A free volunteer background check is a common process for volunteer organizations, churches, non-profits, and more. While there are several options available, many can be complicated and expensive.
However, using the correct method of background check will show results for volunteers without fail.
Keep in mind that using this free method (step by step guide below) will work in most cases where not restricted by local or state laws. With that said, it can be time intensive and require trips to local court houses and police stations (including getting fingerprints done). Furthermore, depending on what state and county the search is being conducted, a small fee may be required by law.
For these reasons, ultimately some choose to simply use a cheap volunteer background check search that does all the work instead.
On that note, the method below is still an option.
Volunteer Background Screening Steps: Run Background Checks Free
With volunteer background screening, the one method that works every time involves three subsequent steps. Each step provides an effective way to obtain up-to-date information on individuals applying to volunteer.
In fact, if someone is considering a volunteer position, they can use the same method to find out what their own background check will reveal to the agency before applying.
Before conducting any background checks, an organization must obtain consent to conduct the criminal history check, and collect applicable information on the volunteer. The information needed typically includes:
- First and last name
- Middle name to improve results
- Current address
- Social Security Number (SSN background checks are extremely accurate)
- Any other information that will help verify that a background check is being run on the correct individual such as aliases or previous addresses
Also, some organizations will check and search through social media profiles. Because a volunteer position isn’t regulated the same way that paid employment is, this sort of ‘character’ search can be a common practice (though it will depend on if a level 1 or level 2 background check is being performed).
Sometimes, if someone conducting a screening does not gather enough information, they may get background check results for an individual with the same name. This may generate what is sometimes known as a background check “false positive,” when a background check is incorrectly run on someone with the same name.1
Step 1: Visit the Local Courthouse and Request Documents from the County Clerk
The first stop in running a free criminal background check is to visit the courthouse in the jurisdiction where the applicant lives, either in person or the county court clerk site online, if available.
While at the courthouse, the person performing the free volunteer background check should request from the clerk any relevant court files on the individual. This typically involves filling out a form, and in some states, can actually require a small fee.
To search for records online, type in the name of the county, plus the words “court clerk,” and have information such as name, current address, and birthdate ready to enter.1
For instance, the processes for searching court clerk records in Maricopa County, Arizona may include:
- Visiting the public records computer terminals, for in-person requests
- Paying a $30 charge if the document needs to be certified for legal purposes
- Requesting public records by mail, if desired, which must include the case number, the filing dates, and the name of the parties involved in the case
- Calling the county clerk, which can only be done if you know the case number, the filing date, and the parties involved
- Emailing the county clerk office, which requires the same mandatory information.
In this example using Arizona, only parties involved in a case can gain access to court records involving family or probate court. Typically, the general public has access to civil records, tax records, and criminal court records, as long as the investigation is no longer ongoing.
Step 2: Request Records From Local and State Law Enforcement
After checking the court records, the next step is to contact both local and state law enforcement, to request criminal records. These are (in general) considered public records, and every state in the US has an official state repository for criminal records, which maintains records of convictions, arrests, and more. In addition, 30 states report information to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a federal database maintained by the Federal Bureau Investigation (FBI).
Someone conducting a free volunteer background check can also call their local law enforcement agency using a non-emergency number for additional information.
For example, in Florida, search the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Criminal History Search online and follow these steps:
- Enter billing information for a cost of $24.00 per public request
- Enter email or mailing address– the place to receive the public records
- Enter the name and birthdate of the person
- Select any relevant records or RAP sheets which appear, and request which ones are useful
- Wait for the results to arrive by email or mail
However, in New Jersey, the process is slightly different than in Florida.
- Determine what record is needed for the organization
- Determine where the specific record is located (court clerk, police records, corrections, etc.)
- Complete, sign, and date a written request for access to the public records to the agency
- Mail or deliver your request in person
Alternatively, complete an online request form, in place of a written request.
To find the fastest option for a free volunteer background check that examines national criminal records, simply search for the state, plus the words “volunteer fingerprint check.”
For example, that search with the word “Arkansas” led to the Arkansas State Police link for their fingerprint background check PDF. The form is filled out online and printed, then sent to the state police address. (Tip: look for official state sites, which are typically followed by a ‘.gov’ domain.)
Step 3: Submit a Fingerprint Background Check to the FBI
Many times, potential volunteers will be required to provide fingerprints to be searched at the federal level if the volunteer position involves working with vulnerable people such as children or the elderly. In these circumstances, it may even be required by law (as is the case for Florida background checks, for example).
Without a doubt, a fingerprint background check done through the FBI is one of the most reliable method to confirm someone’s identity and also scan for a criminal background on a national scale. Furthermore, how far back FBI background checks go can reveal even the most “hidden” and hard to reach criminal records.
To perform this volunteer criminal history check:
1. Visit the Identity History Summary page hosted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
2. Follow the steps listed for submitting a request (which includes obtaining an official fingerprint card or set of digital fingerprints for submission).
3. Complete the applicant information form.
4. Double check the checklist provided.
5. Submit the request.
In fact, in 1993, the National Child Protection Act of 1993 granted schools, youth-serving organizations, and daycares access to the FBI’s database of criminal records. However, this access was initially dependent on state laws which gave nonprofits access to the database.
The Volunteers for Children Act of 1998 expanded the 1993 National Child Protection Act, and allowed all volunteer organizations access to the FBI database, even when there is not a state law in place.
This access is granted to organizations that offer treatment, education, supervision, recreation, and related services to vulnerable populations.
While fingerprints were traditionally submitted using ink and paper, there is now a live scan technology, which makes fingerprinting more efficient. This method captures fingerprints electronically, and allows law enforcement to store records online.
The above three steps are typically free to conduct a background check on a new volunteer joining an organization. However, if an organization is understaffed or short on time, and does not have the time to request these documents itself, there are other options to screen volunteers. Organizations can use a third party company which offers background screenings, often for a moderately low cost. In fact, many background check companies may offer discounts for anyone conducting checks in bulk, especially for charity or volunteer organizations.
Laws Related to Volunteer History Check and Background Check Processes
Both the National Child Protection Act of 1993 and the Volunteers for Children Act of 1998 ultimately transformed how nonprofit and volunteer organizations can gain access to FBI fingerprint background checks. However, these are not the only federal laws that exist on the topic of volunteer screening.1
The Fair Credit Reporting Act states that anyone conducting a background check for professional reasons must first receive consent. Professional reasons include employment purposes, volunteer opportunities, housing applications, and related purposes.
Despite these examples of federal legislation, nonprofit organizations are not required by any national law to screen volunteers. However, many nonprofit organizations and charities instead have organizational policies at their national level, which require them to screen volunteers.
For example, many national nonprofits have such policies, like the Boys and Girls Club or Little League Baseball. For these organizations, the national chapter mandates that all affiliate offices must screen their volunteers.1
Furthermore, each state may have its own laws concerning screening volunteers. For example, several states prohibit employers from asking an applicant about their criminal history on an application, and can only ask after the initial interview has occurred. Some states, such as Oregon and Utah, exempt certain individuals from this limit, including volunteers. Therefore, organizations using volunteers can ask potential volunteers about their criminal background before even inviting them to an interview.2
Screening a Church Volunteer: Privacy Rights in Background Searches
Ultimately, giving consent to a background search requires even a church volunteer to waive some of their rights to privacy.4
Some states require certain organizations to screen their volunteers, but overall, there are no federal laws requiring churches to obtain background checks for church volunteers. However, this does not mean that churches will not engage in screening processes for their volunteers.
Many consider that churches and their subsequent charitable programs have the responsibility to protect children, the homeless, and other vulnerable populations they may be serving.5
Requiring criminal background checks can ultimately protect an organization from liability and potential negligence, if an incident were to unfortunately occur.
Generally, organizations and churches will abide by the following practices to protect the volunteer applicant’s privacy, as well as their own liability:
- Provide potential volunteers with a background check consent form, as well as a description of the volunteer role
- Order and review free volunteer background check reports
- Host volunteer training to establish rules and codes of conduct, especially around vulnerable populations such as children
- Monitor volunteers during their work
- Ask church and community members for feedback on volunteers
- Host additional volunteer trainings as needed
While volunteers are expected to waive some privacy rights, there are also additional laws in place to help protect the privacy and rights of volunteers. For example, the Fair Credit Reporting Act states that an organization cannot deny a volunteer due to their religious or political beliefs, which would apply to church volunteers.
Why Organizations Conduct Volunteer Background Checks
Typically, an organization conducts volunteer background checks when volunteers work with vulnerable populations, including animals, but there are no set rules about when a background check can be performed.3
Many state laws establish liability when an employee or volunteer commits a crime against another person, if the perpetrator had access to the victim because the occupation provided proximity. Therefore, organizations and other employers perform criminal history checks to both comply with state and federal law, but also to prevent incurring liability charges.1
Learn Common Background Screening Laws for Volunteers
There is not one federal law that mandates all volunteers must be screened, but there are some state laws which may legally require a background check for certain types of organizations or industries.
In most states, anyone working at a medical facility, whether as a volunteer or employee, must undergo a criminal background check. Depending on the state, background checks may also be legally required to volunteer with:
- Law enforcement agencies
- Youth facilities
- Charities or food banks
- Places of worship
- Schools or educational facilities
More specifically, in California, volunteers who have contact with clients in community care facilities must receive background checks before starting their volunteer work.
In New Jersey, all volunteers at youth organizations must receive criminal background checks, according to state law. In fact, all New Jersey youth organizations need to register with the Volunteer Review Operations of the State Police, and agree to a memorandum of understanding that they will screen all of their volunteers.6
Some organizations that solicit volunteers will conduct either a fingerprint background check check or a level 2 background check, to screen for a criminal background. These checks will reveal misdemeanors, infractions, felony convictions, arrest records, sex crimes, and any judgments in a civil court.
If someone wants to verify whether or not they will pass a background check and be able to volunteer at an organization, they can run a federal background check on themselves, to see if they qualify to volunteer in advance.
When running a free volunteer background check, there are several steps involved, and many options, and knowing the best methods can make the process smooth and safe.
1Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Volunteer Background Checks: Giving Back Without Giving Up on Privacy. 21 March 2019. 13 December 2021. Web. <https://privacyrights.org/consumer-guides/volunteer-background-checks-giving-back-without-giving-privacy>
2Workplace Fairness. Background Check State Law. Nd. 13 December 2021. Web. <https://www.workplacefairness.org/background-checks-state-law>
3Murphy, K. How To Instill Volunteer Background Checks In Your Nonprofit. 13 March 2021. 13 December 2021. Web. <https://www.trackitforward.com/content/how-instill-volunteer-background-checks-your-nonprofit>
4Klazema, M. Backgroundchecks.com. Are Background Checks an Invasion of Privacy? 7 October 2021. 13 December 2021. Web. <https://www.backgroundchecks.com/blog/are-background-checks-an-invasion-of-privacy>
5Galaxy Digital. A Guide to Managing Your Church’s Volunteer Background Checks. Nd. 14 December 2021. Web. <https://www.galaxydigital.com/blog/churchs-volunteer-background-checks/>
6New Jersey State League of Municipalities. Volunteer Background Checks. Nd. 14 December 2021. Web. <https://www.njlm.org/693/Volunteer-Background-Checks>