When someone donates money or something else of value to a charity (typically tax-exempt nonprofit, or 501c3), that donation is restricted or unrestricted–a charity’s assets are classified as either with donor restrictions or without donor restrictions. Charities must know the difference between these terms and what problems might arise with any restrictions, and keep track of donations appropriately.
If I donate $500 to my favorite charity with a statement somewhere (could be written in my donation letter or email, or even on the memo line of a check) that my donation is to be used for a specific purpose of the charity–my gift is to the Humane Society of the United States to fight puppy mills, then my donation must, by law, be used for that purpose, to fight puppy mills. This is a restricted gift.
If I donate $500 to the United Way with no statement anywhere about what purpose it is to be used, or I state that my donation can be used however the United Way sees fit, then the United Way can use my donation however it determines–operating expenses, any of its programs, etc. This is an unrestricted gift.
What if a nonprofit that provides assistance with medical bills, raises money through GoFundMe or something similar, for a specific event–a person facing a specific surgery, then that surgery is no longer needed? Or all of the funds raised aren’t needed–$50,000 was raised but only $30,000 is needed to pay medical bills? The nonprofit has $20,000 remaining of a restricted gift. Just because the bills only total $30,000 does not mean that the nonprofit has $20,000 to use as it wishes, since the donors who gave that money did so to pay for that specific surgery. Your state’s Attorney General would become very interested in what happens to those donations.
If the purpose for the gift no longer exists, it is possible for the charity to remove donor restrictions from a gift/donation. It can:
- Talk to donors. You can go back to donors, tell them that the purpose for their donation no longer exists and ask them what they would like you to do with their donation, or for permission to put it towards another use. If you use due diligence in this effort, then the Attorney General might not intervene since their purpose is to protect the public. Perhaps you would put a notice on your website or Facebook page to reach the specific donors, try to contact them directly, or publish something in the newspaper asking for donors to the campaign to come forward.
- Talk to the Court. It is possible to go to court requesting a modification of the gift’s restriction if the purpose for the gift no longer exists, has become unlawful, impossible to achieve, or wasteful.
- Talk to the Attorney General. If the donations total less than $250,000 and are more than 10 years old, you could provide 60 days’ notice to the Ohio Attorney General of your intention to modify or release the restriction. If the Attorney General does not object, then you can release or modify the restriction–the $20,000 from the GoFundMe surgery campaign could be used for another medical bill, another program, overhead, or whatever the charity determines.
The best advice for nonprofits is to keep detailed financial records of donations and any restrictions that are attached.
If you have any questions regarding donations, charities or anything in this post, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.