Volunteer screening: More than just a police records check

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Volunteerism. It’s a wonderful activity that offers rewards for all involved. Sadly, there is a segment of the population, albeit slight, that sometimes targets nonprofits for criminal activity.

A recent example is the revelation by Scouts Canada in 2011 of documents it kept on pedophiles who had worked for the organization over the decades and who were flagged and subsequently barred from continuing as scout leaders, once caught.

To be fair, starting in 1997 Scouts Canada implemented stringent vetting rules for the more than 23,000 volunteers it engages annually, according to an October 20, 2011 CBC News report. Chief among those screening policies is the mandatory criminal background check.

The story highlighted the need for organizations to conduct thorough background checks on all potential volunteers; particularly those working with vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, to name but a few.

But the use of criminal background checks is just one tool in the greater screening kit available to organizations looking to vet volunteers.

Safety dance

Volunteer Canada recently released its latest edition of The Screening Handbook. Published in March 2012, the document was commissioned by Public Safety Canada in order to help nonprofits improve the safety and quality of programs in communities, and reduce risks and liability.

The organization has been instrumental in setting up a pan-Canadian guideline for screening volunteers and in 1996 began its National Educational Campaign on Screening, which was a key catalyst in the formation of the National Sex Offender Registry.


CharityVillage Live

Interested in learning more about this topic? Replay the CharityVillage LIVE conversation with Volunteer Canada where we talk about the most effective way to screen volunteers, when you need to submit a police records check and what kinds of questions to ask volunteers who will be working with vulnerable populations.


According to Volunteer Canada, screening should be a 10-step process that ensures volunteer involvement meets the needs of the organization, the populations they serve and the volunteers themselves. It’s an ongoing process that helps better match people and organizations, improves the safety and quality of programs, and reduces risks and liability.

Paula Speevak Sladowski, director of programs, policy and applied research at Volunteer Canada, tells CharityVillage that rather than thinking of screening as a way to keep people out, nonprofits should look at it as a way to let the right people in.

“Certainly, screening is about protecting organizations and people from those trying to do them harm. But the idea of broadening the [meaning] of screening is to make it about best matching of people and organizations,” she said. “It’s also about creating a welcoming and inclusive community. This is the nice way to look at screening.”

To serve and protect

As noted above, screening involves much more than police record checks. While police record checks are one of the steps, screening is a comprehensive process that begins long before a volunteer is selected and continues beyond his or her involvement with the organization. That said, a police criminal record check is an essential consideration for screening and is ranked No. 7 on the organization’s 10-step chart.

Once an organization determines it wants police checks for various volunteer positions – or indeed for staffers – Volunteer Canada advises that the following be considered:

  • What type of police check, if any, is required for the position/assignment?
  • Can the assignment begin before the results are received?
  • How will a determination be made about the relevance of police information to the position/ assignment?
  • How often are police checks to be done?

On its website, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) gives background about what it calls a Vulnerable Sector Check [VS check] and gives some examples of occupations that may need these checks. They include: teachers, social workers, daycare workers, nurses and children’s sports coaches.

“A VS check is initiated by the local police in the jurisdiction where you live. Not all paid or volunteer positions require this type of check, so your prospective employer or organization should tell you what information you need to bring with you for police to start the check,” the RCMP says. “The police will use the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) system as well as their own database to conduct a background search based on your name, gender and date of birth.”

Nonprofits, take note: if you are working with volunteers and vulnerable populations, it behooves you to consider using such a check as part of a comprehensive array of screening methods. Different provincial and municipal police services across the country may have slightly different procedures for VS checks, but they are all fairly similar.

The Toronto Police Service for example, will only conduct a VS Check when the individual and organizations comply with the following criteria:

When “the agency with whom you want to work or volunteer (if you are requesting a reference check through an agency) certifies to the Service that it:

  • Is only requesting the reference check for the purpose of assisting it to determine your suitability for employment and/or volunteer duties because you will have direct contact with children or vulnerable persons;
  • Will only ask for a police reference check to be done after it has completed an initial review of your suitability and has tentatively selected you for employment or a volunteer opportunity;
  • Understands its obligations under the Human Rights Code with respect to evaluating, hiring and training volunteers or employees and what constitutes a “bona fide” reason for refusing to hire any individual or volunteer; and
  • Has paid the necessary fee to the Service.
  • You have signed a written authorization permitting a reference check about yourself to be conducted (called a “Consent to Disclosure” form).”

It’s important to note that while the VS Check is a relatively uniform procedure across the nation, regular police reference check policies and forms may differ substantially from municipality to municipality and province to province. The major differentiation between local police services checks and that of the RCMP’s VS check is that the latter requires fingerprinting to positively identify an applicant. (This is to eliminate any confusion resulting from turning up a same name).

A game of risk

With regards specifically to background and vulnerable sector checks, Speevak Sladowski said while historically, organizations tended to equate screening with police checks, this view is changing. It’s now being viewed as part of an overall process, she said.

But do nonprofits and the clients they serve actually become safer as a result of background checks and screening?

“Yes, in many ways,” she answered. “If you look at screening more broadly and [an organization] begins with assessing the position being offered...as a framework for assessing risks, you ask four questions: who is the participant and are they vulnerable? What is the nature of the activity? What is the setting? And finally, what is the level of supervision? If you look through those criteria and assess what the risks might be, you can actually adapt a program that reduces risk.”

As an example, Speevak Sladowski said if you take a tutoring program where a volunteer picked up a student from school to take home to tutor, an organization can instead mandate the tutoring session take place in a library to mitigate risks in that way.

But the question remains, should all organizations that have some dealing with vulnerable sector individuals automatically default to conducting background police checks on volunteers?

“Rather than simply saying that the ultimate level of screening is doing a police records check, organizations really need to see what is a bona fide requirement of a [volunteer] position to see what you’re concerned about,” she said.

In doing so, a number of benefits accrue to both the organization and to the public at large, Speevak Sladowski said.

Firstly, nonprofits that carefully consider screening options and choose only to ask for police checks when necessary will help alleviate backlogs in the law enforcement system.

Generally speaking, criminal record checks used to take up to four months to process, though the waiting time has been reduced through digital fingerprinting files and technology, and by more rigorous self-assessment by nonprofits, according to Speevak Sladowski.

Nonprofits who critically assess the position needing a volunteer and whether that position would require a background check, will, by virtue of that process, help eliminate unnecessary police checks.

Important to note as well is that police record checks for volunteers are not automatically granted. Police services and RCMP ask that the volunteer fill out the reason for application for the check. Once it is determined that the volunteer position being sought has a vulnerable sector component directly tied to it, only then will the check be conducted. Otherwise, the Federal and Provincial Human Rights Acts can make it unlawful for organizations to discriminate against anyone with a pardoned or suspended criminal record.

Open your screen door

What about your organization? Care to share any stories about screening or background checks that have affected the way your nonprofit or charity engages volunteers?


Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf is president of WordLaunch professional writing services in Toronto. He can be reached at andy@wordlaunch.com.

Photos (from top) via iStockphoto. All photos used with permission.

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