It is becoming widely acknowledged that background checking employees is an essential aspect of the recruitment process in Australia and around the world.

Evidence shows that background checking assists organisations mitigate the risk of financial loss that can be felt as a result of fraud.  Background checks can highlight areas in an individual’s past that employers should be aware of, such as a history of fraudulent or undesirable behaviour – From criminal convictions and bankruptcies to stealing company funds and being terminated from employment.

Unfortunately, background checking policies within organisations do not always include screening of volunteer employees.  Despite this, risks to reputation, customers, the community and other staff is just as great.  A particular emphasis on the risk to vulnerable persons and children should be strongly noted here.

Why the risk is so high

Not-for-profit and organisations that rely on volunteer employees may not want to ‘question’ individuals who selflessly give up their time to volunteer for them; however, these organisations are often targetted as victims due to the charitable nature of their structure, lack of formal controls embedded in the organisation, and in some cases, a sense of ‘entitlement’ or ‘payment’ for time given.

There are abundant media case studies within Australia that demonstrate why organisations should never assume high moral integrity of an individual who is volunteering for them.  Evidently, not all individuals that apply to be volunteers have a “squeaky clean” record, and indeed criminals may attempt to become volunteers in order to prey on an organisation and the people these organisations aim to assist.

A recent case involved a volunteer who acted as a treasurer for a Rotary in the Gold Coast region for two years between 2008 and 2010. Whilst acting in this position of trust, the volunteer embezzled $130,000 of funds to pay off personal business debts. In court, the volunteer plead guilty to two counts of fraud, and was sentenced to four years’ jail.

Another case involved an individual that volunteered for the State Emergency Service (SES), who embezzled up to $25,000 worth of donations. The individual was later convicted of fraud-related charges, including obtaining money by deception.

The value of checking volunteers

Evidence shows that conducting background checks on potential volunteers can stop criminals in their tracks prior to being placed in positions of trust and responsibility.

A recent crackdown by the South Australian Country Fire Service (SACFA) on their volunteer applicants showed that convicted arsonists, child and adult sex offenders and an individual convicted of manslaughter, had all tried to sign up before being rejected due to the findings of their background checks.

It should be noted that not all organisations will apply as strict a policy as the SACFA.  Many charitable organisations support the appointment of criminally-convicted individuals within their organisations.  These positions are essential to support convicted criminals in their rehabilitation to integrate back into society.  The clear point here is to be aware of the background of volunteers and mitigate the risk to the organisation with the work they will be undertaking.

Background checking is essential to reduce risks to an organisation, and for weeding out convicted criminals from an otherwise effective and invaluable volunteer workforce.

Volunteering for children

There are many examples of the dire consequences of not adequately screening individuals who work closely with children, and at schools and in school and sporting related activities, with more and more examples being brought to light through the current Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (see more at

Initial and ongoing background checking of parents and other individuals who volunteer at schools is essential through such means as P&C Committees, school fairs, canteens, OOSH, transport for sporting activities and the like. Despite the requirements to obtain a Working With Children Check (WWCC) (explained in further detail below), various exemptions surrounding the WWCC enable criminals to slip through the cracks, leaving our children exposed.

Case study

A potent example of how crucial police checks are for volunteers comes from a case in Western Australia, where a man with a criminal record involving the possession of child pornography was volunteering at a Perth school.

The man had three children, two of whom attended the school at which he was volunteering. For this reason, the man did not apply for a WWCC, because at the time parents who volunteered at their child’s school in Western Australia were not required to hold a WWCC.

Whilst volunteering at the school, the man sexually abused students on school grounds, as well as secretly photographed children in change rooms whilst he was assisting with swimming lessons.

As the man had already been convicted of previous offences before volunteering at the school, these convictions would have been revealed by a simple Volunteer Police Check.

Shortfalls of the Working With Children Check

Despite the immense importance of the Working With Children Check in order to protect children, there are some shortfalls which mean it should not be solely relied upon as a means of checking volunteers.

Firstly, various exemptions in place for the WWCC mean that in many cases parents and carers are not required to have the check done in order to volunteer at their child’s school.

Since the time of the above case study, the Western Australian government has amended the WWCC so that the only exemption for parents is if they are volunteering at a specific event where their child is in attendance. Amazingly, however, NSW still holds an exemption for individuals where they are a parent or close relative of a child and volunteering with the child’s school, early education centre or other educational institutions. Similar exemptions are in place for WWCCs in other Australian states and territories.

In addition to these exemptions, PeopleCheck reminds readers of the shortcomings of the Police Check component that forms a part of the statutory WWCC. The Police Check only assesses convictions relevant to working with children and provides an overall bar/clearance for the candidate based on this information. Readers should be reminded that the WWCC is only one part of keeping children safe and therefore consideration to a variety of background checks should be undertaken in the recruitment phase (and ongoing) to determine if there is any history of undesirable behaviour in a candidate’s past that would not make them a suitable candidate to work with children.

The costs

Police agencies offer significant discounts on Police Checks for volunteers, making them significantly cheaper than standard Police Checks. Some organisations request their volunteers to pay the nominal fee.

When considered against the risks, a basic Police Check is a great start to background checking volunteers, but in some cases other background checks beyond Police Checks should also be considered.  An example is financial background checks for volunteer employees with access to an organisation’s finances.

It is important to note that Volunteer Police Checks can only be used for volunteer purposes, that is, when the work undertaken will be unpaid. This can apply to charity work and other community services (such as P&C school volunteering), unpaid work experience or compulsory vocational placements.

More Information

For more information on the ways in which PeopleCheck can assist you with Volunteer Police Checks in order to reduce the risks to your organisation, please contact us via telephone on +612 4023 0603 or  email at


The information contained in this publication is the opinion of PeopleCheck Pty Ltd and does not form the basis of legal advice.

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