Running a Successful Volunteer Program: Tips for Youth-Serving Organizations

By Elisheva Aufrichtig

Managing volunteers and volunteer programs can be challenging. When trying to encourage people to volunteer for your school, sports league, church, synagogue, or non-profit, the last thing you want to do is scare away potential volunteers with piles of paperwork and discussions of child sexual abuse behaviors and outcomes. And when there are already multiple volunteers working with the children in your organization or business, and probably a high turnover rate, it can be daunting to implement a thorough screening and training plan.

There are some basic tips to remember that will help make the process easier.

Screening Volunteers is Not Optional
Youth-serving organizations can be targeted by individuals who want easy access to children. It is necessary for volunteers to understand the importance of thoroughly investigating people who will be working with children and that your organization takes safety very seriously.

Organizations working with troubled youth may be more at risk for sexual abuse, since troubled youth can be emotionally insecure, looking for affection, and lacking the support of a trusted adult. This applies to vulnerable adults as well, such as people with mental disabilities who may not recognize danger.

Implementing Screening of Volunteers
Volunteers may not commit long-term, but it is still important for your business or organization to invest effort into properly screening people who will be interacting with children. Especially for positions involving working one-on-one with youth, such as mentoring or tutoring, it is essential to screen for past crimes, potential issue traits, and suspicious behavior.

Teenage and high school volunteers are no exception. For teen volunteers, who might not have work references or available criminal records, you will need to conduct personal interviews, thorough reference checks, and perhaps require more detailed written applications. Teen volunteers should be more closely supervised, as well.

Even if the applicant is personally known to the volunteer coordinator or other people within the organization, such as a parent of one of the children, the applicant must still undergo a background check and screening. Unfortunately, 90% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone familiar to the child, meaning that strangers are not usually the criminals in these cases and abusers are hard to identify.

Sometimes a volunteer has a personality or temperament less suited to working with children. The position is just not the right fit, even if it’s not a question of abuse. Here at BCAC, during the interview process, Nicole Reed, our Volunteer Coordinator, asks how the applicant found out about our organization. With a former client, or anyone who is a sexual abuse survivor, she has a conversation about potential triggers and whether the applicant is ready to return to an advocacy center’s environment. This informal tool is used to better screen volunteers and make sure that they are protected and feel safe, as well.

Limitations of Background Checks
It is important to note that background checks have their limitations. Background checks should not be skipped, yet many sexual criminals have not been caught or charged and therefore would have no record. Additionally, criminal records for underage teens are usually confidential. Don’t think that simply because you have conducted a background check on someone, you know everything there is to know. A thorough in-person interview and speaking with references helps to gain a more accurate impression of someone.

At BCAC, every volunteer must have a phone conversation and a face-to-face meeting with our Volunteer Coordinator before starting, in addition to a criminal background check; this allows her to gain a more thorough understanding of the personality of the prospective volunteer.

Training Volunteers
The goal of training is to make volunteers feel comfortable, competent, and capable of doing what they are supposed to do. While training volunteers to do their job, incorporate training about preventing sexual abuse. They are part of your team in preventing child abuse.

Provide explanations of sexual abuse and symptoms to watch out for. Volunteers need to feel comfortable asking questions. Allow time to discuss, or even act out, scenarios as part of the learning process.

BCAC, in addition to offering preventative and informative trainings to other youth-serving organizations, also trains its own volunteers. Volunteers participate in child development training, learning about forensic interviews, and shadowing members of different teams at BCAC, during which they learn through observation and have the opportunity to ask questions. Importantly, volunteers learn the facts and statistics of child sexual abuse, what it looks like, and how to report it. They also learn about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), how they affect children long-term, and how the work at child advocacy centers like BCAC helps.

Organizations can’t let the fear of sexual abuse result in any form of neglect on the part of staff or volunteers. Children must be cared for with empathy, attention, emotional connection, and physical touch where appropriate. Create workplace policies and manuals which include the volunteer functions and child protection policy.

Ongoing Supervision
At BCAC, volunteers are always supervised, with either intermittent check-ins or by keeping volunteers in a shared space. Every volunteer position involves constant learning on the job, and there is a very open communication system if any concerns or issues arise.

If it seems like a volunteer isn’t the right fit for a position, or small problems come up, BCAC has a re-evaluation process and the volunteer is given an opportunity to undergo training again. Of course, if a major breach occurs, for instance in a confidentiality matter, the volunteer is dismissed.

In general, monitoring volunteers means overseeing their interactions with the children through both the announced and unannounced presence of a supervisor, always staying on-site with the children, and scheduled assessments. Behavior to watch out for includes, but is not limited to, a volunteer trying to spend time alone with the children, showing a preference for one specific child, or giving presents.

Reporting Structure
Our Volunteer Coordinator Nicole teaches BCAC’s volunteers how, and to whom, to report red flag behavior. This includes anything suspicious a child may say to the volunteer.

The volunteers themselves are a part of your team and are also responsible for the safety of the children. Teach them to monitor interactions within your organization and how to report anything suspicious. Define their roles from the start and include it in their training.

To learn more about BCAC’s trainings, contact Curley Newgent at cnewgent@bcaci.org. To get involved in BCAC’s volunteer program, contact Nicole Reed at nreed@bcaci.org.

Elisheva Aufrichtig is a Communications Intern at BCAC.

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