Nonprofit Background Check Policy Considerations

Organizations that run criminal background checks on board members often use the same decision-making framework they use for staff and volunteers. That framework often, but not exclusively, discerns a difference between convictions of crimes of moral turpitude, which may be expressly prohibited, and other crimes, which may be considered on a case-by-case basis.

In order to better engage those who have been formally incarcerated, there have been calls to also consider board members who have committed violent crimes on a case-by-case basis, depending on the work of the organization and the distance of time.

Whether to Set a Nonprofit Background Check Policy for Your Organization

The decision to set a policy for criminal background checks of board members is likely dependent on the sector in which your organization operates. As an example, many youth development organizations require background checks of board members. Criminal justice reform organizations often have different policies, as many actively seek board members who have lived experience having been  formally incarcerated.

BoardSource recommends organizations check local and state laws and have a discussion about race, equity, and the history of people of color being disproportionately arrested and convicted. There are laws in different states, and certain cities, requiring criminal background checks for staff and volunteers or pertaining to ban the box (a movement to remove the criminal history question from public sector employment applications) and what organizations are allowed, not allowed, or required to do regarding background checks.

When it comes to board members, as with other volunteers, such policies require consideration and discussions of what crimes will be excluded; much of those discussions center around current law, community expectation, organizational values, type of organization, access to clients and money, and the goals and concerns of such a policy. In all cases, conviction, and not just arrest, for a crime is key.

The criminal justice system is set up on the idea of “innocent until proven guilty.” Systemic racism produces outcomes, and an arrest for a crime does not mean the person was formally charged or tried in a court of law. It is also important to note, the vast majority of criminal cases are plea-bargained, which increases the chances of an innocent person being held accountable for a crime they may not have committed, and the possibility of a more serious crime being pled down to a lower offense.

There are certain government forms that require charities to disclose the criminal history of board members. Charities are occasionally asked by their funders as well.

In all cases, background checks require a formal policy. This may include any of the following:

  • The specificity of what crimes will be automatically excluded, if any, and what will not
  • A schedule on when the checks will be repeated
  • A release form to be signed by the volunteer
  • An opportunity for the person to respond to the information raised

Other Considerations for a Background Check Policy

Criminal background checks are not the only type of background research conducted. Organizations may also inquire about employment, education, credit history, and bankruptcy. These are less often applied at the board level but may become applicable, especially if bonding is required. In addition to access and values questions, there are also reputational among other considerations for asking board members to complete background checks or to disclose potential issues that may embarrass the volunteer or negatively impact the organization they hope to serve.

Framing the Discussion for a Background Check Policy with Your Board

BoardSource offers the following questions to frame your discussion if such a policy is right for your organization:

  • What are our goals in implementing such a policy?
  • What are our values?
  • What types of convictions are not acceptable to us? What are? Is there an amount of time that has passed that will impact either answer?
  • Do our board members regularly have access to vulnerable populations or agency resources?
  • What is our current policy regarding staff and volunteer background checks and disqualifying offenses?
  • Will implementing this policy reinforce the societal inequities that our programs exist to alleviate?
  • Are we required to run such checks or prohibited from doing so, because of affiliation, funding, or laws?
  • Is there a potential for damage to the organization’s reputation for having a board member with a criminal record?
  • Do other organizations in our ecosystem have similar policies?
  • Will this policy keep our clients and our organization safer?
  • What are our community’s and our funders’ expectations?
  • What are the laws in our state, and in our city?

Criminal Background checks are one way for organizations to protect themselves, their assets, and the people they serve. Such policies must be aligned with the organization’s values, programs, and goals.

101 Resource | Last Updated August 11, 2023

Resources: Conducting Background and Reference Checks; Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System Report