Archive for the ‘Philanthropy and Taxation’ Category

Dear Nonprofiteer, Is the banquet deductible?

March 5, 2013

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I am the Development Manager for a small nonprofit that operates on a budget of around $500,000 a year. Something came up this year for the first time, and I’d like your opinion.

The ticket price to our annual benefit is $100, and we routinely send acknowledgements to guests that $50 of their $100 ticket is deductible. This is a fairly accurate estimate of the value of the food, drink and entertainment cost, and according to our business manager and auditor, standard best practices (as well as the way benefit tickets have been handled at every nonprofit for which I have ever worked, during the past 20+ years).

This year, we got an RSVP from one guest with a note saying, check to follow. When the check arrived, it was from a donor advised fund with a letter stating that endorsement of the check would confirm that the full amount was tax-deductible and that no goods or services had been received in exchange. My Executive Director and I felt that to treat this differently from all other benefit ticket purchasers would be inappropriate, and compromise the integrity of our nonprofit. I contacted the donor advised fund representative, and explained the situation. I made it clear that the woman would be welcome at our event, but that we would not deposit the check without further instruction from him.

At the benefit, the woman handed me a check for $50. She was very kind, but basically said, these things are done all the time, there’s a fine line, you are on the wrong side of it, but “you’ll learn.” She also told me that the board member who invited her will be speaking with me about this.

I realize this is a relatively small amount, but it’s a larger principle. One of the reasons I value my job at this particular nonprofit is that there is a strong commitment to integrity, consistency and transparency here. My ED and I both feel that we made the right call; but this is very likely not the end of it, as we haven’t heard yet from the board member.

What do you think?

Sincerely, Just Following The Rules

Dear Following:

It’s not a matter of what the Nonprofiteer thinks; it’s what she knows, and you know and your Executive Director knows.  There’s nothing at all “fine” about the line between deductible and non-deductible payments: the IRS permits deduction of the amount that goes to the charity, and not of the amount that goes into a guest’s belly.  It’s what any lawyer would refer to as “a bright-line rule.”  So maybe the banquet guest just got her lines mixed up.

Seriously, this isn’t even a close call.  What this person has asked you to do is to lie to the IRS on her behalf.  Let’s leave aside ethics, integrity, all those mushy things.  Lying to the IRS is a really bad idea–just ask Al Capone.

Now, is your agency likely to be audited for breaking the rules (also known as “the law”)?  No.  Nor is the guest likely to be audited for misreporting her charitable contributions.  But that’s not a reason for you (or her) to pretend that she received no value for the money she handed over.  You were wise not to endorse the donor-advised fund’s check embodying such a pretense, and you will continue to be wise by not issuing a tax-deductibility receipt for the $50 personal check she ultimately forked over.

If and when the Board member comes at you, you will reiterate what we all know to be true: that the IRS does not permit you to certify the food, drink and entertainment costs as tax-deductible contributions, and that you’re sure she wouldn’t want an agency she governs to participate in such a dangerous and false maneuver.  If she presses, observe that the guest may make any use she pleases of her cancelled $50 check.

If the Board member continues to press, turn the matter over to the Board president.  It’s her/his responsibility to make sure no one member of the Board in any way tarnishes the reputation of the whole group.  If s/he resists addressing the issue, try using the words “tax evasion,” and if s/he continues to resist, try using the word “fraud.”

You don’t have to be in the business of judging or disparaging the guest (though she richly deserves it. Wealthy enough to have a donor-advised fund and wailing about $50?).  But you likewise don’t have to be in the business of abetting her dishonesty.  And if anyone argues, “Well, it’s only $50,” make sure to agree.  “Our agency’s good name isn’t for sale,” you’ll say.  “But if it were, it would cost a hell of a lot more than $50.”

Keep on abiding by the law, and may the Force be with you.

Really bad advice about year-end giving, and some really obvious responses

December 31, 2012

The Nonprofiteer just received an e-mail entitled “Five Things You Need to Know About Year-end Giving” which was distinguished primarily by the utter wrongness of each and every one of the items identified.  Names have been omitted to protect the guilty, but commentary appears in bold.

1. Background Check….[B]efore you reach for your wallet, take the time to look into how charities spend their money. It is important know how much of your money actually reaches those in need. A rule of thumb is around 7% to 9% for administrative costs, though some online outlets with low overhead structures are able dip below that.  First clue that this is wrong: the imaginary precision of “7% to 9%.”  Second clue: use of the term “overhead” without definition.  “Overhead” includes such profligate expenditures as electricity and health care for employees.  The last thing we need is for donors to make it a condition of their gifts that nonprofit employees live in poverty. Rather than spend time trying to divine a charity’s wastefulness, donors should work on ascertaining its effectiveness.

2. Beware of dogs….Check the IRS database of more than a million charitable organizations to make sure the one you’re giving to is legit. The IRS database will not tell you which organizations are legitimate, only which organizations have filed appropriate paperwork.  Yes, of course, don’t give your credit-card number to any random jerk who calls; but more important, don’t give money to any agency about which you know nothing but a name and a 501(c)(3) designation.

3. Target the Need. If you see a specific need you want to affect, specify where your donation should go by adding a note, writing an email or by designating it on your check…. Money is fungible: whatever you give to a nonprofit inevitably supports its entire range of purposes and activities.  All that happens if you “designate” a spot for your money is that the recipient nonprofit shifts preexisting funds to another program.  If you don’t trust the charity to use your money wisely, don’t give it money; if you do, get out of its way and let professionals do their jobs.  The Red Cross responds to all sorts of disasters; if it gets more money than it needs for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, it will use that money for the victims of Hurricane Tom, or the house fire around the corner from you.  If you object to that, you’re more concerned with being trendy than with helping, so don’t bother to support the Red Cross.

4. Get More Than a Good Feeling….Be sure to get receipts for large donations above $250. Many non-profits are now accepting direct deposits and can accept funds with the click of a button.  Be aware of the tax deductibility of your contribution as not all non-profits can give you a tax-deductible receipt.  It’s true that donations to the NFL or the American Bar Association are not tax-deductible though  those agencies are nonprofit; but gifts to virtually anything you think of as a charity ARE tax-deductible.  Ask about it if you’re concerned but this is the least of your worries.

5. Simplify and Centralize Your Giving. Simplify your giving by using a one-stop-shop that makes finding and giving to charities easier. [Our company's] users can give to any 501(c)(3) recognized by the IRS. [Our company] keeps a record of donations so you don’t have to and provides a year-end receipt for tax purposes.  Again, don’t be trolling around looking for charities in somebody’s data-base; give money to agencies in your community whose work you know, or to organizations active in the field (social services, the environment, the arts) with which you’re concerned.  It’s no easier to find the names of random charities in some commercial Website’s data-base than directly from the IRS (or from the phone book, for that matter), and if you’re worried about having a receipt you could always just write a check, which is perfectly adequate documentation for the Revenue agents.  Don’t be dazzled by announcements of great on-line services which can direct you to charity: there’s nothing difficult about making your own gift, and “research” in this field means nothing more than familiarity with an agency’s work. What’s being ballyhooed here is the equivalent of an offer to chew your food for you: sure, you could hire someone to do it, but that would eliminate not only all the fun but all the nourishment.

Don’t feel desperate about giving away your money before December 31: there will be plenty of need (and plenty of tax-deductibility) in the new year.  Take the time you need to find out about the mission, services and effectiveness of the organizations you want to support.  There’s no charitable fiscal cliff, so don’t bother searching for a charitable bungee cord; your personal sense of balance will be more than sufficient to support you.

Take me to the PILOT, once more with feeling

October 9, 2012

Here’s a new wrinkle in the ever-popular saga “Taxation of the Tax Exempt”: members of the Scranton City Council threaten to withhold zoning changes from owners of tax-exempt property unless they make “voluntary” PILOTS (Payments In Lieu Of Taxation).  The Nonprofiteer has long been open to the notion that non-charitable tax-exempt organizations should have to pay property taxes, even as she acknowledges that the definition of  “charitable” remains contested.

But let’s settle these issues in open political debate, with nonprofits able to make their case that they are truly charitable, and/or that their contribution to the public good entitles them to property tax exemption whether or not they’re charitable in some strict definition of the word.  Let’s not torture the concept of “voluntary” by suggesting that a payment extorted in return for rezoning is somehow a free-will contribution to the public fisc.

Cross-posted to samefacts.com

Existing forever versus doing some good

March 28, 2012

An op-ed piece a few weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall)  argued that donors should construct their foundations to spend down assets as rapidly as possible, lest the foundations end up supporting causes their donors would revile.  This familiar argument comes with a familiar whipping-boy: the Ford Foundation, whose enthusiasm for assisting the poor and marginalized was certainly not shared by its eponymous founder Henry.  The op-ed piece, like many of its kind, focuses on the question of donor intent, arguing that only a brief payout period can assure that the donor’s intent is served.

The Nonprofiteer has never cared particularly about the intent of dead donors.  First of all, they’re dead, and while death may not extinguish intent as a matter of law it certainly does as a matter of common sense.   Second, how much better off do we really think the world would be if Ford’s foundation had spent all its money on Ford’s enthusiasms, such as promoting publication of the scurrilous anti-Semitic tract The Learned Protocols of the Elders of Zion?   Third and most important, the  tax-free status of foundations is supposed to encourage philanthropy, not the accumulation of permanently idle tax-free money.

The Nonprofiteer has long argued that the minimum expenditure required of foundations is way too minimum, and that setting up a structure to give away 5% of income shouldn’t entitle a donor to a 100% tax shelter–whatever his/her intent.  Most likely that intent was to escape from taxation, without too much more thought than that.

So let’s think about the issue not from the standpoint of donor intent but from the standpoint of social good.  Which is more useful for a philanthropy: remaining around in perpetuity, to grapple with issues that may arise a generation or three from now, or spending down in the present and relatively short-term future on issues the donor understands and cares about and which in any case are currently urgent?  From the phrasing you can tell the Nonprofiteer’s position: spend it down.

Julius Rosenwald saw the wisdom of this approach when he created a program of fellowships for African-American artists for their professional development.  Rather than keep the fellowships around in perpetuity, he ordered that the principal be awarded completely within 5 years of his death.  As a result, virtually every mid-20th-Century African-American artist you’ve ever heard of received a Rosenwald Fellowship: Ralph Ellison and Romare Beardon and Katherine Dunham and Gordon Parks and many others.   The value of what Rosenwald did, giving artists enough money so they could work without fear or distraction, is literally incalculable.

But also as a result, virtually no one remembers Julius Rosenwald, or at least not his fellowship program.  So that presents the question: are we in the business of fostering greatness, or memorializing it?  Is remembering a donor as important as creating work through a donor’s generosity?  Again, to the Nonprofiteer the answer is self-evident.  She’d rather be grateful for Ralph Ellison than to Julius Rosenwald.

Look, here’s the deal: people will make money in every generation, and in every generation some people will make a lot of money.  If we tax them properly they’ll look for the opportunity to shelter their money in philanthropy.  Why shouldn’t we tax them so that they’re motivated to spend it philanthropically, too?  Like the proverbial Fifth Avenue bus, another chunk of  money will be along any minute.

Sure, there’s a risk of spending too rapidly and with insufficient research (or “due diligence,” as people are fond of saying when they want to pretend that the nonprofit sector is really just like a business).  But the greater risk is the situation in which we find ourselves now, where philanthropies give out amounts insufficient to make any significant change.  No, philanthropy isn’t supposed to be society’s primary source of support, but while people are busy starving government so they can drown it in the bathtub, private wealth can and should step into the breach.

Consider the contributions of the Gates Foundations to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. Can anyone really argue it would be better to hold back on eradicating those diseases, in case there’s some bigger plague later on?  If there is, as AIDS itself demonstrates, we’ll mobilize and raise money for it.  Meanwhile, in case of every ailment, time is our enemy: the later we provide resources, the harder it will be for those resources to have impact.  Thus wasting money is a less significant risk than failing to spend enough to make a difference.

Two things need to happen: philanthropists themselves need to organize their giving so that it ends within a reasonable time after their death, and Congress needs to modify the tax code to require philanthropies to pay out more each year to retain their tax-favored status.  A 10% annual payout–double the current rate–may end up causing philanthropies to dip into principal, maybe even until they’re empty.  But remember the words of Citizen Kane as he contemplated the financial difficulties of his newspaper empire: ” I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars *next* year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in… 60 years. ”  Let’s take a Kane-like risk of running out of money.

One more story: Some time in the ’90s Joan Kroc stood up at a Ronald McDonald House benefit to announce her annual gift.  Rumor had it she was actually going to make a five-year pledge, and the Nonprofiteer’s table indulged in the parlor game of trying to figure out just how much that would be.   We figured the previous year’s gift ($5M) plus a little bump (so $6M) for each of 5 years, and settled on $30 million.  And then she rose to speak, a little woman holding a torn-off piece of yellow legal paper in her hand.  And she said, “I was going to make a 5-year gift, but then I thought: ‘The need is now.’  So tonight I’m giving $50 million to Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities.”  Everyone at the table fell back in her seat, literally knocked over by her generosity, and also by her insight: The need is now.

Aside from Ronald McDonald, Mrs. Kroc mostly supported causes her late husband disapproved of.  If only he’d given more in the present, he wouldn’t have had to contemplate a future in which his money went to places he despised.  So the donor’s intention and the sector’s need are in sync:

Spend it now.

More on the Buffett challenge

February 3, 2012

When Warren Buffett challenged Mitch McConnell to help him pay down the deficit, McConnell paid him no never-mind—but a teenage girl in Northbrook, IL heard and responded, sending $300 to the Feds and asking Buffett to do the same.  This is an adorable story, and the video makes it more adorable still.

But let’s not let this young woman’s sense of civic duty and remarkable act of civic participation distract from the real point of the Buffett challenge, which is that without increased taxation of the wealthy, jerks like Mitch McConnell will free-ride on public-spirited souls like Katie Murphy.

The billionaire vs. the free riders

January 13, 2012

The Nonprofiteer’s readers might enjoy this account of a pissing match between Warren Buffett and Mitch McConnell.  The Senator from Kentucky has been urging the Sage of Omaha to make voluntary contributions to the Treasury if he felt he was undertaxed.  Buffett has now responded that he’ll match any such contributions made by Republican Senators.

This dialogue makes in a different form Milton Friedman’s point as recounted by the Nonprofiteer yesterday.  Voluntary contributions to reduce poverty (or do any of the other things we rely on the government to do) are insufficient, because everyone would be willing to pay his/her share only if s/he could be sure that everyone else would be willing to pay his/her share.  Otherwise, no dice.

Doubtless McConnell will ignore Buffett’s challenge and continue his nonsensical bluster about Buffett’s freedom to pay extra if he feels “guilty” about his low tax rate.  But the point isn’t, of course, how Buffett feels, or even what he does—it’s what everyone else does.  And if McConnell and his buddies don’t donate to the Treasury, then they are poster children for the free-rider problem—thereby proving Buffett right: philanthropy is not sufficient and taxation is necessary.

H/T the indispensable Rick Cohen at The Nonprofit Quarterly.

Taxes vs. philanthropy: the view of a raving lefty

January 11, 2012

I am distressed by the sight of poverty; I am benefited by its alleviation; but I am benefited equally whether I or someone else pays for its alleviation; the benefits of other people’s charity therefore partly accrue to me.  To put it differently, we might all of us be willing to contribute to the relief of poverty, provided everyone else did.  We might not be willing to contribute the same amount without such assurance.

Therefore, this wild-eyed radical continues, the government must step in.  If poverty is to be alleviated, everyone must be taxed so that no one gets a free ride to the benefits of poverty eradication.

How appalling!  How socialistic!  Of course, what else could one expect from an ivory-tower academic complete with Nobel prize?

No, not that one (or even that one): Milton Friedman.

When the man said “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” he meant it.

H/t Allen R. Sanderson.

At war with oneself over the charitable deduction

January 10, 2012

From an article in the New York Times whose date the Nonprofiteer neglected to notice:

“It’s admirable when people back their charitable impulses up with donations,” said Scott Klinger, tax policy director of the group Business for Shared Prosperity.  “But the tax code shouldn’t allow the wealthy the kind of loopholes that let them, essentially, force other taxpayers to underwrite donations to their pet causes.”

“The kind of loopholes . . . ”  Is there some other kind?  That is, can we have the tax code encourage individual generosity without delegating to private individuals decisions about what constitutes the public good?  The Nonprofiteer doesn’t see how.  Either you have a tax subsidy—which means by definition that other taxpayers bear a bigger burden—or you don’t. 

Without the subsidy, current donors might give less but the government would have more to give out to public causes (health, education, welfare) now privately supported.  And perhaps without the subsidy, current donors would be replaced by those less-burdened other taxpayers in a burst of their own generosity.  And maybe this would mean fewer snow-globe museums and more attention to human services in the nonprofit sector.

Or maybe it would just mean a reduction in charity and an increase in the government’s resources, which could then be used on public education and public housing.  Or missiles and drones.

This is why the Nonprofiteer remains at war with herself over the charitable deduction.  She wants a thousand flowers to bloom.  She believes any free society requires a counter-balance to whatever the current government has decided about anything.  And she believes this counter-balance requires money.  The whole point of the nonprofit sector is that it permits people to identify and respond to their own needs in their own communities, producing a closer fit between service and community than is possible with centralized programs.

But she also believes that society-wide priorities should be funded society-wide, which means limiting the number of pots of money exempted from inclusion in the public fisc.  And she doesn’t want society-wide priorities to be determined by people who have so much money they can buy entire public school systems and experiment on them.

To quote the great Yul Brenner: Is a puzzlement.

Dear Nonprofiteer, Does an alumni association chapter have to file tax returns?

January 5, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I am the president of my local alumni chapter for a large university located in another state. The National Alumni Association is a 501(c)(3) organization with by-laws that state it can create various chapters around the country.   When our local chapter was created, the founding president filed the paperwork for an EIN so we could open a checking account. That is all he did; we are not incorporated as a 501-anything.   When he filled out the EIN paperwork, for “type of entity,” he clicked the “other” box and wrote “social club” in the blank. Our little chapter brings in less than $10,000 per year. We then funnel most of that back to the university’s scholarship fund.

My question is: are we supposed to be paying federal income taxes? State of Illinois income taxes?

My university is being remarkably unhelpful.   They did definitively say that they strongly advise their chapters against incorporating as their own 501(c)(3).

I have done some research and seen that other universities structure their alumni associations so that the national association is a 501(c)(3) and the local chapters are 501(c)(4)s. The local chapters then file what is called a “IRS-990 postcard.” This seems a reasonable solution, but it also requires that my chapter incorporate as a 501(c)(4), and I am hesitant to do that without official word from my university. I have a fellow board member who is breathing down my neck, convinced we are breaking all kinds of laws.  What should I do?

Signed, Clueless in Chicago

Dear Clueless:

The Nonprofiteer knows even less about tax law than you do, so she turned to her Association of Consultants to Nonprofits colleague Kathryn Vanden Berk, whose nonprofit law practice makes the Internal Revenue Code her constant companion.  Kathryn characterized your question as “easy but in multiple parts,” and her answer appears below.  Many thanks to her for her guidance, and for demonstrating that the author of Good Counsel isn’t the only nonprofit lawyer the Nonprofiteer knows!

There are four ways to handle this.  (1) ask the national association to take you on as a fiscal agent, (2) ask the national to file as a group exemption so that each chapter may get its exemption from the central organization of the group; (3) incorporate and go through the exemption application; and (4) do nothing.

Of these, the easiest is to be sponsored by the national (or any other already-existing) 501(c)(3).  The exempt entity confers the local chapter with its exempt status automatically and no paperwork needs to be filed.  However, the fiscal agent must report to the IRS on what happens within the local chapter.

The easiest for the locals, but harder for the national, is for the national to seek a group exemption.  It can then manage each of the local chapters as subsidiaries.  As above, the national is responsible for reporting to the IRS.

If the local decides to incorporate and seek its own exemption, it should identify its purpose as “educational and charitable”.  Generally, a scholarship organization must file a Schedule H with its exemption application, but it appears that this local forwards its funds to the national, and the national makes the selection.  In that case, it is not necessary for the local to go through the scholarship preparation.

An organization that identifies itself as a “social club” is exempt under 501(c)(6) of the Code.  However, I would not suggest that in this case.  The money collected is used for scholarships, and that is clearly a charitable purpose.  Since the national was able to get a 501(c)(3) ruling, it would be foolish for the locals to seek a different, less valuable exemption.  If the IRS balks at the (c)(3) classification, I would suggest that the national seek a group exemption.

Doing nothing is maybe not a crazy approach, but it risks exposure and the protections of the IRS Code and IL law are not available to the chapter leadership and members.  The reason I say it’s not crazy is the small amount of $$ that flows through the organization.  No one is going to come after them unless (and this is the big risk) something happens.  Then I can predict that there will be a great deal of embarrassment and perhaps even personal liability.

Bottom line: if you have not filed for a tax exemption, you must file as if you are a for-profit business, using Form 1120.  If you give your funds to the national at year’s end, then it is unlikely you will have to pay taxes.  However, your members cannot take deductions for the gifts they make to the local, even if they go to the national’s scholarship fund.  Same with Illinois: if the chapter is not tax exempt, then it is taxable and must file as such.

I should note that if you collect charitable funds in Illinois, you really need to be registered with the IL Attorney General, even if you are not exempt via the IRS.  The AG’s office is very strict about this.  You will have to pay a late filing penalty because you have been soliciting without being registered.  You might be exempt if you can convince the AG that $$ was raised only from members, but they are not as flexible on this as they once were.

I don’t know why the university advises against incorporation.  It’s a fairly inexpensive thing to do, and it gives liability protection to every member.  It’s a small price to pay for the protection it gives.  You need to have someone agree to be your Registered Agent, and to have his/her office or residence registered as the Registered Office.  You need to file annual reports (in Illinois and most states) to stay in good standing.  In Illinois, this costs $10.00 per year.

I don’t know why the (c)(3) and (c)(4) approach is used.  You would want every part of the organization to be classified as 501(c)(3) so that all gifts, grants and contributions are tax exempt and deductible to the donor.  I’d want to explore this further before acting.

So, Clueless, the answer is that no good deed goes unpunished.  Having investigated the question, you’ve now unearthed a series of obligations, decisions and tasks which I’m sure you’d rather not have known about.  You’re not about to go to jail but to protect yourselves it seems that getting your university to agree to serve as your fiscal agent, and then registering to raise funds in the state of Illinois, is the bare minimum you should do.

Define “generous”

January 4, 2012

Here’s a chronic story (h/t The Nonprofit Quarterly), about how the United States is the most generous nation on earth.  This annual survey measures how often people donate money to charity, how often they volunteer and how often they help strangers in need—the distinction between #1 and #3 being a little vague.

While the Nonprofiteer salutes all the donors among us, she feels constrained to point out that the United States leaves to private charity a whole range of activities provided elsewhere by the government.  Are the citizens of France really less giving, or are they just willing to give free public higher education through their taxes rather than depend on the kindness of strangers?  Are the Swedes, who provide paid parenthood leave while Americans think they’re generous to provide unpaid leave, really stingier than we are?  And do the English really turn their backs on the needy, or do they instead provide health care for everyone?

The Nonprofiteer is proud to be an American, but she prefers to be proud of the things we really do well rather than the things we do to compensate for what we do poorly, namely, supply adequate social services to all our citizens.


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