and evaluation

      The amount of supervision that is provided will depend on, among other things, the level of risk that has been identified with the position. If there's a comparatively high risk, there needs to be a greater amount of supervision. This, of course, should be integrated, with the supervision necessary to give the person the best possible chance of achieving a successful job outcome.

      Supervision can involve spot audits, checking reports, and monitoring outcomes. Volunteers should be aware that their work is under review. As with any supervision, feedback to the volunteer and evaluation are important. If any concerns arise, discuss these with the volunteer.


      Reporting procedures have two facets: encouraging clients and (paid and unpaid) workers to report incidents to you, and your responsibility to report incidents to the authorities.


      Your procedures should include a recognised way for people to make complaints, about the organisation or about its staff, directly or anonymously. If any concerns arise, discuss these with the volunteer. If there is a credible case, you will need to have a policy in place to ensure a fair but effective investigation, and a procedure for dispute resolution. These are serious matters, and whatever the rights and wrongs they have the potential to be enormously disruptive if not handled properly.

      Mandatory reporting

      Depending on the nature of your organisation and the applicable state law, you may or may not be subject to mandatory reporting of abuse. Check this out. If you are covered, inform staff and volunteers and draw up a reporting protocol that will record each step of the process.

      This area is fraught with difficult ethical questions, and it is advisable to think these through well in advance.


      Mandatory reporting information (all states):