The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

Top Trends in Volunteering and Volunteer Screening

Top Trends in Volunteering and Volunteer Screening

What motivates someone to volunteer for your nonprofit? How many hours a month do volunteers give to their favorite organizations? And how can we ensure volunteers and the populations they serve are safe? These are all questions you may ask when evaluating your volunteer programs. The trends around volunteerism in the United States change all the time, as do the trends around screening, vetting, and rescreening volunteers. In a primary research study conducted by Verified Volunteers, more than 350 nonprofit organizations throughout the country were surveyed to see where they stand when it comes to their volunteer screening programs. The resulting report, Verified Volunteers Volunteer Screening Trends & Best Practices Report 2016, reveals several key trends and answers to your most pressing questions. 

Volunteering: Different Motivators for Different Demographics

The volunteer pool in the United States is nearly evenly broken down between 35-54 year olds (33 percent), 18-34 year olds (28 percent), and those 55 and older (34 percent). Roles exist for volunteers of all ages, so perhaps the real question is not who is volunteering, but why. What motivates each individual or group to volunteer? Are they motivated by  specific causes, or are they simply looking to give back to their communities?

Research respondents were asked what motivates different age groups to volunteer. Some 75 percent believe—based on their own experiences—that younger volunteers (those 35 and under) are interested in volunteer roles that leverage the skills they have learned in school or in their jobs—skills-based volunteering. On the other hand, volunteers aged 55 and older are less interested in using specific skills. They simply want to serve the community in any capacity, say 80 percent of research respondents.

Understanding what compels volunteers to give their time is extremely valuable when developing recruitment and retention strategies. Although each individual volunteer is different, the research indicates that nonprofits might find more success if they recruit millennials with “professional” volunteer opportunities—perhaps pro bono marketing or accounting work. Volunteer opportunities for retirees need not be so specific to skill sets. They will be compelled to volunteer in whatever way their community needs—anything from packing boxes for a food drive to planting trees.

Frequency of Volunteering

The Verified Volunteers research report shows that 61 percent of volunteers are frequent volunteers who return regularly to assist the organizations they volunteer with. These frequent volunteers contribute an average of 29 hours per month, and 2.5 percent of volunteers dedicates more than 40 hours per month.

These are positive statistics that have a lot to do with the sample of survey respondents. The participants all rely heavily on volunteers to help them fulfill their missions—not all nonprofit organizations do. Because they follow such a volunteer-driven model, they have likely designed very clear and recurring volunteer roles and put in place the necessary systems and supports to maintain that level of intensity—from recruiting to placement to ongoing training and reinforcement. What does this mean? Survey respondents may be benefitting from a higher proportion of frequent volunteers than the majority of volunteer organizations in the country.

Indeed, many nonprofits report anecdotally that they find more and more people are unable to make a high level of commitment to a given cause and tend to look for other, more flexible ways to make a difference. If nonprofits want to continue to attract volunteers, programs must rethink their volunteer opportunities and make it easier for individuals with busy work and family schedules to contribute.

Screening Motivators

Screening is no longer a “nice to have”; it’s the norm among volunteer organizations in the United States. The top reasons volunteer organizations screen their volunteers are consistent. Some 88 percent want to ensure a safe and secure environment. Some 85 percent want to protect their constituents and vulnerable populations. Some 78 percent want to protect their organizations’ reputation.

Not too long ago, it was primarily just the mentoring sector, or those working with vulnerable populations overall, who thought they needed to screen. Now, 57.4 percent of organizations conduct background checks on all volunteers before they are brought on board.

On the flip side, 42 percent of organizations are still screening just some volunteers, which is a mammoth risk. When you screen just some volunteers, you are risking your assets and reputation as well as your people and their safety. You can become the victim of fraud or theft, find yourself on the wrong side of a lawsuit, or see your ability to fundraise and qualify for grants dwindle. Organizations that continue to screen only a portion of their volunteers should reconsider their policies and think through what they are risking if they do not put a more comprehensive screening program in place.

Outsourcing Screening

Outsourcing is the most efficient way to conduct background screens. Nearly 7 in 10 organizations are now using an external third-party service provider to conduct background checks. They realize that third-party providers are the experts on hiring and screening compliance and can process background checks more quickly and with a greater level of accuracy. Still, 3 in 10 organizations continue to use in-house resources or go directly to a government source. This practice causes an unnecessary administrative burden for organizations and leaves the organization on the hook for lawsuits should they negligently fail to follow one of the many changing regulations and laws around screening. Plus, if a volunteer manager is running the check him- or herself, he or she likely is not getting the most comprehensive, robust, and up-to-date screen possible.

Multiple Checks

Many organizations now realize that no single screen or search is complete. Each one—conducted alone—has many gaps. This is true of even the FBI's National Crime Information Center. A truly comprehensive check must consist of several searches layered on top of one another in order to fill as many of the gaps as possible. Based on the research conducted by Verified Volunteers, on average, each organization now uses four different types of background checks. Nine in 10 organizations conduct criminal record checks, 86 percent use a sex offender search, and over half use Identity Verification.

There Are Still Misperceptions

Many organizations are now in agreement that they need multiple layers of checks in order to get a comprehensive picture of a current or prospective volunteer. Still, there are many misperceptions when it comes to screening. Nationwide or multistate databases arguably cause the most confusion. A third of organizations have never heard of nationwide database searches. But, because the name sounds so inclusive, most agree that they must be accurate, up-to-date, and thorough.

Unfortunately, perception doesn’t always match reality. There are many instant nationwide and multistate database searches available, but none of them can provide a comprehensive criminal record check. Nationwide database searches are valuable when used as one component of a criminal record check, as they can help identify crimes that occur outside of the volunteer's residential jurisdiction, but all hits found as part of a nationwide or multistate database search must be validated at the primary source of information (the county or state courthouse).

Fingerprinting as a comprehensive screening tool is another major misperception. In certain states, fingerprint searches are everywhere, but overall, fingerprinting is not as common as you might think. Eight in 10 organizations do not use fingerprinting at all. That’s because, contrary to popular belief, fingerprinting is not the most reliable criminal record check. Fingerprint checks, in reality, rely on a contributory database, which may be outdated and unreliable compared to name-based checks.

So who should be fingerprinted? If it’s required in a given state or by another governing body, an organization must continue to fingerprint. If it’s not required, a more reliable check should be implemented, as fingerprinting is expensive, time-consuming, and does not leave you with a complete or accurate picture.

Top Four Trends for 2016

The Verified Volunteers Volunteer Screening Trends & Best Practices Report 2016 asked questions around respondents’ intentions for 2016. What were their plans for changing or improving their screening program? Below are the top four:

  • Screening more volunteers
  • Improving integration between screening and other tools
  • Performing rescreening
  • Adding new searches

These are encouraging trends that all lead toward safer, more progressive volunteer programs across the country.

About Verified Volunteers 2016 Volunteer Screening Trends & Best Practices Report

This report offers essential insights on the practices, challenges, and concerns of organizations that rely on dedicated volunteers. Researched and produced by Verified Volunteers, the first-of-its-kind platform for volunteer background screening, the report includes responses from 352 professionals surveyed in May 2015.

katie-zwetig-125x175.jpgThe preceding is a guest post by Katie Zwetzig, executive director of Verified Volunteers. Katie is excited to lead the revolutionary change Verified Volunteers is bringing to the nonprofit and volunteer industry. She has been at the forefront of the screening industry for the last 14 years and founded her own background screening company, Tandem Select. Katie holds an MA in Marketing from Colorado State University and a BA in Finance and Marketing from The University of Colorado. Katie feels strongly that nonprofits and volunteerism are at the heart of strong communities. She is a dedicated volunteer, sitting on many boards and committees in Northern Colorado. She is based in Ft. Collins, Colorado, where she lives with her husband and three daughters. For more information, visit or contact

Topics: Volunteer Screening Volunteer Management