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

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


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



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


Depending upon the nature of your nonprofit or what activities you undertake for fundraising–e.g., bake sales, pet bakery sales, bingo tournaments, etc.–you might be required to register with other agencies or organizations.  For many nonprofits, it’s highly recommended that you register with certain organizations.  The listings below are often specific to Ohio, so be certain to check with your state’s agency or organization for registration information.

Places where you might be required to register:

Places where you might decide to register; information you might need:

For information about where you should register, email me at

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!


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 

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


Step #1 is to develop a mission statement.  Step #2 is to develop your team.  Step #3 is to incorporate with the Secretary of State.  Step #4 is what most people know to do when building a charity–apply for tax-exempt status.

The IRS grants tax-exempt status to nonprofit corporations that are approved.  It’s the federal government’s way of saying “you will be exempt from paying some taxes in exchange for your service to the public good.”  It is also the government’s way of rewarding donors who can deduct their donations from their taxes.  Many recognize the IRS chapter that governs tax exemption for public charities, 501(c)(3).  There are so many myths and misconceptions with tax-exempt status that I could write a 10-post “myth” series on just misconceptions.  I will address these misconceptions below, but first, what is involved in the tax-exempt process?

Once you incorporate with your state’s secretary of state, you obtain an EIN number, you have your team of people, then you file for tax-exempt status with the IRS using form 1023.  Many new organizations will qualify for using the short-form 1023EZ.  There is a fee schedule.  When approved, you will receive a Determination Letter that you will save, and keep on hand to present when requested to organizations and others as proof of your tax-exempt status.

Tax exemption misconceptions to keep in mind:

  1. Your organization is not exempt from paying all taxes.  You are exempt from federal income and unemployment tax, and possibly exempt from some state sales, income and employment taxes.
  2. You are now a public organization.  You are taking public dollars in furtherance of your stated mission, and are to be transparent to the public.  Your tax returns, much of your operations, your board meetings, are to be available to the public (within reason).
  3. You aren’t in charge–you and the board of directors must work together as an organization, not a private, closely-held business.  This is difficult for some to accept when someone has spent a large amount of time developing a charity only to be voted out by its board of directors.  If you want absolute control, become a for-profit business.  You might not have as much access to donations and grants but depending upon your cause, you might still attract donors or sponsorships.
  4. You don’t just “get a [federal] number” and start collecting donations.  You are a business (i.e., nonprofit corporation) and you are now exempt from paying some taxes.  You must operate as a business, observe corporate formalities, observe requirements for maintaining federal tax-exempt status.
  5. As a public corporation (once you receive tax-exempt status), you are scrutinized by both your state’s Attorney General and the IRS to ensure that the public is protected when donating its money to you and other charities.

If you are committed to a cause and to starting a nonprofit, contact me with any questions about formation or applying for tax-exempt status at, or visit

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

Welcome to the third in a series of ten posts discussing what you should do to start a nonprofit.  You have your mission statement, you’ve assembled your team.  Now, it’s time to take your first formal, legal step–incorporate with the Secretary of State as a nonprofit corporation.

My posts regard Ohio, but these steps are similar in most states.  Be sure to check the rules and law in your state.  Articles of Incorporation are filed with the Secretary of State to form a corporation.  With nonprofit corporations, your articles must address issues important to the IRS, including conflict of interest and dissolution matters.  It is important to note that filing articles with the Secretary of State does not make your organization tax exempt, and donations are not tax deductible to the donor.  For an nonprofit corporation to become tax exempt, it must apply for tax-exempt status with the IRS, which will be addressed in a subsequent post.

The Articles of Incorporation are relatively easy to complete and file.  In Ohio, articles can be filed online.  You need to submit your name, address of the organization, designate a statutory agent to receive legal mail, and the names of your incorporators.  Once your articles are accepted, you will receive a charter number as an official corporation.

If you would like assistance filing articles of incorporation for a nonprofit corporation, email me at, or contact me through  I can help get your nonprofit started so you can fulfill your mission!

10 Essential Steps to Start a Nonprofit

I recently posted the first post in a series of ten on steps to follow when starting a nonprofit.  Step #1 was to develop a mission statement.  Step #2?


Oftentimes, a person with a passion has others around with the same passion. Few people volunteer somewhere or plan fundraising events or develop grassroots campaigns without making friends and developing a network of others who have the same passion.  If you decide to start a nonprofit, use these like-minded people around you to build your leadership team.

If you are thinking that you don’t have a network of people yet, just a passion that you want to pursue through forming a nonprofit, then your next step will be developing your organization’s leadership team.  Reach out to people who have beneficial skills, along with a connection to the cause.  An accountant-friend who has a child with a disability might be someone to consider for a treasurer position, or as a board member, of your nonprofit that offers sports programs to children with disabilities.  A coach-friend might agree to serve on the board of your nonprofit that will offer after-school sports programs to kids.

When first forming your team, consider filling the following roles:

  1.  Executive Director.  The founder often fills this role to serve hands-on in the development of the nonprofit.
  2. Board of Directors.  For most nonprofits, you should start with a manageable, odd number of board members (odd number to break a tie vote).  The Board guides the group in following its mission.  Your board needs to be engaged and committed to the nonprofit’s mission, and willing to meet fiduciary obligations in serving on a board such as attending meetings and upholding the organization’s bylaws.
  3. Volunteers (if applicable).  Most nonprofits start with little-to-no budget.  Nonprofits rely on volunteers to aid the organization in its cause–volunteers help with projects, spread the word on the nonprofit’s work, work on committees, and help the nonprofit in ways too numerous to list.  If your nonprofit plans to utilize volunteers, there should be plans in place to manage this group of people who are so passionate about your organization’s cause that they will work for no compensation.

Developing a leadership team is, in my experience, one of the most exciting and most frustrating times in the formation of a nonprofit organization.  People are motivated to make a difference, but eventually clashing personalities and different ideas can create serious impediments to the governance of a nonprofit. Managing people is a skill that will be required, and when your team has clear bylaws to govern, a great leadership team can be extremely rewarding for everyone involved.

If you want to start a nonprofit in Canton, Akron, Cleveland or Columbus, or discuss issues with a current nonprofit, contact me at, or visit