Can a minor start a nonprofit as the sole member? If not, who do you recommend be designated as the sole member? And how do you transition control to the child once they turn 18?
We often recommend a “sole member corporation” to allow the founder (or founders) of a nonprofit corporation to control the organization through the power to appoint and remove the directors. This enables the founder to assure that the vision and mission for the organization will be maintained and that the organization won’t fire the founder after the founder has built it up and gained stability.
Because the answers to your questions are entirely dependent on state law, it isn’t possible to give definitive answers. But I can suggest some things for your consideration. It isn’t likely that a minor can “start” a nonprofit through the normal process of being the sole or initial incorporator. Many states will require an incorporator to be at least 18 years of age. If so, the minor will need a trusted person, perhaps a supportive parent or a firm that provides incorporation services generally, to be the original incorporator. The incorporator’s work is done once the organization is established, however, and the larger questions will have to be reflected in the governing documents dealing with longer term operation. (See Ready Reference Page: “Sole Member Bylaws Can Protect Founder of Nonprofit”)
It is less likely that the state nonprofit corporation law has age limits on being a member, although there may be general limits on what type of contracts a minor may legally enter into and bylaws of a corporation are generally treated as contracts. In addition, most states will probably prevent minors from serving as directors of the corporation, even if there is no prohibition on a minor being a member.
Depending on what is permissible under state law, it may be necessary for the supportive parents or other trusted adults to serve as members and directors until the founder becomes of age. Although they clearly have legal and fiduciary obligations while serving in these positions, they can follow the direction of the child so long as it would not be illegal or violative of their fiduciary duty. It isn’t likely that they will have a lot to do because presumably not much will happen unless the kid does the real work of starting the venture (and the kid may be somewhat diverted by school and other teen things).
Transition would normally be accomplished by having the mom or dad who is serving as the initial member appoint the minor as a member upon the minor’s attaining legal adulthood (a nice birthday present!) and then resigning so that the youngster is the sole remaining member. It may be possible to provide that the transition happens automatically with a separate provision in the original bylaws. (It would be an interesting law school exam question whether a veto power given to the minor to prevent an amendment to eliminate the veto power would be enforceable.)
Once the kid becomes the sole member, he or she can decide who stays or who goes as a director. A sole member of any age normally needs a lot of support to make the vision a reality.