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What is the great question of the ages? Forget about “What is the meaning of life?” Pffft to “is there life on other planets?” Is that all you got to “What really happened to those adorable dinosaurs?”  And finally, oh puh-lease to “Is Spam really a food product?”

Here is the question of the ages: Can we possibly make it any harder for people to volunteer?

I thought about this a while back as I chuckled along with this video from musician and songwriter, Dave Carroll: There’s Got to Be a Better Way

In this clever video, Mr. Carroll laments the extra crazy legal steps he has to endure in order to volunteer at his son’s school. Somehow, he shares a birthday with a person who has a criminal record, so, well, you know how that can go. He tries to have his fingerprints taken at a local police department and of course, the LiveScan equipment fails to capture a clear reading, so they advise him to go home and put lotion on his hands while wearing gloves to bed. Mr. Carroll takes that advice to the extreme and tells himself, “it’s for the kids.”

It’s really a cute video and the hilarity illuminates how frustrating and seemingly ridiculous it can be for someone who just wants to volunteer. Or wait, let’s amend that: For someone who doesn’t have ulterior motives who just wants to volunteer.

And there you have it. We, volunteer managers, especially those of us who regularly deal with background checks, fingerprinting and drug testing, understand that all the time spent on these legal requirements adds hours to our workweek. But we plod on because we are working to protect our vulnerable populations. And frankly, background checks are here to stay, unlike the vacuous idea that volunteers sit around breathlessly awaiting our calls. (Pick your battles.)

The question, “Can we possibly make it any harder for people to volunteer” has an answer. Yes, we can, and probably will. For any organization that does not yet require volunteers to submit to background checks, enjoy yourselves while it lasts. The first time an unchecked volunteer does something bad, you will be instructed by a senior manager with pulsating temples to institute this requirement. Most likely, we are not going to make it easier to volunteer. So, what do we do?

Explaining the whys of background checks goes a long, long way to assure prospective volunteers that we are not suspicious of them, not unduly peering into their private lives, and not trying to keep them from volunteering. Using verbiage that focuses on the vulnerability of our clients moves the emphasis from volunteer hindrance to client protection. A few ways of framing this shift in focus are:

  • Would you want us to allow just anyone off the street to volunteer with your child?
  • If we placed a volunteer with your elderly or sick grandmother, would you want us to be certain that this person is completely vetted?
  • When you donate money to help a cause, are you comfortable with random persons handling your money?
  • If just one out of a hundred volunteers is here for nefarious reasons, what if that one volunteer is alone with your son, or daughter?
  • In a perfect world, everyone volunteers because they want to help. But we don’t live in a perfect world, do we?
  • If you, or your loved one needed our help, what would you want us to do to make sure our volunteers have altruistic motivations?

Life for volunteer managers would include tea breaks if we weren’t required to make our new volunteers jump through so many hoops. The enormous time and effort we spend on interviewing, checking backgrounds, training and explaining rules and regulations heaps hour upon hour of getting things right.

But no matter how cumbersome vetting volunteers can be, the time and effort spent cleaning up a mess created by an unchecked, untrained volunteer who has done harm to our clients is vastly greater and more importantly, will shake our faith in our ability to provide the best volunteer care.

So the next time a prospective volunteer is asked to complete a background check, think about explaining the whys to them. Because, just as Dave Carroll said,  it really is for the kids.