Volunteer Screening – Is it Different from Employment Screening?

Volunteer managers are often thrown into the role of screening volunteers without much prior knowledge of how the background screening process works. Not all volunteer positions require background checks, so even seasoned volunteer managers could go some time without having to deal with them.

When the need arises for background checks – whether it’s due to new types of volunteer positions, new regulations, etc. – they often don’t know where to begin. The question we are often asked during that first call: “Are background checks for volunteers different?”


Employment Screening

The first thing to know about background checks is that they fall within the umbrella of employment screening – a variety of tools used to help make the hiring decision. These can be things like drug tests, assessments, and background checks. Each aspect of employment screening is regulated by various employment and labor laws depending on the type of employment screening – background checks being one of the most heavily regulated.


Volunteers aren’t employees though… most of the time.

In many instances, volunteers that fill positions within your organization will not fit within the definition of an employee. As such, they are not protected by all of the same employment regulations as a paid employee. This is very much dependent on particular volunteer positions and how they fit within the legal criteria of employment (e.g. an unpaid intern isn’t categorized the same way as a food drive volunteer).

One very important thing for you as the volunteer manager to note: The legal requirements for running background checks on volunteers are the same as for employees.

This often comes as a shock to the volunteer managers that I speak with. Not very many of them come from an HR background and are not aware of background screening compliance or the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Even fewer are aware that FCRA regulations for the use of background checks apply to volunteers. The truth is that it does. If your organization isn’t currently following FCRA requirements when running background checks on volunteers, then that needs to change.


FCRA Compliance for Volunteers

The FCRA compliance requirements for running background checks on volunteers are a very lengthy discussion. For the sake of brevity, I can only explain the very basic pieces needed to have a compliant screening program. To get more information on the subject, consider downloading our eBook


  1. Initial Noticeletting your volunteers know that the’ll be required to submit to a background check
  2. Disclosuredisclosing what types of background checks will be run, by whom, and a summary of the volunteer’s rights under state and federal laws
  3. Authorization volunteer acknowledges the disclosure(s) and signs the authorization, permitting you to run a background check on them  
  4. Pre-Adverse Action Noticeif a volunteer has a criminal record in their background check that would preclude them from a position, you must notify them and give them a chance to dispute the information before making an adverse decision
  5. Waiting periodafter giving the Pre-Adverse Action Notice, you must wait a reasonable amount of time to give the volunteer candidate a chance to dispute the information
  6. Adverse Action Noticeonce the waiting period has passed, you may send this notice to tell the volunteer candidate that they have been denied based on the information within the report


Final Thoughts

Once again, I must stress that these are a very simplified representation of the FCRA requirements for background checks on volunteers. Each of these steps have several additional pieces that are needed to make them compliant. If you are unfamiliar with these steps and/or are not currently using them as part of your background screening process, consider consulting with legal counsel. There are plenty of law firms and nonprofit services that can offer the counsel you need for little to no money.

The compliance process may seem daunting to someone new to it. Even organizations with entire legal wings have fallen prey to FCRA lawsuits. The trick is to never assume that your process is compliant without having your processes regularly audited. There are plenty of tools out there to help manage your compliance – consider compliance management software as a possible solution as well.