For Nonprofits: Classify your donations correctly

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 julie@juliemillslaw.com.

10 Essential Steps to Start a Nonprofit (cont’d)

STEP #8: WAYS TO LOSE YOUR TAX-EXEMPT STATUS

Most charities rely on donations to operate.  To attract donations, nonprofits will pursue tax-exempt status from the IRS so they can tell donors that their donations are deductible from their taxes.  People generally recognize the IRS code, 501c3, as an indicator that their donations are deductible.  Tax-exempt status makes it possible to secure grants, and makes the organization attractive to corporations and business who want to donate, for “good will” reasons and/or to receive a deduction off taxes.  Losing your tax-exempt status can be a huge blow to a charity, both financially and to the charity’s reputation.  Becoming knowledgeable on ways to lose tax-exempt status is crucial in running a tax-exempt nonprofit.

The federal government grants your organization tax-exempt status if you agree to certain behavior.  The government is saying, “we won’t make you pay certain taxes, but you now owe the public certain things (disclosure and accountability), and you must not do certain things.”  Not following the rules means that the IRS could revoke your organization’s tax-exempt status.

How to jeopardize your tax-exempt status:

  1. Inurement,” or private benefit.  First, as you read the definition of inurement, know that any amount can jeopardize tax-exempt status.  Second, inurement means to “benefit.”  The prohibition against inurement means that there shall be no using income or assets of a tax-exempt organization to unduly benefit an individual or organization that has a close relationship with the tax-exempt organization.  The inurement prohibition is absolute.  Assets and income are to be used to further the organization’s mission, period.
  2. Unrelated Business Income (UBI).  If your organization runs a business that produces income for your organization, but the purpose of the business is unrelated to your organization’s mission, then the organization is subject to tax on its income from the business.  If your tax-exempt organization provides clothing for shelters and low-income families, and receives income from a thrift store it runs, it is unlikely there would be a risk for UBI.  If your organization is a pet rescue and receives income from a nail salon business, the rescue might have UBI.
  3. Political campaign activity.  As with the inurement prohibition, any amount of political campaigning in support or opposition of a candidate is prohibited and could result in loss of 501c3 (tax exempt) status.  I counsel nonprofit clients that the organization can’t engage in political activity regarding a candidate, but can generally support or oppose an issue.  The tax-exempt “clean oceans” organizations can oppose a ballot initiative to ease pollution restrictions, for example.  I caution to proceed carefully, since tax-exempt status can be revoked if political activity is deemed to be “substantial,” and there are tests the IRS uses to determine this.

Guard your organization’s tax-exempt, 501c3 status.  Having to reapply is cumbersome if you lose this status, and it might give donors a reason to donate their money to an organization who has not behaved in ways that result in losing this designation.

If you have any questions about getting, maintaining, or losing tax-exempt status, email me at julie@juliemillslaw.com.

 

 

10 Essential Steps to Start a Nonprofit (cont’d)

You created a nonprofit corporation under your state’s corporation laws.  You presented your nonprofit corporation to the IRS and requested tax-exempt status.  Congratulations, you just received your Determination Letter from the IRS that grants your nonprofit tax-exempt status!  You are a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, nonprofit organization.  By this time, you are probably ready to start soliciting donations from the public, who you’re certain will be anxious to contribute to your worthy cause.  Are you finished with the applying, registering, filing, etc?  No!

STEP #5: REGISTER YOUR CHARITY WITH THE ATTORNEY GENERAL

In Ohio, a charity that solicits donations from the public must register with the Ohio Attorney General.  Ohio law requires such registration, and other states likely have similar charitable registration laws.  At this point, my clients are often tired of registering, filing, and applying, and some tax-exempt nonprofits actually overlook this important step in the process.

It helps to see the big picture with many legal processes.  Here, you create an entity in your state to do business, whether it’s for-profit or nonprofit.  As a nonprofit, you want to attract donors, so you decided to offer them a tax deduction for their donation by asking the IRS for permission to do that–having your nonprofit become tax exempt.  Since you are asking the public for their money, the attorney general enters the picture as the agency in charge of protecting the public.  To protect people about to donate their money, the attorney general ensures that charities in its state are legitimate.  There are many unscrupulous people who use fake charities to attract donations and the attorney general is tasked with protecting people from giving money to scams.  Fake charities tend to mimic the name or mission of popular charities, particularly veteran organizations, breast cancer charities, and charities that pop up after disasters.

In Ohio, the Ohio Revised Code requires charities to register with the Ohio Attorney General, and to file annual registration statements.  There are charities that are exempt from this requirement.  If your organization contracts with a professional fundraiser or solicitor, parts of the Ohio Revised Code govern your contractual relationship–in other words, special attention is paid to these arrangements.  Certain disclosures need to be made to the public for any organization asking the public to donate, and records of all fundraising activity need maintained for 3 years whether you hire a professional fundraiser or not.

Clients sometimes wonder at this point why all of this work is needed when they just want to “do good.”  There is much initial work involved, and annual registrations and other actions must be followed, but the main reason clients must follow these steps is to make sure that people are giving money to legitimate causes.

If you have any questions about registering your Ohio charity with the Ohio Attorney General, email me at julie@juliemillslaw.com. 

Top 4 Pervasive Myths about Nonprofits

Everyone knows about nonprofits—they are groups or organizations that help.  Some organizations help people, some have a mission to help animals or the environment, and some are formed to help communities or society.  As common as nonprofits are, there are a few myths about nonprofits that are just as common, and that I dispel with clients on a regular basis.

MYTH #1: Nonprofits can’t make a profit.  (Or, shouldn’t make a profit.)  This myth is, in my opinion, the most common and the most detrimental.  Nonprofits can make a profit, and those that are run well do make a profit.  If a nonprofit breaks even, or loses money every year, it won’t be around long at all.  The word “nonprofit” is a misnomer–nonprofits can make a profit; what matters is what is done with the profit.

A nonprofit is like a for-profit business except that profits can’t be distributed to any private individual.  With for-profit corporations, profits are distributed typically through dividends to shareholders.  Nonprofits belong to the public, and profits come back to the organization so it can fulfill its mission in helping the public, not to private individuals.  This leads to the second common myth…

MYTH#2: Nonprofit directors, officers and staff can’t be compensated.  To the contrary, nonprofit employment makes up about 10% of private employment in the United States.  Much discussion and controversy surround how much the director of a nonprofit should make.  Naturally, people want to donate money to an organization to help its cause, not to excessively compensate its director or officers.  The key with compensation is for it to be “reasonable.”  For nonprofits with the financial means to compensate its director (desirable to attract qualified people—see Myth #1), a very general rule to determine “reasonable compensation” is that director compensation should not exceed 10% of revenue.  A salary of $200,000 would likely be considered reasonable for a nonprofit with $2 million in revenue.

MYTH#3: Donations to nonprofits are tax deductible.  If the nonprofit has received tax-exempt status from the IRS, then a donor can take a deduction on his or her taxes.

A nonprofit is a state entity.  Donations to a nonprofit are tax deductible only if the nonprofit has received federal tax-exempt status from the IRS, designated most commonly as a 501(c)(3) charity (donations to some 501(c)(4) organizations and organizations under other IRS sections are tax deductible but are less common).  If a nonprofit does not have tax-exempt status, either as a 501(c)(3) or other organization, donations to it are not deductible to the donor.  People see “nonprofit” and often assume donations are automatically tax exempt.  If you plan to claim a deduction on your taxes, check if the nonprofit has tax-exempt status from the IRS first.

MYTH #4: Tax-exempt nonprofits do not pay taxes.  Tax-exempt nonprofit organizations do not pay federal taxes, sales tax and property taxes.  They do, however, pay employee taxes (Social Security and Medicare) and, in some situations, pay income tax.

If you would like to form a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, contact me at julie@juliemillslaw.com.

The IRS begins scrutinizing tax-exempt organizations more closely

Charitable organizations, typically recognized as 501(c)(3) organizations, are beholden to the public financially and otherwise, which is one of the trade-offs for being exempt from paying most taxes.  The IRS and the Attorney General in each state ensure that tax-exempt organizations are acting, in a very broad and general sense, “reasonably.”  Focus is generally put upon compensation of key people (directors, officers), and private inurement (benefiting privately).  Tax exempt organizations need to review their practices because, in my opinion, when the IRS announces “closer scrutiny,” audits are forthcoming.

Read this article to learn more about what the IRS will be scrutinizing, and steps for your organization to take:

https://www.benefitslawadvisor.com/2018/03/articles/irs/irs-announces-heightened-scrutiny-for-tax-exempt-entities/

Can our group hold fundraisers?

Yes.  Really, you can do anything you want.  The question is, should you?

I had a parent of a scout-like troop ask if the group should become a nonprofit in order to hold fundraisers.  The answer depends upon who the group will benefit, what does the group want to offer donors, among other considerations.

  1. A nonprofit is a state-formed entity.  To gain tax-exempt status (group does not pay certain taxes such as federal income tax; donors can take a deduction for donation on their taxes), the nonprofit needs to file for exemption with the IRS.  The typical status you see is a 501(c)(3) charity.
  2. A tax-exempt nonprofit can only be formed to benefit the public (generally).  For example, such an organization can be formed to fight childhood cancer, but cannot be formed to fund just Timmy’s cancer treatments and medical bills, even if you give away any “leftover” funds.
  3. Anyone can fundraise (note that your state’s Attorney General will want to know if you fundraise, likely regardless of whether or not you are a nonprofit, or tax exempt).  The issue is what is offered to a donor.  “Donations are tax deductible” can be offered only if you have tax-exempt status.  You could hold a spaghetti dinner to benefit Timmy above, but if you are not tax exempt, you cannot say to donors that their donations are tax deductible.
  4. Becoming a tax exempt nonprofit is not something to consider unless you are ready to essentially run a business.  You must first incorporate with your state, then apply for tax exempt status with the IRS.  In Ohio, a nonprofit must have a minimum of 3 board of directors, must file articles of incorporation, should have organization bylaws, hold regular meetings and keep corporate minutes.  A nonprofit is a corporate entity (C-corp, LLC, etc.), and by applying for tax-exempt status with the IRS, you are asking the federal government to exempt your corporation from paying certain taxes.

For smaller groups who still want to become tax exempt, the IRS has shortened their application by introducing the form 1023EZ a couple of years ago, see http://www.irs.gov.  For information on forming nonprofit organizations in Ohio, see http://www.sos.state.oh.us/sos/upload/publications/busserv/Nonprofit.pdf.  Also, read what the Ohio Attorney General has to say about nonprofits:  http://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Business/Services-for-Charities.