My daughter is in the fifth grade, and constantly being asked to sell things in order to support her school, sports activities, or various clubs. In the last year alone, I think she has sold cookies, wrapping paper, and raffle tickets, and taken part in one car wash. Is it legal to have kids spend so much time doing unpaid labor on behalf of a nonprofit?
Your question has both a legal and an ethical component.
In legal terms, childhood volunteering for charity is not likely to violate any child labor laws, as long as the club or group isn’t overworking the children. And that's unlikely to happen given that, in order for sales-related activities to remain within the nonprofit's mission (and thus not endanger their tax-exempt status) they must usually be fairly short-term or limited, as with seasonal cookie or wreath sales. Some child labor statutes actually contain exemptions for charitable efforts.
The deeper question, about whether drafting kids as salespeople is ethically acceptable or good for the children, is the subject of ongoing debate among PTAs, parents, and others. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either a way to teach young people important business skills while they raise funds for causes that directly benefit or interest them — or it’s an unfair and exploitative burden to place on their small shoulders.
To some degree, what’s okay probably depends on the child. For example, Margo, a parent in Washington State, says, “Our daughter was already used to selling Girl Scout cookies, so by the time school fundraisers came along, she didn’t seem to have a problem with them. We found that, in addition to how to make change and do other basic math, one of the most important things she learned was how to take ‘No’ for an answer. This can be hard for kids! We turned the fundraising sales into a game, to see how many no answers she’d typically get for every yes. Then we’d encourage her with the thought that, if she’d already gotten five ‘No’s,’ a ‘Yes’ must be coming along.”
Of course, as a parent, you deserve a say in what activities are appropriate for your child, and as to when enough is enough. That's one reason why many nonprofit groups ask parents to sign consent forms before their children take part in selling goods (or other activities).