Thank you for contacting us at Ask an Advisor, and congratulations for taking initiative to meet a need in your community! A support group is a great way to help people, connect them to others, and empower communities.
A support group can be as formal or informal as you want it to be. You are smart to think about the possible legal implications of starting and maintaining a support group. If you are doing fundraising, then you probably want to file for nonprofit status and obtain a federal EIN (a tax identification number), as you may be required to report income to the IRS. Please contact a local CPA or attorney who specializes in nonprofits for further information. However, if you are not looking to create a formal organization and raise money, this may not be necessary.
From your question, it sounds like you might be more concerned about general liability than tax status and reporting. If you are concerned about general liability, there are some steps that you can take to help mitigate risk. Are there any existing nonprofit organizations with which you can partner? Partnering with an existing organization could provide advantages which extend beyond liability, such as helping build trust in the group and providing a meeting location or other resources. Potential partnering organizations might range from the local school system to a mental health facility to a community center. If you are concerned about protecting yourself and other group leaders from liability, make sure to directly ask any partnering organization whether their liability insurance policy would extend to your group (don’t just assume it will).
Another way to help mitigate risk is to think carefully about group structure and rules for participation. It will be important to create a confidential, supportive space in which people can talk openly about the issues they experience. Will your meetings be open to the public, or closed? We would suggest setting ground rules upon arrival to a meeting, with the most important ground rule being confidentiality: require attendees to commit to keeping what was discussed, and the identities of other attendees, confidential. You may want to ask people to sign in upon arrival, to keep track of who attends. This will also be useful for following up with attendees. Who will be facilitating your group meetings? You may want to see if a mental health professional would be willing to facilitate your meetings. If you are using peer facilitation, make that known to attendees at the outset.
Will youth be attending your meetings? If so, there are some additional steps that you can take to help protect your attendees and facilitators. At a minimum, make sure that your group: (1) develops a code of conduct for adults working with youth, (2) that no adult is ever alone with a young person, and (3) that no youth is transported to meetings without a parent or guardian’s consent. You may also want to create a requirement that youth attend meetings with a parent or guardian present.
Finally, make sure that you have crisis resources on hand. Facilitators should have both local resources (e.g., information on how to file a police report) and national resources (e.g., national anti-bullying programs and crisis line information) on hand for attendees. If you have a website, you can also make this information publicly available on your website.
We hope that these tips help get you started. For additional information on starting a support group, including more information on some things stated here, we suggest reading Chapter 21, Section 2: Creating and Facilitating Peer Support Groups. Thanks again for contacting Ask an Advisor, and best of luck in your work.