Volunteers with Violent Pasts: Considerations for California Nonprofits

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California nonprofit organizations often rely on volunteers to support their mission. Volunteers with criminal pasts, especially those involving violence, pose special challenges and concerns. Most organizations don’t want to permanently exclude volunteers who made mistakes a long time ago, but caution can be warranted in some situations.

Consider the risks of accepting volunteers

Like any human failing, a person’s violent past needn’t disqualify them from doing volunteer work. Someone who served jail time for a drunken brawl thirty years ago but who today is responsible and nonviolent is unlikely to be a special risk to an organization. But unknowingly allowing a registered sex offender to do volunteer work can be a serious mistake, especially if the volunteer commits a sexual assault while on the job.

Part of evaluating the risk involved in working with volunteers is taking into consideration the kind of work they’ll be doing. Considerations may differ between someone who only packs food boxes in a group setting and someone who will be left alone with children. A long-term volunteer’s suitability may need to be reevaluated as his or her role evolves. It’s generally considered a good practice to apply the same standard to all employees, in part to avoid discrimination concerns.

Using background checks to protect the organization

Conducting a background check on prospective employees and volunteers can be an important part of protecting the organization from significant risk. A “background check” can include a range of different searches of public records, some of which can be conducted for free, and many of which require a volunteer’s consent. Checks can include:

  • Criminal background checks. In California a criminal background check will reveal convictions for felonies and most misdemeanors within the last seven years that have not been expunged through a pardon, or kept secret by court order. A check can be conducted at the state and federal levels, and may need to be conducted in other states if the person has moved around. Note that the results of a person’s criminal background check must be kept confidential.
  • Credit checks. A credit check will reveal if someone has declared bankruptcy or had other significant financial problems in the past. A volunteer’s financial history may be relevant if he or she will handle significant sums of money for the organization.
  • Sex offender list. The State of California provides an online tool for screening individuals against the state’s registered sex-offender list.

The Church Law Center of California helps nonprofits with governance

The Church Law Center of California helps religious, secular, and political nonprofits organize and operate in accord with best practices. We are happy to help any nonprofit improve its approach to working with volunteers. Call us at (949) 892-1221 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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