Each summer, thousands of volunteers join with employees at youth-centered nonprofit organizations – running sports camps, leading Vacation Bible School programs, and providing childcare. Throughout the rest of the year, nonprofits regularly rely on both paid staff and volunteers as the bedrock of their religious, educational, and charitable programs. Before serving in these positions, many applicants consent to background checks – perhaps by signing an application with only a sentence-long disclosure or by checking a box to mark their assent. Although these background checks may appear to be simply another administrative step, they are an important element for nonprofits to minimize liability and to make wise hiring decisions. What background checks are warranted, and how should a nonprofit proceed in carrying them out? This article explains key distinctions and provides important guidance for handling background checks.
Criminal Background Checks
Criminal background checks are integral for hiring employees and selecting volunteers to work with children or other vulnerable populations. An organization may be held liable under a "negligent hiring" or "negligent retention" legal theory for harm resulting from a person for whom a criminal background check was warranted but not performed. Accordingly, nonprofit leaders should consider conducting background checks on a broad scope. Background checks may vary in terms of time (how many years to check), geography (which states to check, federal checks), and cost, so organizations should follow discernible “industry standard” guidelines as much as possible.