Working With Young Volunteers at Your Nonprofit: Legal and Practical Issues

Some advance planning is required before lining up kids as volunteers.

You might hear every sort of generalization about bringing young people into your volunteer corps — they’re either energetic, enthusiastic, and more fervently committed than your average jaded adult, or they’re irresponsible, disinterested, and can’t exercise good judgment.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, especially given that children develop intellectually at different rates, may not all wake up to the benefits of altruism without a transformative outside influence, and may have different motivations for volunteering — from a bright-eyed sense of urgency about helping the world to a school requirement to put in a certain number of community service hours.

In any case, there may be excellent reasons to involve kids as volunteers in your fundraising efforts. If they are the very ones you are fundraising for — as members of your school band, your local sports league, your church’s Young Life group, or users of the children’s section of your library — then getting them involved is a natural.

Even without a direct connection, their energy and connectedness to a different constituency can be valuable, and you’re helping them develop lifelong philanthropic instincts. (Plus, they really do grow up fast, and may become community leaders and donors before you know it.)

Now, let’s look at some legal and practical issues to do with bringing children into your volunteer mix.

How Will They Get to Your Facility?

Kids probably can’t just hop in the car and arrive at a meeting. Instead, they will either need to have parents available or a carpool arranged for them. It’s important not to unwittingly limit volunteer activities to those who are brave enough to take a long bus ride or those with available parents, which might mean those from upper-income families.

Can You Hold Separate Trainings for Kids?

Young people tend to get more pleasure from sharing experiences with peers than with a bunch of (boring) grownups. If possible, it's worth holding separate trainings for young volunteers, led by someone who is comfortable dealing with young people and won't talk down to them. (Kids have a super-sensitive baloney meter.) In fact, it's best to minimize the amount that the adult at the front of the room will be speaking, in favor of eliciting participation from the young audience.

Can Your Nonprofit Provide One-on-One Mentoring?

Respecting kids doesn’t mean assuming they know how to handle certain tasks that adults take for granted or act in a businesslike manner. That’s where having a buddy, either an older youth or an adult, can be critical. That person can note where further training is needed, and provide input and feedback, preferably without other kids present. (Young people tend to be easily humiliated.)

Cautions When Mixing Adults and Child Volunteers

It’s best not to let any adult spend unsupervised time with children (or other at-risk populations), even if you’ve already run background checks. Imagine the fallout if, for example, a volunteer drives a minor to the store to buy balloons for your fundraiser—and the minor later claims that something inappropriate occurred. Such issues can, for the most part, be simply avoided by mandating that two adults are always present during activities with children. (Of course, with large groups of children, you’ll probably want more than one adult present for sheer logistical and supervisory reasons.)

Obtaining Parental Consent

When children younger than 18 are involved in any of your group’s activities, you’ll need to get parental consent. Your permission form will document not only the parent’s permission for the child to partake in your activity, but should also have a promise that the parent will not sue your organization in the event that the child is injured as a result of the carelessness of your volunteers or participants.

The actual effectiveness of parental waivers is a fraught topic in the law. When challenged, some do not hold up—their effectiveness depends on the law in your state and the way the waiver was written. It's worth hiring a lawyer for advice and drafting help.

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