An important step in ensuring your short-term missions (STM) trip is ethical is making sure that you select team members with the right skills, attitude and motivation.
The application screening process is usually conducted by the sending organisation. However, receiving organisations should also ensure that thorough recruitment and screening processes are in place and be ready and able to fill any gaps.
FIVE key recruitment steps
Start by planning out the recruitment process and ensure it's tailored to the type of STM trip you are planning. For example, skills-based STM trips will require a stronger emphasis on assessing skills and qualifications than exposure or advocacy trips.
There are a number of steps involved, so it's important to be organised. This may include putting together timelines, application packs and setting up a simple system to track applications and notes.
Give yourself enough time to collect and review documents to ensure that every team member is properly screened. Remember to allow for the processing times for acquiring documents, such as criminal background checks or working with children’s checks.
Once the preparation work has been completed, you can advertise the trip. This may include distributing application packs or hosting information sessions.
Advertise the trip as ‘child-safe’:
This is a good way to deter people with malicious intentions towards children from signing up to your team as it indicates that applicants will be scrutinised and that it will be difficult for someone to exploit the opportunity for the wrong reasons.
Screening not only ensures you select the right team members who will act ethically, are child safe and who meet the requirements of the type of trip selected; it also gives the team leader an opportunity to get to know the team members and can reveal any concerns or gaps in understanding that should be addressed before departure.
Ask purposeful questions during the screening process that will enable you to properly evaluate the applicant and ensure you include child-safe screening questions to assess their suitability for interacting with children.
Be conscious of vague or unrealistic answers to questions posed. as this may indicate an applicant is trying to hide something or has ulterior motives.
All potential team members should be required to complete an application form containing the following information:
- personal details
- motivation, expectations and goals for trip
- experience working with children
- emergency medical information
- personal testimony and church involvement
- list of skills and qualifications
- reference contact details
Relevant Background Checks
Background checks should be conducted on all applicants (over 18 years old) to ensure that any person who poses a risk to children or communities on the basis of their criminal past, is not accepted onto the team. Types of checks include:
- Criminal record checks: The name of these checks vary and may be called ‘Police Clearance Certificate’, ‘Police Record/File/Check’, ‘Criminal Check’, etc.
- Working with children/vulnerable people checks: Some countries also have further checks for sexual offences or suitability for working with children or other vulnerable people. These checks may be called ‘Working with Children Checks’, ‘Sex Offender Registry Searches’, ‘Vulnerable Sector Check’, etc. Conduct your own research regarding which checks are available where your applicants are from and the processes and costs involved.
Interviewing applicants helps you assess a potential team member’s motivations, expectations, skills and experiences. It gives you a much better sense of their suitability than an application form alone can do.
- Ideally interviews should be conducted face-to-face. Where this is not possible, interviews can be conducted over the phone or Skype.
- When the team will be working directly with children, ask a variety of questions to assess the applicant’s motivation and suitability for working and interacting with children. Consider incorporating the use of scenarios in the interview, which may help you develop an understanding of the applicant’s attitude towards, and awareness of, child protection and safeguarding.
When doing reference checks:
- Contact at least two people who know the applicant well enough to testify to their suitability for joining a STM trip and their behaviour with children.
- Consider stipulating who can and can’t be listed as a reference. For example, that it must include a current pastor/leader and current employer, and must not include people related to the applicant.
- Ideally, conduct verbal reference checks (e.g. over the phone). Where verbal reference checks are not possible, written references can be gained by asking the referee to complete a reference form which you provide and ask that they return directly to you.
- Have a predetermined list of questions prepared so the person conducting the checks understands the questions that need to be answered, what they should be looking out for and how to ask follow-up questions if something is concerning.
It can be tempting to choose not to screen people who you know through church or other connections.
But making case-by-case decisions about who should and shouldn’t be screened introduces an unnecessary ‘grey area’ and exposes your organisation to liability should something untoward happen. Screening should be a standard practice for everyone who applies, without exception. It’s a part of a robust due diligence framework and protects the organisation against risk.
+ Case Study: THE IMPORTANCE OF SCREENING
A number of years ago a Christian mission organisation in Australia was approached by a man who wanted to be sent overseas through the organisation as a volunteer, and dedicate some of his time to assisting their overseas projects. He explained to staff that he wanted to work with children’s ministries and specifically with orphanages in the Philippines and that he had previous experience with STM trips to orphanages. The organisation had a policy of not sending volunteers to work within residential care, however proceeded with the application and screening process with the intention of redirecting him to a more appropriate volunteering opportunity.
The organisation’s screening process included a police check, working with children’s check, reference checks and an interview. The criminal record check came back clear and the reference check from his pastor raised no concerns. It was not until the interview that staff began to uncover some concerning information. They asked him what he was planning to do in the Philippines, outside of the time he wanted to dedicate to volunteering in their project. His answers were quite vague and there were concerns around his plans to work with children. When asked more questions, he mentioned that he wanted to start a business to provide funding for an orphanage, and to financially support the work he wanted to do with children who live there. He claimed that he had an agreement in place with a foreign investor to start a coconut oil business, but had no business plan and was unable to clarify basic details. It became very apparent that he either did not have a clear purpose or he was concealing information.
Based on these red flags, staff requested a written business plan and information detailing his plans regarding working with children. When the ‘information pack’ arrived, it contained only vague information about his purpose and there was no proper business plan. At the back of the pack there was a section labelled, “Teaching sexuality to children”. This contained numerous pages of detailed information and lesson plans on sexually related topics that he was planning to teach to children at a particular orphanage. Staff were suitably alarmed at what they saw and noted that his plans and behaviour fell within the scope of grooming behaviours listed in their child protection guidelines. He was immediately deemed unsuitable for a placement with the organisation and his application was rejected. Further reporting measures were taken, based on the organisation’s child protection incident reporting and response protocols.
Reflecting on the incident, one staff member said “Up until this point, we often thought of our screening processes as just ‘hoops’ to jump through, because we never imagined that anyone who contacted us wanting to work or volunteer in missions would actually pose a risk to children. This incident was really sobering for us, and highlighted how important those ‘hoops’ are. I have often thought about what could have happened if I hadn’t followed the process, and how I would feel if something happened to a child because I took a short cut. It’s a horrifying thought! Thanks to this wake up call, that certainly won’t be happening on my watch.”
Once you have completed the above processes, critically analyse all the information gathered on each applicant and determine their suitability for the STM trip.
Below are three key considerations you can factor into your evaluations.
Motivations and expectations
The applicant demonstrated:
• a strong desire to learn;
• realistic level of expectations regarding the roles and activities they will engage in; and
• an understanding of the limitations of a shorter trip.
The applicant demonstrated:
• a desire to do lots of activities and an expectation to make a large impact;
• a pre-planned agenda of what they want to do on the trip; and
• discriminatory attitudes (e.g. on the basis of cultural, religious or economic differences).
The applicant demonstrated:
• an exaggerated desire to ‘rescue’ children;
• unrealistic expectations that they will assume the roles of local caregivers/staff; and
• expectations that they will be actively engaged in legal matters or child rescues.
Suitability to interact with children
The applicant demonstrated:
• a commitment to child protection policies and procedures;
• a willingness to engage in activities that promote the safety and long-term wellbeing of children; and
• an understanding of appropriate behaviour when interacting with children.
• was dismissive of the child protection policies or procedures;
• had unrealistic expectations of the roles they will fulfil when interacting with children;
• failed to recognise the unique vulnerabilities of children; and
• had misconceptions around residential care and stated their desire to visit or volunteer at an orphanage.
• had a criminal conviction related to child abuse or there was significant evidence/suspicion of child abuse;
• showed complete disregard for child protection policies or procedures;
• used inappropriate language when speaking of children; and
• had unsafe or unclear boundaries with children.
Note: If concerns regarding their suitability to interact with children were raised during the screening process, or you have reason to believe that an applicant may pose a risk to children, there should be a clear response process for dealing with this situation, including guidelines regarding whether it's your responsibility to report any serious concerns back to the applicant’s church leaders. You may need to refer to your own, or the relevant church’s, child protection policy for guidance.
Most people who exploit or abuse children seem like nice normal people and you’re rarely going to be able to tell who is ‘safe’ and who is not by outward appearances alone.
It’s widely known that child predators often gain access to children by volunteering with organisations that work with children. This is why it’s so important that everyone who applies to go on a STM trip goes through the same careful screening process before being invited to join the team; with no exceptions.
Assessing someone's qualifications is especially important for skilled-based volunteering and exchanges. It's important to ensure that only people qualified to do that role in their country should be allowed to do the same role in a local community during a trip.
The applicant demonstrated:
• evidence of the necessary skills and qualifications to undertake their assigned role; and
• an understanding of the language and cultural limitations in using these skills.
• expressed a desire to engage in roles they have skills or qualifications in but are not appropriate for the trip.
• had an expectation to engage in roles they are not skilled or qualified for.
After evaluating the information collected during screening, your organisation can now select team members who have the right skills, motivations and do not pose a known risk to children. You can now inform the successful applicants that they have been selected to be a part of the team.
Conducting thorough screening of applicants takes time and adds to our workloads.
However, because we have a Biblical responsibility to protect the best interests of local communities, especially children, time constraints are a problem to solve; not a legitimate reason to skip or rush screening. If delegating the trip administration to a capable and authorised person is not a viable solution, then you may need to consider whether, at this point in time, your organisation has sufficient bandwidth to run a STM program.