Understanding the role of volunteers

13 November 2015

Not for profit entities are often reliant on an environment of trust and transparency in fundraising. Fraudsters may abuse this vulnerability as charities are seen to be extremely respectable, providing a veil for them to hide behind. But, trust is not a control measure.

Many charities, no matter how big or small, make significant use of volunteers in carrying out their day-to-day activities. Volunteers are often considered to be beyond reproach - seen to be trustworthy individuals who have given their time to a charitable cause, whilst often expecting nothing in return. In addition, turnover of volunteers can be high as they may only be needed for short term projects. This means that trustees and management need to invest sufficient time and resources into ensuring that volunteers understand their responsibilities and take them seriously.

Volunteers should receive the same level of training as all members of staff at a charitable entity, to ensure they have a sound understanding of the financial controls. This is important for all volunteers but particularly if they are involved in financial activities.

The fundraising function of a charity will often make use of volunteers – maybe with collection tins or perhaps to encourage the public to sign up to regular giving by direct debit. It may be a good control to have volunteers working in pairs to ensure that cash cannot be misappropriated by one unscrupulous individual, who may see an opportunity to take advantage of stealing funds.

It is important not to take the recruitment of volunteers lightly at your organisation. They should face stringent pre-employment screening, with verification of information. For example, safeguarding issues of volunteers working with vulnerable or children will result in a set level of checks and processes to be undertaken.

Requesting references and performing background checks is standard fare for new employees and the same checks should be extended to new volunteers. Those involved in this area of work should be trained to raise awareness of the risks associated with recruitment type fraud, identity fraud and the use of false documents and entitlement to work issues which are prevalent in the recruitment of staff and volunteers.