Providing safe and vetted volunteer resources is important for today’s nonprofits and the people they serve. Verified Volunteers was founded three years ago with the goal of transforming the screening process for America’s nonprofits.
Tom Klein, Executive Director of Verified Volunteers, leads the organization’s mission to propel service organizations and nonprofits by empowering volunteers. Prior to launching Verified Volunteers, Tom handled acquisition and business development activities for SterlingBackcheck, one of the largest background screening companies in the world. Previously, he worked for Calera Capital Partners, a leading middle market private equity firm. Tom began his career with Goldman, Sachs & Co. and spent a year with American International Group in Thailand as a Princeton-in-Asia fellow. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and an A.B. from Princeton University, where he graduated magna cum laude. Tom volunteers actively in New York and works closely with Harlem Academy, an independent school serving grades 1-8. Tom is based in New York City.
For years now, Human Resource departments have been running background checks on potential employees. What prompted you to build a company based on verifying volunteers in the nonprofit and social sector?
Statistics tell us that as many as 50% of volunteers give their time and resources to three or four organizations or volunteer programs. If each of these organizations screen their volunteers, this can become extremely frustrating for the individual who wants to serve – and it can delay their onboarding with each organization. This can also become very expensive for nonprofits (or for volunteers if they are expected to pay for their own background screens).
Having identified these problems, we decided to conduct focus groups with nonprofits to learn more about how they were verifying volunteers and the obstacles that nonprofits face when bringing people onboard. We found out a lot. For instance, nonprofits were receiving poor background checks, lacked the tools they needed to perform the checks and were undergoing arduous screening processes.
We wanted to solve these issues – so we reached out to Points of Light, the world’s largest organization focused on volunteer management and problem-solving in the volunteer sector.
Turns out they were actively looking at the feasibility of a concept called a “Fast-Pass,” that would help volunteers move from opportunity to opportunity. Our idea was that a volunteer could be screened once and then use the same background check at multiple volunteering opportunities. Points of Light soon came onboard as our founding partner.
We are also backed by SterlingBackcheck, one of the world’s largest background screening companies; we leverage their background check expertise in technology and compliance to help us fulfill our mission.
With so many different opportunities available, how does your organization help nonprofits and volunteers connect?
Volunteers can use our platform to find volunteer opportunities with organizations that accept Verified Volunteers screens. Once they complete their background check they can share that check with any organization in our community.
This works at the local, regional and national level. Think of it as the LinkedIn of nonprofits and volunteers. Our platform allows volunteers to take their clearance with one organization – to organizations across the fifty states.
Finding verified volunteers has become a critical component for nonprofits. So many people submit applications for volunteer work, but don’t always have a clear background. We hear about scandals and atrocious acts all the time in the news – and people wonder how and why criminal offenders have access to vulnerable communities. It happens easily when volunteers are not vetted. This presents an enormous risk to the nonprofit and to the people they serve.
What are some of the reasons a company or nonprofit would want to run the screening process on potential and existing new hires?
There are many reasons! Preventing risks and ensuring safety is number one.
Without vetting the people who work for them, the nonprofit is susceptible to potential brand damage and liability issues as well. Just as a for-profit company performs background checks, so too should a nonprofit. A bad volunteer hire at a nonprofit is the same as a negligent hire at a corporation.
Is information accessible about everyone who applies and is the process complicated for the volunteer and the nonprofit?
Many people who have volunteered in the past have not gone through a thorough screening process. The quality of the typical search was not great, providing bare bones, outdated information. To be quite honest, that’s because finding any criminal information is a massive task that involves a whole host of different searches. I’ll try to explain why.
Most criminal information is not housed in a federal database but stored at the local level – a state or county courthouse. And to conduct a thorough search, we need to look at several or many localities. Not just where a volunteer lives, but also where they’ve lived, worked or traveled in the past. That takes investigative work. It’s not like what you see on TV. The records are much more segregated than people imagine. For example, the FBI had to go to the county level in South Carolina in order to find out information about the recent church shooter. At first, they searched within the wrong county and didn’t turn up any information.
At this point in time, the federal government does not have a comprehensive way to get a single source of criminal records that are up to date. Local and district county courthouses are where all the records reside. Some states are good about making sure their records are complete and accurate – but not all. Although private companies have databases that sound all encompassing, they are not and you have to search in all the counties where volunteers have lived, worked and traveled.
What are some of the nonprofit campaigns that Verified Volunteers has worked on in the last couple years?
There are many. We work with thousands of volunteer programs.
We are the screening provider for the World Meeting of Families, which includes a visit from the Pope this fall. For that program, we’ve screened over 9,000 volunteers already. Before the project is complete, we will screen 10 – 12,000 volunteers. We launched this project back in March 2015 and it is still going on.
We are also proud that we were the screening provider for the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles in July. That was a huge project with around ten thousand volunteers, mainly from the southern California area.
We work with many organizations that people hear about every day like the Girl Scouts, Meals on Wheels and Catholic Charities.
Youth sports are big for us and sports in general. We are the provider for U.S. Youth Basketball and even the Super Bowl 50 coming up.
What organizations have partnered with you to support the process of verifying volunteers?
We have many partners that we’ve worked closely with in these last years; we partner at the national, regional and local level.
As I mentioned before, Points of Light helped us bring the “Fast-Pass” idea to life. They’ve connected us with many of their local volunteer action centers across the country, which accounts for over 2.6 million volunteers and 236,000 projects. It’s an unbelievable scale.
Other partners like YMCA, Meals on Wheels America, the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies and CASA all work together with us to bring the right people to the right projects. We have a long list of partners you can check out on our website: http://www.verifiedvolunteers.com/About/Partners.aspx.
What should people do if they want to get their name added to Verified Volunteers database?
Often, it’s the nonprofits that make our services a requirement and then volunteers are instructed to be screened through us. If it’s a nonprofit that would like to get in touch with us about screening their potential volunteers then they can go to our website and fill out a form or call us directly. We also have resources available to help people stay informed and find events and webinars about topics relating to volunteer management.
The first step for volunteers who want to work with us directly would be to find us online and look at the information we offer on the volunteer screening process.
With regard to corporations, we do see for-profit companies starting to reach out to us more and more, not for traditional hiring practices screening but for activating employees for volunteer services, which aligns with company corporate social responsibility policies. This is a way that corporations are taking some of the liability and risk out of employee engagement programs and onboarding new community service projects quickly.
Our platform and community of vetted volunteers continues to grow exponentially. We expect that soon we will have the critical mass of organizations and volunteers to offer further value-added services to nonprofit volunteer managers, volunteers and corporations.