Charities depend on volunteers. However, they have conflicting needs when it comes to those volunteers. They must recruit volunteers by being friendly and welcoming. But on the other hand, charities also need to be careful about choosing those volunteers.
There are many horror stories about inadequately vetted volunteers harming a nonprofit's clients, especially when there are at-risk populations such as children or the elderly.
To protect the organization and volunteers, a volunteer application should be one of the first steps in your volunteer recruitment process.
Safeguards to Consider (What to Watch Out For)
Your organization, including its staff and board members, could be held responsible for illegal acts of volunteers unless there are adequate safeguards and supervision. Also, volunteers could be personally liable should they cause injury in the course of their volunteer work.
Safeguards against liability that accompany incorporation, umbrella insurance policies, and federal and state laws protect nonprofits up to a point, but only if organizations perform due diligence.
That due diligence starts with the volunteer application.
What to Include on a Volunteer Application
It is tough sometimes to put volunteers who only want to help through the hassle of background checks and application forms, but this is an issue that should not be neglected.
Make it Friendly
You can quickly make your application friendlier and welcoming for volunteers by writing some introductory paragraphs that explain what your organization does, its mission, who you serve, and the contributions of your many volunteers.
Putting some of this information into an employee handbook can help keep your application form from becoming too long and daunting. Provide a link to your handbook on your application.
Summarize some of the roles your volunteers fulfill, the training they receive, and how you make volunteering fun. After all, you want to recruit energized and happy volunteers. Your application will ask for some pretty serious information, so start with a friendly face.
Collect the Most Vital Information
Nonprofits should check with legal counsel about necessary safeguards and help draft or approve the volunteer application form.
Those forms vary from organization to organization but typically include at least some of the following components. Pick and choose elements depending on the nature of your work and the population you serve.
- Contact information, including an email address
- Birth Date
- Social security number (only necessary for background or credit checks)
- Emergency contact, the relationship of the contact, address, and phone number
- Previous work or volunteer experience
- The highest education level reached
- Language/s spoken
- Physical limitations
- Current Employer
- Other organizations where the applicant has volunteered
- Description of training or experience that may be pertinent to the volunteer position desired.
- Statement of and description of prior criminal convictions or offenses
- Certifications such as First Aid and CPR with dates of certification and expiration dates
- Valid driver's license # (important if driving is involved)
- References: One or more personal references with contact information; and one or more professional or work-related references with the supervisor's name and contact information
- Skills checklist (list skills needed in the organization's volunteer positions such as computer, tutoring, administrative skills, phone calls, teaching, supervision).
- Preferred volunteer areas (list regular volunteer jobs that applicant can check if interested)
- Reason for volunteering
- How did you hear about us?
- Hours and days available for volunteer work
- Include any disclaimers from the organization. For instance, you could include a fair and equal opportunity statement and a list of requirements for volunteers, such as reference checks, interviews, trial period, and required training.
- Signature of applicant and date of signature.
Consider including a release from liability statement that the applicant must sign. The National Council of Nonprofit Organizations has sample liability statements that you may want to consult.
Volunteer Application Example
Here is a basic volunteer application. The example may help guide you to the information you most likely want to include and suggested formatting. Of course, only use the example as a starting point, modifying it to fit your particular organization. See the sample below and download the template (available in Google Docs and Word Online).
Next Steps and Some Resources
Make the Application Accessible
Most nonprofits make their volunteer applications available online, as well as on-site. Sometimes they can be submitted online or printed out for the volunteer to mail in. A PDF will make the process reasonably effortless.
For an example of a comprehensive application, see this one from Johns Hopkins Hospital. Most small organizations will need a much simpler form to kick off the process.
Spread the Net
Do consider using one of the many volunteer portals to reach and attract volunteers. These portals allow you to post a minimal job description and requirements and then direct prospects to your website for more information. Some portals even help with background checks. Well-known portals include VolunteerMatch, All for Good, and Idealist.
Going Beyond the Application
Your application should not be your only screening tool. Be sure to follow up with an interview that may identify both the negative and positive attributes of your potential volunteers. You would never hire a staff member without a thorough interview. Likewise, interviewing your potential volunteers not only helps you place them in an appropriate position, but also provides valuable clues about their background and character.
Sometimes, an interview will turn up unique skills and talents that the volunteer did not even realize might help your organization. Is the volunteer a good writer, a photographer, or have artistic skills? Conversely, ask about what the volunteer doesn't want to do. Perhaps clerical work isn't their preference, or they don't wish to perform jobs that they already do in their regular lives. Maybe they want to build specific skills or learn something new.
The Bottom Line
Building a reliable volunteer force for your charity doesn't need to be overly complicated, but it does require a system. The first part of that system is to provide an application form that can be filled out quickly and submitted efficiently. Learn from the experience of thousands of other charities and create your application form using best practices.