Young People on Nonprofit Boards? Good Idea, but Know the Law

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January 19, 2012; Source: Nonprofit Law Blog | Emily Chan and Gene Takegi published a very useful blog post that asks an intriguing question:  can minors serve on nonprofit boards?

Chan’s post notes that young people are increasingly involved in volunteer service activities, and some nonprofits are making efforts to mobilize and engage youth in their programs. Doesn’t that translate into openness to young people serving on nonprofit boards even though they might be below the legal age of adulthood?

There are well known nonprofits with youth board members, such as the America’s Promise Alliance and Youth as Resources. It makes sense, if nonprofits are really concerned about bringing young people into leadership roles in the nonprofit sector, but as Chan notes, “having a youth board member can also create risks, raise legal uncertainties, and cause further dysfunction in [the] pre-existing weaknesses of a board.”

Chan points out legal issues that most of us probably wouldn’t have known. For example, three states (Michigan, Minnesota, and New York) have laws providing for youth board members; New York limits youth board members to organizations focusing on education, youth development, and delinquency prevention. Seven states specifically prohibiting youth board members (Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Utah). The rest of the states, plus Washington, D.C., are silent on the issue, but Chan notes that the “takeaway…is not to assume silence in the law means the same as authorization.”

Chan also notes issues such as the limited ability of minors to sign contracts and the problems of enforcing fiduciary duties on youth board members. There may also be issues with an organization’s directors and officers (D&O) liability insurance coverage. But most importantly, Chan goes from these legal issues to management issues, asking very useful questions about what an organization is trying to achieve with the addition of youth board members, how other board members will adjust to minors with voting rights, what should and shouldn’t be expected of youth board members, and how to make the youth board members feel welcome and valued by the adults on the board.

Those are the kinds of questions that Chan’s articles (and Tageki’s too) typically raise when analyzing common legal issues and challenges facing nonprofits, making the Nonprofit Law Blog a must-read for nonprofit managers. And in case you missed it, recently NPQ was lucky enough to have Chan write a wonderful piece for us on employer rights and limitations regarding what employees do with social media.

—Rick Cohen

  • Jennifer Chandler

    Rick — Thank you for pointing out Emily and Gene’s helpful analysis. I hail from NJ where it is uncommon for minors to serve on boards given the legal prohibition. I worked with several nonprofits that created a leadership path for younger board members through advisory “boards” (with catchier names). The youth boards were invited to the governing board meetings as guests at least once a year, and places were reserved for them to volunteer on committees. But nonprofits need to be careful of that approach too! Another little known legal factoid is that in some states (NJ being one) ONLY board members may serve on standing committees of the board (Many Washington DC orgs. are grappling with this now, due to a recent change in the DC Code that governs nonprofit corporations.)

  • Dania Miwa

    I agree completely with the “advisory board” or I have seen many organizations in Minnesota who create junior boards.

    I currently serve on the Young Professionals board of the Minnesota Zoo. They have a very complex board structure as the Zoo is a state institution and has an government selected board, a foundation board and now this young professional board. which brings the next generation of leaders to the table and begins to steward the next generations involvement in the institution. I wrote about getting young professionals involved in boards But my article only deals with people who are “legal” adults.

  • rick cohen

    Thanks Jennifer and Dania: I was pleased to link Emily’s excellent piece to the NPQ readership. I have had lots of experience over the years with situations where adults really disenfranchised young people. Nonprofit organizations that aren’t patronizing young people but trying to find legitimate, structured ways for the voices of young people to be legitimately considered on issues that affect them.