Volunteers are often considered precious currency for a nonprofit organization. Donating their time and skills, they help organizations serve the often vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly or disabled, they aim to assist.
Verified Volunteers, started in 2012 and connected to the 40-year background screening veteran Sterling Infosystems, is working to help those organizations create a more readily available, reliable and affordable volunteer base.
Lee Sherman, president and CEO of the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies (AJFCA), said that he often hears from member agencies that conducting background screenings is a big expense in both time and money. So when AJFCA was approached by Verified Volunteers to become a strategic partner, he saw an opportunity to eliminate mounds of paperwork, long waiting periods and the time and dollar investment on the part of resource-limited nonprofits.
“It’s all about finding ways to free our agencies up to do more of the needed work that they do,” said Sherman. “If there are tools out there that help them do that, we try to bring them to our network. And we think [Verified Volunteers] is a tool that can do that.”
Background checks can be a barrier to some volunteers as well, explained Tom Klein, executive director at Verified Volunteers, which draws on the work of 20 employees across the country. The wait time to participate, combined with the prospect of repeated background checks if volunteering with more than one organization, can add to volunteers’ frustration levels and provide incentives to quit.
“We didn’t purposely know we were getting into this,” said Klein. “We heard the call from the grassroots sector and saw the problem was endemic to the entire sector, whether it was a mentor organization, a youth sports group or a volunteer manager at a museum, homeless shelter or food bank. Wherever it was we saw similar problems and saw general unhappiness with the status quo [of background screening].”
Early on in its research phase, Verified Volunteers partnered with the Points of Light Foundation, which had been conducting similar research at the same time, said Klein. Points of Light provides access to resources for approx- imately 250 volunteer centers across the country and was looking for a way to eliminate repeated screenings, allow information to be shared across organizations and generally streamline the screening system. In 2012, at a Points of Light conference, attendees met these suggestions with a standing ovation, recalled Klein.
“In the past 10 years as nonprofit organizations have grown, the screening process has overwhelmed them,” said Klein. “It’s a huge budget suck, full of paper, bad checking services and overlap from one organization to another.”
When an organization partners with Verified Volunteers, it provides a thorough background screening for individuals obtainable at three levels of prices ranging from about $10 to $40 each, said Klein. Reports include criminal history and sex offender- based background checks, and as the level increases, reports draw on an increasing number of criminal locators.
“There are 3,500 counties, thousands of sheriff’s offices, 50 states,” said Klein. “For instance at Level 3, we’ll look at an entire address history, look at every county courthouse, alias name searches, we also look at where you work and play — so we go well beyond the local environment.”
When a nonprofit signs on with Verified Volunteers, a prospective volunteer first must agree to submit to the background check. The individual is then granted access to an online portal, where he or she inputs required personal information and is often given the option to pay the fee for the screening. Verified Volunteers conducts the background screening and delivers the information to the applicant and the nonprofit simultaneously. Typical turn around is a couple of days — some reports come back in a few hours, “thanks to all of our data pipelines into the courthouses in America,” said Klein.
The individual’s information can then be shared with other organizations he or she chooses to volunteer with, at no additional cost to either party, for up to one year. During that year all of the checks are updated monthly, and Verified Volunteers alerts organizations of any changes.
Klein compared the service to the online site LinkedIn, where the service becomes stronger and more valuable as more organizations — and ultimately individuals — join.
An early member is Raul Roman of UBELONG, the Washington, D.C.-based “international volunteering and talent development organization that brings people together across borders to collaborate for the common good.”
When Roman heard about Verified Volunteers and met Klein at the Points of Light Institute national conference on volunteerism, he said, “Tom, you and I need to talk right now.”
Roman and UBELONG established a partnership with Verified Volunteers about five months ago. Roman said that last year his organization had 1,000 volunteers; this year, it’s on track to enlist about twice as many.
“Time is money, and we’re saving lots of time,” said Roman. “Before we spent lots of time worrying about that, we wanted to make sure the background checks were of quality and were standardized. Considering how different states’ regulations are in the U.S., we were concerned about it.”
Roman said his volunteer feedback is that the service is fast, easy and thorough. Roman added, “Verified is professional and client oriented, so if there’s any problem in the system they jump in and solve it.”
Ashley Pressman is executive director at Jewish Volunteer Connection, which serves as a clearinghouse to match volunteers with opportunities in Baltimore and Israel. JVC places about 2,000 volunteers a year. Pressman recently received a pitch about the Verified Volunteers service from Jennie Gates-Beckman, director of volunteer strategy and Repair the World programming aimed at young Jewish adults. Gates-Beckman also collaborates with AJFCA.
Pressman happened to be at the same Points of Light conference in 2012 in Chicago where the idea of a streamlined background screening process was first brought up.
“The place erupted,” recalled Pressman. “Now, two years later here is that service.
“It seems like a really great system,” she added. “Once you screen, you own your [individual] info. You only have to be screened once. So people can share info, and there are a lot of volunteers that serve in multiple organizations. … The biggest appeal is that you can share information, and it allows a person to volunteer with more than one organization easily.”