Screening volunteers in 10 steps

Screening volunteers is a key step in your recruitment process. You should also screen volunteers whenever they want to take on new duties involving vulnerable clients. Screening ensures an optimal match and enhances the quality and safety of the programs and services your organization offers.

Screening volunteers is a key step in the recruitment process. You should also screen volunteers whenever they want to take on new duties involving vulnerable clients, even if you know a volunteer very well. Screening can prevent some unpleasant surprises, but it can't predict everything. What screening does best is ensure an optimal match and enhance the quality and safety of the programs and services your organization offers.

Screening is an ongoing process that aims to identify anyone—volunteers and employees alike—who could harm your organization's viability or the individuals it employs and serves. Screening is not fail-safe, but it does help create a safer, more reassuring environment.

Screening is part of your duty of care, a legal principle that requires that individuals and organizations take reasonable measures to care for and protect their clients in accordance with applicable standards. This is a legal and moral obligation. Duty of care is a common law principle supported by municipal, provincial, federal and international bodies.

Organizations must protect:

  • individuals (clients, volunteers, employees)
  • their property (physical, information, intellectual)
  • their income (finances, gifts, grants, contracts)
  • their reputation (public trust, credibility)
  • themselves against third party liability (negligence, criminal offences)

Screening volunteers in 10 steps

Step 1 - Assess the risk the volunteer position entails

Risk level varies by position. Assessing risk is especially important for organizations that work with vulnerable individuals like children, teens, persons with disabilities and seniors, so you need to estimate the risk associated with each volunteer position. Organizations are required to protect their volunteers and employees as well as their clients.

5 questions for assessing the risk a volunteer position entails

  • Are the clients considered vulnerable?
  • Does the nature of the relationship make them vulnerable?
  • Does the nature of the activity make them vulnerable?
  • Does the context or environment in which the activity takes place make them vulnerable?
  • Does the level of supervision make them vulnerable?

Step 2 - Job description

Key risk management aspects to be included in a job description:

  • Job requirements (knowledge of clients or desired approach, length of commitment, sex, age, etc.)
  • Limitations (no driving, no physical contact with clients, etc.)
  • Orientation, training and supervision policies (matching and trial period, work training, group setting, frequent supervision, etc.)
  • Reference check
  • Criminal background check

Step 3 - Recruitment

The recruitment plan and practices must be carefully thought through and clearly communicated. Recruitment strategies must reflect:

  • the organization's vision and mission
  • the importance of inclusion, openness and transparency
  • the general job requirements
  • the opportunities and benefits
  • the candidate screening protocol

Step 4 - Volunteer application form

A standardized volunteer application form must be used for all volunteer positions and assignments that:

  • require basic information for application processing
  • require answers to questions directly related to the job requirements
  • are subject to human rights laws
  • require that the applicant provide references and give his or her consent
  • require his or her permission to run a criminal background check, if applicable

Step 5 - Interview

You usually look at 4 criteria:

  • personality (attitude)
  • procedural knowledge (skills)
  • compatibility with the organization
  • motivation

It is crucial that you tailor the interview to the risk associated with any volunteer position that:

  • requires contact with vulnerable clients
  • involves access to the organization's financial and physical resources
  • entails access to confidential information
  • puts the volunteer in a position of trust or authority

Step 6 - Reference check

Depending on the job requirements and applicable human rights, privacy and freedom of information laws, you may have to check an applicant's references. You must obtain the applicant's written consent.

A few tips

  • Introduce yourself and your organization
  • Describe the position and the job requirements
  • For positions that entail risk, explain the degree of client vulnerability
  • Ask open-ended questions and record the applicant's answers
  • Always check more than 1 reference

Step 7 - Criminal background check

Depending on your policies, your legal obligations and the risk associated with the position, you may have to run a criminal background check on the applicant. To be fair and fulfill your duty of care, managers should follow the same screening procedure for volunteers already involved in the organization who want to take on a new position entailing risk.

Criminal background checks look for the following offences: physical or sexual abuse; theft; fraud; possession, use or trafficking of drugs or illegal substances; moving violations; or any other act that could pose a threat to vulnerable individuals. All charges, convictions and orders on an individual's criminal record that are incompatible with the position are reviewed.

Step 8 - Orientation and training

Orientation and training can be done as a group or on an individual basis to communicate information and continue to assess the skill level of selected applicants.

A few tips

Orientation deals with:

  • the organization's history, mission and vision
  • the basics of the volunteer's commitment and the organization's policies and practices
  • the main programs and services

Training deals with:

  • specific tasks, necessary skills and logistical aspects of the position (at the beginning)
  • updates and new training (ongoing)

Step 9 - Support and supervision

Ongoing support and supervision are essential to ensure that assignments are mutually beneficial, to maintain and enhance the quality and safety of programs and services, and to reduce risk and liability.

A few tips

  • Do spot checks
  • Provide ongoing, informal follow-up to assess the volunteer and his or her commitment
  • Take the time to do a formal evaluation
  • Don't hesitate to tweak, change or discontinue an assignment if client safety is threatened or if the volunteer seems unhappy with the assignment

Step 10 - Follow-up and communication

You must follow up with clients and their family members to ensure the quality of the match, programs and services as well as to ensure sound liability and risk management.

A few tips

  • Schedule regular visits to follow up with clients
  • Give volunteers and clients the procedure to follow and the name and contact information of the person to contact if they have questions or concerns
  • Write a report for each incident
  • Document all measures taken in response to incidents, complaints and comments

To learn more about engaging and screening volunteers, see the Volunteer Canada website.