Part 1: The Case for Screening
Volunteers are an integral part of the Boroondara community and the duties that they undertake are worth many thousands of dollars. Even groups that have the capacity to pay staff need volunteers to perform many of the tasks.
No organisation wants its staff or volunteers to be at any risk – and neither does it want anybody to be at risk from your staff.
It's best to consider volunteers as staff, even if they're unpaid staff, because if you think of them that way you're thinking of them the way the law does. Your organisation has recruited them, you've given them the authority of your organisation, and you've put them in contact with the public or put them to work within your organisation with a task to do. You're responsible for them and although they are giving of their time for free, there are a number of responsibilities you have to your volunteers. In turn they also must observe the rules, regulations and certain levels of behaviour expected of your organisation.
And there are additional difficulties involved in working with volunteers that you don't encounter with paid staff. The obvious difficulties are:
It is your job to overcome these difficulties and to find tasks that sit with the level of involvement and competence of your volunteers.
- they are not paid, and thus have no financial incentive to do what you say;
- they may not stay for long, and so it's not financially sensible to give them intensive training; and
- they have not had to undergo a competitive selection procedure, and so are of unknown competence.
Assessing the risk
There are many jobs involved in community organisations that have little possible downside and where even if mistakes are made, they are of a minor nature.
At the other end of the scale, the actions (or inactions) of volunteers can have some extraordinarily destructive effects – when organisations fail to adequately supervise people working with children, for example. When a volunteer is independently in a position of responsibility over vulnerable groups in our society there can be no argument that they must measure up to the highest standards.
For community organisations, the chance of volunteers causing serious problems is extremely rare; there is no need to panic, or to lose perspective, or to inflate the problem.
When things do go wrong, however, they can go spectacularly wrong, and if you're dealing with a very small chance of a very large damage it's sensible to take reasonable precautions. You want to have procedures in place that as far as possible cover your clients and your organisation from avoidable risks without chilling or discouraging recruitment.
A standard screening process for volunteer recruits is a good way of checking up on possible volunteers without embarrassment or risk of losing their support.
Why do we need to screen?
You need to think about screening because:
- You're going to be assessing prospective volunteers to see if they fit the needs of your organisation – to see whether they're competent, whether they get along with people, whether they have the skills you're looking for and fit the position description. You need to assess their trustworthiness as part of the process.
- You never know. All sorts of people can do wrong things. There can be no real guarantees about anybody, whether they've been screened or not. However, if a volunteer does go wrong and you didn't screen, then your organisation could be prosecuted and sued; your public liability insurers will want an explanation, as will the press and your supporters.
- In some Australian states, in some situations, the law says you have to. Even where there's no specific legislation, you have a duty of care to the people you have dealings with, and that means you must exercise reasonable care with respect to their interests, including protecting them from harm.
- It protects all volunteers. Prospective volunteers will want assurance that all volunteers working for your organisation have previously been screened. They want to feel comfortable that existing volunteers are trustworthy, just as existing volunteers want to know the same thing about them.
How much screening do we need to do?
This depends on the possible risk to others. Areas of possible concern are:
Dealing with money
If a volunteer is handling money, you will want to know that they will leave it as they found it and will not divert it sideways. Some money handling is relatively small scale and low risk – shaking the tin, for example, while some, banking cheques for example, is larger scale and therefore higher risk.
Calculate the level of risk for your organisation and ensure that you put in place risk minimisation strategies such as a well-documented and appropriately supervised set of financial procedures.
Sensitive information and intellectual property
If the volunteer is going to be able to access confidential personal data or your organisation's intellectual property, you'll need to be confident that they will observe the organisation's privacy and confidentiality policies. It is worthwhile having all people working in your organisation, both paid staff and volunteers, sign a confidentiality agreement.
Positions of trust
If a volunteer is placed in a position of trust by the organisation – a position where he or she is in authority (formal or informal) over another person in an ongoing relationship, then this presents the (remote) possibility of abuse. A position of trust implies that the volunteer has some degree of power over the client and that the relationship is unequal.
Ensure that all members of your organisation understand your equal opportunity and harassment policies. (Visit the Policy Bank at www.ourcommunity.com.au/policybank
if you don't have these policies in place already.)
If the volunteer is dealing with vulnerable clients, he or she will need to satisfy stricter standards. Clients are vulnerable if they have difficulty protecting themselves and are at greater risk of harm than the general population. Clients may be vulnerable because of their age, because they have a disability or a handicap, or because of their circumstances. Vulnerability may be a temporary or a permanent condition. This definition is fairly broad, including (among other groups) children, youth, older people, people with physical, developmental, social, emotional, or other disabilities, and people who have been victims of trauma, crime or torture.
This is the first part of a two-part help sheet. For information about how to move volunteer screening from the theoretical to the practical, read Part 2.
Click here for more help sheets.