September 24, 2010
Want to volunteer? Be sure your credit’s good
Volunteerism is on the rise, thanks in part to the recession. And more and more, volunteers are being asked to submit to the same background screening techniques that employers use to vet job candidates.
More parents are inside classrooms or on soccer fields, helping children. More Good Samaritans are in food banks, sorting and distributing food. More job-seekers are inside the offices of nonprofit organizations, hoping to network and maintain a fresh resume. Data from the Corporation for National & Community Service bears this out. So, to handle the onslaught of volunteers, some groups are using third-party screening companies that prepare “consumer reports,” which sometimes include credit checks.
“Volunteers can do almost anything a paid worker can do,” said Tena Friery, a research specialist with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego, Calif.-based nonprofit consumer organization. “And like employers, some volunteer organizations are using credit checksas a character assessment.”
Background checks spark controversy
Federal and some state laws passed in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, require some nonprofit organizations to conduct criminal background checks on volunteers. While nonprofit leaders feel that the tougher standards offer valuable protection to the public, they say it places them in uncomfortable positions.
“It’s disruptive. It’s intrusive. And it puts the charity in a poor situation,” said Howard Dvorkin, CEO of the nonprofit Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, which conducts credit checks and fingerprint background checks on its volunteer board members, as well as some volunteers who may have access to clients’ financial information.
“These are volunteer positions and people are giving their time. And you’re, all of a sudden, asking people to go to the police department and go get their fingerprints done and to give us their Social Security numbers so we can do a credit check.”
Still, a credit check can reveal valuable information about a candidate, Dvorkin said.
“A credit report tells a lot more than if you pay your bills,” Dvorkin said. “It says whether this person is fiscally irresponsible and possibly shows desperation. If a person is falling far behind on their bills, they may try to get those bills paid by any means possible.”
Friery, with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, says organizations are legally required to ask permission before screening volunteer and employee applicants. Though few organizations check the credit histories of their volunteers, many will ask applicants to sign consent forms that allow the organization or a third-party screening company to perform consumer reports.
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A growing trend
To address the increasing security concerns of groups like the NCVC and others, more nonprofit agencies are turning to third-party screening companies to vet candidates.
“Volunteer screening is definitely on the rise,” said Jason B. Morris, a spokesman for the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, as well as president and COO for EmployeeScreenIQ, a Cleveland-based background screening company.
“But you’re not seeing the same level of depth of the searches that you would see as an employer,” Morris said. “They don’t have the money, even though I would say that they have the same, if not greater, liability.”
And as the screening has increased, volunteers have raised questions about privacy and whether such inquiries would have a negative impact on credit scores. Though inquiries from employers and volunteer agencies appear on the reports of consumers, they are considered “soft pulls” and do not negatively affect credit scores.
“A lot of people get confused when they see the words consumer reports,” Morris said. “A lot of people confuse those words with credit reports. So they think automatically that by them signing that they can run a credit check. In many cases, that authorization does allow these companies to do that credit check, however, it usually is not the case that one gets done.”
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