The Legal Side of Mission Trips

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Mission trips can provide fantastic opportunities to help others, to learn, and to grow spiritually.  Indeed, an estimated 2 to 4 million Americans participate in mission trips annually.  Aside from the packing list and the plane ticket, what do responsible leaders and participants need to know for legal compliance, optimal safety, and even tax reporting purposes?  Here are eight key legal tips for successful mission trips.

1.           Who’s in Charge?  This question is more complicated than it may seem.   A mission trip may include one or more of the following:  a group of participants; one or more churches; one or more missionaries on-site; a foreign organization in the country where the missionary work occurs; and/or a US “friends of” organization that employs the missionary or arranges the trip.  Take some planning time to determine and identify which party will be responsible for each aspect of the trip including lodging, specific activities, materials needed, and travel plans.  Write it down, to identify each party’s respective responsibilities.   Good intentions are just that.  Clarity can be a godsend, especially in a written agreement.

2.         Who is Going, and Why Does It Matter?   Are the participants families, youth, single, married?   It matters.  A trip for mature adults flying to New York City would presumably involve much different safety precautions than a group of teenagers heading off to a remote location, especially in terms of supervision, emergency measures, first aid, and transportation safety.   Rules matter – for all ages, but particularly for younger folks.  Make a list of Do’s and Don’ts, explain these rules to the participants, and require the participants to expressly agree to follow such rules as part of a signed consent and release form.   Then follow and enforce the rules!  Keep in mind, not only may a sponsoring organization be held responsible for negligent handling of mission trips, so too may church leaders be held personally liable for “gross negligence” (i.e., a serious failure to act responsibly).   Accordingly, make sure to adequately address the specific circumstances, related participant needs, and accompanying risks of harm and liability for each mission trip.  

3.         Who’s Paying, and is it Tax-Deductible?  Contributions for mission trips may certainly be tax deductible, provided that the following conditions are met.  First, contributions must be made to a Section 501(c)(3) organization. Churches and other religious institutions automatically qualify for such tax benefit.  Second, while contributions may be made with an indicated preference for a specific use, they cannot be restricted to only such purpose, e.g., “Johnny’s mission trip this fall.”  Rather, the donor must understand – and be willing to donate despite the fact – that if Johnny is too sick to travel, the donation may not legally be returned.  This is because the donee organization is legally prohibited from operating as a “mere conduit” to receive and pass along donated funds.  Third, and on a related note, the donee organization must exercise control over the funds and has a responsibility to assure that they are used for qualified tax-exempt purposes. (E.g., if Johnny is too sick to travel, the donee organization must find other appropriate uses for the donated funds; simply giving Johnny the money as “his own” is legally not permitted.)

4.         What if Something Goes Wrong?  That’s where the well-known consent and waiver forms come in.  Make sure that the forms are tailored to the specific trip.  Disclose the risks and assumptions.  For example, if a mission trip involves going to a red-light district in Thailand, specify the expected risks and warnings in writing.  Or if the group is expected to fix houses in Appalachia, describe the expected construction skills and attendant risks involved.  In addition, state upfront the physical requirements for each participant (e.g., endurance, ability to handle high altitudes or extreme weather conditions, specific precautions needed).  By making such disclosures, the consent forms become informed consent forms – and therefore more likely to be legally enforceable.  In addition, such disclosure helps everyone better understand the actual risks and expectations involved so that participants (and parents, as may be the case) can better evaluate whether this is the right kind of trip for them. 

5.         What About Medical Needs?  Consent forms additionally provide a great opportunity to gather medical information for each participant and provide a release for emergency medical treatment (with medical insurance information).  Clarify in advance who will be responsible for any medical bills that may be incurred for the participant.  Make sure that participants’ insurance information, allergies, and medical conditions are disclosed to the organization and that the trip leaders are equipped with this information throughout the course of the trip. 

6.         What's That About Insurance?   Now that’s a great idea!  Churches and other nonprofits sponsoring a mission trip need to develop procedures for insuring the participants and for dealing with medical and other emergencies. Keep in mind that many individuals’ health insurance coverage does not automatically apply to overseas health needs.  Participants may need to be advised to contact their insurance providers for additional insurance.  Alternatively, a mission trip provider may wish to secure such health insurance for the participants.  For travel to certain destinations, it may be appropriate and prudent to obtain emergency evacuation and even hostage-related insurance coverage.

7.         Am I on YouTube?  As part of the consent and release process, include a release for media use by the sponsoring organization or others. Consider as well whether to prohibit unauthorized photography, videos, and other media usage, and how that prohibition will be accomplished.  This precaution may be especially important not only for respecting individuals’ privacy but also for avoiding potential sexual misconduct problems. 

8.         Can I Deduct My Mission Trip Expenses? If they are unreimbursed, volunteers may be able to deduct some or all of their expenses related to their mission trip.  Be prepared, though, for significant limitations.  For example, travel expenses may not be deducted if there is a “significant element of personal pleasure, recreation, or vacation associated with the trip.”  The IRS will allow participants to enjoy the trip, just not for too long!  In addition, written substantiation must be provided for expenses of more than $250.  So if a volunteer wants to take medicine, diapers, and baby supplies to an orphanage, he or she will need a receipt from the charitable organization acknowledging delivery of such provisions (and having the store receipt may be helpful, too).  Mileage for vehicle travel also may be deductible, but only with proper record-keeping and only at the “charity” rate, which is currently at 14 cents per mile.

With consent forms developed, the fundraising strategy worked out, and peace of mind gained through careful tax and other planning, organizational leaders and their participants can be well prepared for wonderful mission trips!