When Kids Volunteer: Liability Basics

This article is reprinted with permission from Blue Avocado, a practical and readable online magazine for nonprofits. Subscribe free by contacting the Blue Avocado editor or visiting here: www.BlueAvocado.org.

By Ilona Bray, J.D.

Two kids with groceries for the hungryWhether kids sell cookies or help clean up a park, they are welcome volunteers. Just be sure you know the basics of how to protect them and your organization when it comes to liabilities (at the end of this article is a link to a sample waiver):

As a kid, I sorted food donations for Lithuanian refugees because my mother was a leader in the Seattle Lithuanian Community. I sold Camp Fire Girls’ mints because, well, I had to. I interned at the Seattle Aquarium where I wore a badge that said, “Ask me! I know everything!” And I interned at Children’s Hospital because I hoped it would make my college applications look better.

But somewhere along the way, something must have clicked, because by the time I finished law school, I asked my corporate law firm employer, “Could you wait six months while I intern at Amnesty International?” And a few years later when I quit corporate law, the first thing I did was a volunteer internship at Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

If my experience is a guide, a childhood experience as a volunteer can lead to a lifelong commitment to giving back. And if kids are among your clients or constituents, then getting them involved is a natural. But you’ll want to be sure you’ve got basic protections in place (I guess I haven’t completely shed my lawyer hat!).

Liability basics for children volunteers

Here are the first things to think about:

  • Screening process: If you don’t already have a screening process in place for adults who will be working directly with children, or will be driving them around, now’s the time to start one.
  • Accident-prevention procedures: If the kids will be doing anything remotely risky, then you’ll want to give explicit accident-prevention strategies in your trainings and written materials, and be ready to enforce compliance. For example, if long-sleeved shirts are advisable when the kids are working with animals, then you’ll have to not only give advance notice of this, but turn kids away who are improperly dressed, or at least have a spare sweatshirt on hand for them to borrow.
  • Liability insurance: Make sure your liability insurance covers the activities planned within your volunteer program. Review your policy and talk to your insurance provider.
  • Parental consent: When children younger than 18 are involved, you’ll also need to get written parental consent. Your permission form will document not only the parent’s permission for the child to partake in your activity, but should also contain 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. Note that the effectiveness of parental waivers is a fraught topic in the law; when challenged, some waivers do not hold up—their effectiveness depends on the law in your state and the way the waiver was written.

Attached to this article is a sample parental waiver; click here to download it for free. It’s impossible to create a sample waiver that does the trick for all states for every type of activity. But this form can give you and your attorney something to start with . . . and I do suggest you hire a competent lawyer for advice and drafting help.

Scaring parents?

You’ll see that the sample waiver lays out a whole host of possible risks, from broken bones to death. Will you be scaring parents by doing the same within your form? Don’t worry: Most parents would rather know what’s possible than be surprised later, and will understand that this type of language is legally required. In fact, the more specific a waiver is regarding the actual risks that the child, student, or other volunteer will be exposed to, the more likely a court is to uphold its validity.

So why have kids as volunteers?

There are important roles for kids to play as volunteers, whether to help on their own projects (like raising money for their soccer team) or to help others. And such activities are good for kids, too. If you have adult volunteers with children, think of activities they can do with their children — maybe passing out water bottles at a walk-a-thon, or staffing a table at a street fair.

Margo, a parent, told me of her daughter’s sales of Girl Scout cookies and items for school fundraisers: “In addition to learning how to make change and use basic math, one of the most important things she learned was how to take ‘No’ for an answer.” And another life lesson I learned from my own childhood volunteer work: Rich people don’t necessarily buy more mints.

Ilona Bray, J.D. is the author of The Volunteer’s Guide to Fundraising: Raise Money for Your School, Team, Library or Community Group, available here. The book has A-to-Z information on a host of fundraising activities that are right for grassroots and community groups, as well as material on recruiting and organizing volunteers.

It’s available, along with Nolo’s other line of nonprofit books, at www.nolo.com/products/nonprofits/.