The annual Girl Scouts cookie sale is now in full force, with legions of Scouts stationed outside supermarkets, churches and shopping centers across the U.S. Their hard work raises a question every nonprofit leader needs to ask: Just how safe are the cookie sales, the Boy Scouts’ popcorn sales, March of Dimes fund drives, or virtually any other public activity involving children?
The question isn’t just rhetorical for nonprofit professionals. Every day, 144 people with criminal records apply for employment or a volunteer opportunity with a nonprofit, according to the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta, a consortium of lawyers who advise nonprofits. Dealing with young volunteers or underage participants requires an extra measure of due diligence and wise management by the nonprofit.
In a legal sense, the word “children” usually encompasses anybody under the age of 18. Teen volunteers are children, too, and your involvement with them poses the same sorts of risk that dealing with much younger children does. A well-thought-out approach to working with children and youth can help keep them safe while avoiding potential legal liabilities for your organization. Experts recommend the following:
Get parental consent, train volunteers properly
A parental consent form is essential when working with anybody under the age of 18. In addition to securing the parent’s permission, this form should contain a waiver that can provide some protection if a child gets injured and the parent decides to sue (waivers will not stop an ambitious liability lawyer, so you should not consider them ironclad protection from lawsuits). Furthermore, your attorney should compose the waiver to ensure it contains the most appropriate language based on current law and legal precedent.
Next, develop age-appropriate volunteer training. One effective technique is to arrange group discussions with an adult leader at each table. This lets kids share ideas with peers and makes it less likely that they will misunderstand the material or, worse, become turned off altogether. Later, one-on-one mentoring with an adult helps you to test kids’ newfound skills and knowledge in practice.
For nonprofits leaders, safeguarding children also can protect your organization from legal action. Swing-set accidents have been around for as long as there have been playgrounds, but lawsuits against institutions for such injuries have become much more common in the past few decades. And there is the frightening risk of children being abused by adults they trust. Some of our society’s most venerated organizations have inadvertently provided a haven to people who scarred young people for life and triggered massive court judgments.
Nonprofits have no choice but to take proactive steps to prevent child abuse. Thorough criminal and background checks are a must for adults who work with kids, whether as paid employees or as volunteers. Attorney Ilona Bray, who advises nonprofits, counsels groups to take further measures to prevent adults from spending unsupervised time with children.
Review your insurance coverage
All nonprofits should have sufficient insurance coverage to protect themselves, their staff, volunteers, participants, and their board if anything goes wrong. This begins with general liability insurance, which covers your organization in case of injury or property damage. For starters, all vehicles either owned by or used by your organization need sufficient liability coverage. Make certain that liability coverage is expansive enough to cover as many situations as your group might encounter. For instance, if a wealthy benefactor holds a fundraiser at his house and someone spills wine and ruins an antique Middle-Eastern rug, your group could be on the hook for damages.
There are also special categories of insurance to ask your attorney or insurance broker about. Because people associated with your organization can be held liable in a lawsuit, one especially useful form of insurance is directors and officers coverage. Another is errors and omissions coverage, which protects your group if someone sues you for services deemed ineffective or negligent. Some policies provide riders for coverage involving potential sexual abuse or embezzlement.
Protect children’s privacy
Any organization that publicizes its activities should pay close attention to the notion of “constituent privacy.” This is why newspaper reporters, when taking photographs of an event, have traditionally obtained written consent of photo subjects before they are printed. The Internet and social media make this concern even more critical, especially when photos, videos and printed material using kids’ names are posted.
The best organizations take a proactive approach, asking families to sign waivers giving permission to use children’s photos and names in print, on the Web and in social media. Yet, even here, it’s always wise to err on the cautious side. For instance, if your organization helps people with financial issues, you should avoid mentioning the names of adults or children as a matter of course. Nonprofit-management guru Beth Kanter takes this one step further, counseling groups against mentioning kids’ names and their schools at all in online posts. That includes wearing school apparel.
In addition, if your organization provides health services, you must by law follow the guidelines of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). These rules prohibit disclosure of any information related to diagnosis, including mentioning that someone is enrolled in a particular health program.
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- Meghan Magruder and Shelby Guilbert, "Legal Issues for Nonprofits that Work with Children," Pro Bono Partnership Atlanta
- Pamela Davis, "A Board Member’s Guide to Nonprofit Insurance," Blue Avocado.org
- Beth Kanter, "Facebook, Nonprofits, and Youth Programs: Safety and Privacy Issues," BethKanter.org