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Frankenstein (1931)Background checks. They have become a permanent part of our volunteer manager lives. Now, don’t get me wrong, I see the reasons for doing them, but they are not done by our waving the magic wand. Sometimes they don’t even get done for reasons out of our control after we’ve spent a whole bunch of time trying to set them up. Then the volunteer process drags on. And on and on until we forget we have a prospective volunteer or they give up. That’s frustrating for everyone.
See, I come from the early days, before background checks. (“Want to volunteer, fine, step up. I can’t imagine you have anything to hide.”) It makes me think back to one of the first volunteers I had the pleasure of working with, Joe McDermit. Joe was the kind of guy who did whatever he thought necessary, and he had already been volunteering for years when I came on the scene. Joe taught me (or should I say scared me) about the individuality of volunteers. A couple of weeks after I arrived, one of the staff members pulled me aside and said that she had seen Joe driving our patient down the road. “That wasn’t the problem,” she added, “but Joe’s passenger door was missing.” Well, I thought, isn’t this going to be an interesting job?
To be fair, I also remember the day I was talking to a family member and she asked, “are your volunteers back ground checked?” At that point, we had begun conducting the checks, so I could honestly say yes. That felt pretty good and I realized that we were going in the direction our clients needed us to go in. I’ve been privy to criminal records for a long time and they are interesting to read. There’s history, emotion and back story in every one of those reports. I really hate having to tell someone we can’t take them, but risk management is all about, well, risk. However we feel about it, we have to think in terms of liability. (Did you know that your volunteer was jailed for resisting arrest with violence when she hit that client? Hmmmm, explain that one. But she seemed very nice and sincere doesn’t cut it in a lawsuit.)
Fingerprints are another matter. Someone has to actually capture the volunteers’ fingerprints. Did you know that our fingerprints are hard to record when we get older because our skin is drier? Of course you know that. You’ve had those complaints. What if the person conducting the fingerprinting is not nice to the volunteers? What if the fingerprinting person goes on vacation or is back logged? Then volunteers have to wait and they may lose interest. What if they are afraid of what might show and they bring you “proof” that charges from 1988 were bogus? (Sadly, these things don’t go away willingly, the information sticks around to make a life miserable).
I’m thinking that in the future, we will have to do drug screening too. Will this make it difficult for volunteer managers to recruit folks? Probably. I know a volunteer coordinator whose volunteer mentioned that she smokes marijuana occasionally at home and she does not live in Colorado. What to do with no mandatory drug test? What about background psychological information? How about those folks who have spent time in a rehab, or mental facility or are recovering addicts? Will we be testing or searching for that as well?
So, on that note, I’ve decided that when I retire, I’m going to go into the business. I imagine there’s a ton of money to be made in checking out the backgrounds of volunteers. I’m going to call it VolunCleanse, the all-inclusive volunteer background check. I’m going to buy an old tanning bed and refit it with all the equipment I need to guarantee that pesky potentially lawsuit inducing volunteer is clean. Here’s how I envision working with a potential volunteer:
“Hello, Jake, so you want to volunteer at the library, do you? Well, let’s just see whether or not you can pass this highly sensitive cleansing test. Think you can fool the cleanse o meters? Get into this state of the art deception detecting unit and just try to keep information from me. Muahhaaaahaha!”

So, Jake lays down in the tanning bed and the large lid creaks shut. I throw the switch and tell Jake to place his hands on the crackling lid above, thus capturing his fingerprints.
Needles come from the side and his DNA is extracted while his hair is sucked into a hole in the bed and a few strands are pulled out with follicles intact. Oops! Maybe it was more like a clump, but the bleeding is mopped up with a sponge that serves as a specimen. A retinal scan flashes across his face while truth serum is administered into his mouth as he yells “ow”. As the truth serum takes effect, a monitor shows him Rorschach blots and he is instructed to quickly identify each image. A silky voice intermittently asks, “are you sure you don’t see something sinister from your past?” After the serum has settled, Jake is subjected to a series of questions probing his background. A biometric scanner notes how many sweat beads pop up on Jake’s brow. Then Jake is left to recover while some soothing music is played and he drifts off the sleep for a few minutes. At some point in the future, there will be a memory erasing device to wipe away all the unpleasant thoughts from this assault on human dignity. I’ll be charging big money for this service. After all, good volunteers are clean volunteers.
For now, though, we’ll still try to assess volunteers by our old methods, like interviews, observing, and careful cultivation. But at least we won’t have to worry about their past lives, because risk management is here to help. Always minimize the risk.
I’m forced to think of a conversation I had with a thirty something woman who had a mess on her background check. “How’s a person who has changed her life around supposed to catch a break?” she asked me and I had no answer for her. Inside my head, I pictured Joe McDermit cruising down the road with a client hanging out his door. But, you know, those clients absolutely loved Joe and so did I.
I looked at this young woman and knew that if I took her, I would be violating every liability no-no there was. I also knew that I was a part of the society that wasn’t giving her a second chance. I offered her some volunteer work that didn’t involve patients.
Now, I have no say over background results. They go through a large clearing house where trolls in overcoats throw darts at a board for all I know.
Step into the VolunCleanse machine. It knows all, but doesn’t care.