Nonprofits Need to Do More to Vet Volunteers

Nonprofit groups that don't run background checks on volunteers may find themselves vulnerable to theft and abuse, not to mention negative publicity resulting from the actions of unscrupulous individuals, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.

Last month, for example, a Red Cross volunteer in Dallas was charged with stealing debit cards the charity had earmarked for victims of Hurricane Katrina, while earlier in the year a volunteer at a children's cancer foundation in Denver was accused of embezzling $12,000 from the organization and volunteers at the San Diego Food Bank were accused of walking off with bags of donations for their own use. These and other cases nationwide are drawing increasing attention to a growing problem confronting the charities: vetting volunteers.

With an estimated 84 million adults in the United States volunteering some 15 billion hours a year, many organizations are understandably reluctant to invest the time, money, and resources necessary to do background checks. "Unfortunately, the criminal element will target nonprofit organizations, even outside of natural disasters, knowing they don't have the same level of safeguards and internal controls that a business would have," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the Chicago-based American Institute of Philanthropy.

Moreover, the potential for abuse has grown, as nonprofits increasingly are called upon to deliver social services, disaster relief, and other critical programs, with much of the work performed by volunteers. In the case of the Red Cross, which has a nationwide policy of ordering background checks on volunteers, such safeguards were not enough to prevent the alleged theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars in hurricane relief funds by temporary call-center staff hired through a Florida-based subcontractor. Spherion, the company that provided the temporary staff, said it works with every client to draw up employee-screening standards for a specific job, but "given the special circumstances and urgent need, all background checks could not be conducted."

AIP's Borochoff said a certain amount of theft and abuse is inevitable when charities are responsible for distributing so much money on such short notice. "The charities are in a difficult balancing act," he added. "The public needs to understand there's going to be some waste."

Jeff McDonald. "Nonprofits Find It Hard to Vet Their Volunteers." San Diego Union-Tribune 01/01/2006.