In Nebraska, the Public Finance, Judiciary and Personnel Committee of the Columbus city council just recommended that all groups that use city facilities be required to perform background checks on volunteers that work with children. As is often the case, the decision was driven by fear, not sound planning. Committee members were quoted referencing the Penn State scandal as a rationale for the decision. (Read full story here). The article noted that some organizations, such as the youth soccer league, already performed such checks. The youth baseball league, however, did not.
The response from the baseball league was troubling. ““I think we need to be careful so that we don’t make it so stringent that we have a problem getting a coach,” the baseball league’s former president was quoted as saying. However, one committee member had a quick retort: “There’s some people we probably want to scare away.” And she is right of course. However, this tension highlights the challenge of implementing a risk management plan, and why the creation of such a plan must be a proactive decision of the organization — not one driven by fear or overreaction to a prior incident.
When background checks of coaches started in South Texas, there was a lot of talk about people refusing to comply. Some of the very broad release language in the consent form troubled people. Others were indignant that they would be asked to do this after years of volunteering. However, very few people refused. Still, the mandate from the state to the local associations and clubs came as a surprise to many of the grass roots level volunteers. In adopting and implementing a risk management plan, communication and planning are essential to avoiding hard feelings or resistance from your volunteers.
We recommend several basic steps as an essential part of implementing a risk management plan.
1. Communicate with stakeholders while the plan is being developed. Let them know why it is being developed, and let them know that any concerns they have will be heard. This does not mean they get to approve it. It does mean that the association will listen and try to address their issues if it can be done without jeopardizing the goals of the plan.
2. Communicate with stakeholders prior to implementation. Once the plan is adopted, give ample notice of what new procedures or requirements will be undertaken. If a volunteer application is now a part of the plan, let your coaches know six weeks before the season, not the week before practice starts! Nobody should be taken by surprise when it comes time to fill out forms or sign policies.
3. Provide for confidentiality of sensitive information and communicate those confidentiality procedures clearly! Some people may have a reasonable concern that embarrassing personal information could come out. Maybe the local chamber of commerce member who coaches his son’s U8 team had a marijuana arrest 20 years ago in college. Let the coaches know that results of these checks will be kept confidential. Make sure your plan has confidentiality provisions and members appointed to positions with access to confidential information can abide by those restrictions!
4. Make compliance with the plan cost free and convenient! Some risk management procedures have a cost associated with them. Budget those costs as expenses to the organization. Do not ask volunteers to incur them out of pocket. Make compliance convenient. Can training be delivered online? Can policy and procedure acknowledgments be taken care of when coaches get their rosters or uniforms? You don’t want to ask coaches to make extra trips or undertake extra burdens to comply with your new policy.
5. Be firm and consistent in implementation. Nothing undermines a risk management plan more quickly than inconsistent application. If Coach Mary hears that Coach Jane didn’t have to do the things she is being asked to do, word will get around, people will be suspicious of why they are being asked to do something, and resistance to compliance will grow. This is one reason we recommend uniform and not random screening policies. At all times be clear and firm: your organization has the right to determine who its members, coaches and volunteers are. While volunteering is a noble and giving gesture, it is also a privilege to be selected to work with the kids you serve. Ultimately, a coach or team manager who is unwilling to follow the organization’s policies is a risk regardless of their background. There should be no shame or regret in refusing to register someone who resists the requirements of your association.