After the Disaster Is No Time to Start Screening Volunteers

April 8th, 2019

By Katie Zwetzig, Executive Director, Verified Volunteers, Sterling

Article published by HR News Magazine*

After hurricanes ravage coastlines or wildfires destroy entire towns, it is vital to move volunteers into place in a timely manner so, they can begin assisting victims as they piece their families, homes and livelihoods back together. Simple acts of kindness from strangers who are willing to help will mean the world to those most in need of hope.

The National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) formed in 1970 to facilitate cooperation, communication, coordination and collaboration among private and nonprofit aid groups. It first partnered with my organization, VerifiedVolunteers, in August 2017. That partnership solidified after Hurricane Irma struck Florida the very next month.

Quickly recruiting volunteers from within or near impacted areas was crucial to commencing relief efforts and for enabling affected communities to recover and thrive again. Especially needed were shelter staff and medical personnel.

The state’s lead volunteer agency, Volunteer Florida, coordinated with National VOAD and local and state government emergency management agencies, but all the groups relied on our network of vetted volunteers. We specialize in screening much-needed disaster response personnel and in coordinating the assignment of precleared individuals to disaster zones. We made it possible for relief organizations to reach to individuals who had already cleared background checks and were ready to activate.

Knowing Who the Volunteers Are Ensures Peace of Mind

Volunteering is a truly rewarding experience. However, it is important to remember the complexity of working in a disaster area. Understanding that volunteers’ services may be needed for months or years is also essential. Community leaders and residents must be able to trust each member of the volunteer workforce.

For these reasons, safety and compliance are not just concerns when hiring employees. Performing background checks ahead of volunteer deployment enables individuals to immediately and securely make a big difference in the lives of people struck by disaster.

Background screening is, of course, a highly regulated activity. In addition to the complexity of identifying, reviewing and following up on key records, background checkers must keep personal data secure and adhere to constantly changing rules enforced under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Maintaining accreditation through the National Association of Professional Background Screeners ensures that background checks on volunteers will be performed legally and thoroughly, but how many nonprofit aid groups can do this?

Connecting Aid Groups with Vetted Volunteers

Empowering fully vetted volunteers in Florida following Hurricane Irma earned trust and created the safest environment for volunteers, organizations and aid recipients alike. Saving time that would otherwise have been spent doing possibly incomplete and noncompliant background checks made a direct, positive impact.

The partnership between Verified Volunteers and National VOAD has evolved in the past year-and-half. Volunteers can now reach out directly to organizations, and aid groups can access digital background checks. Soon, digital badging will streamline emergency site check-ins, improve hours of service tracking and facilitate real-time communications. We are also working with National VOAD’s member organizations to ensure volunteers in our database have or can access appropriate training to respond to certain disasters.

According to Beverly McIntosh, vice president of strategic programs at Verified Volunteers, answering the question of “What can we do to help?” requires an aid group to mobilize vetted volunteers. This is why we make connecting active volunteers with opportunities to help with community relief efforts a central part of our mission.

Katie Zwetzig is executive director at Verified Volunteers, a division of Sterling, and the founder of background screening company Tandem Select. Feeling strongly that nonprofits and volunteerism are at the heart of a strong community, she also sits on many boards and committees in Colorado.

*Article courtesy: HR New Magazine (IPMA-HR). Original article published in in the April 2019 issue of HR News Magazine

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