Posts Tagged ‘Higher education’

Eternal vigilance is the price of—birth control?

February 10, 2012

The lesson from this past week’s Komen/Planned Parenthood contretemps is that when women make our voices heard in defense of the health care we need, we win the argument.

So let’s not hesitate to make just as much noise in response to the hysteria now being whipped up about the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that all health care providers offer free contraception.  Republican rhetoric suggests that this is the equivalent of requiring churches to distribute RU-486 instead of communion wafers; but that’s complete nonsense. Actual religious organizations are exempt. What’s not exempt is the network of hospitals and schools run by those religious organizations.

Hospitals and universities affiliated with religious groups aren’t exempt from the Civil Rights Act. As a result, they’re required to provide health care to women as well as men. Birth control is an essential part of health care for women—a fact you’d think most people would concede, as it’s a way of preventing the abortions they’re so horrified by.

The largest Catholic university in the country already provides birth control as part of its health plan. 28 states already require hospitals and universities to provide this minimum standard of care. If your employer dictates your health plan, and your health plan dictates where you get care—as most plans do—you may be sent to a Catholic hospital regardless of your own beliefs.  Why isn’t it a violation of your religious freedom to be denied the care you need based on someone else’s dogma?

This is just a sketch of the arguments we can and must make, and make loudly, before the noise-makers on the other side take away the health care we’re entitled to and count on.

Write the President, write your Congressperson, write your Senator, write the Secretary of Health and Human Services, write the editor, sign every petition that shows up in your mailbox.   Tell them: don’t compromise our health.

S.O.S.: Save Our Services.  If we don’t do it, no one else will.

Dear Nonprofiteer, How dare they tell me what to give?

February 6, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

Maybe I’m just being pissy.  It’s possible.  But….

I’m on the board of two smallish non-profit arts organizations, and a regular financial supporter of several others. I’ve noticed a trend in fundraising appeals- in letters that go out to previous funders, the dollar amount they contributed in previous years is named, with a request for a specific increase in the current campaign.  (“Thank you for your generous contribution of $100 in 2011. Would you consider a gift of $125 in 2012?”)

Why should this bother me?  But it does.  It really irritates me, especially from the organizations that I contribute to generously.  And this year, when, as a board member, I was given the fundraising “ask” letters that were going out under my name to my personal contacts, I felt especially irritated to see the request for a specific additional amount.  I would certainly never have written my friends directly with this request.  Now that the dust has settled and our annual appeal has ended, I intend to speak to our director of development about it.But, in the meantime, could you illuminate me as to when this practice started?  Why it started?  And whether I should offer, in a kind way, feedback to the other organizations that are asking for a specific dollar amount increase to my giving?Does this bother anyone else? Or am I just being pissy?

Signed,

Possibly Pissy, But Really Very Generous At Heart

Dear Generous,

The practice likewise raises the hair on the back of the Nonprofiteer’s neck.  There’s something creepy about the notion that an organization is 1) keeping track of what you’ve given, in violation of some notion of privacy and 2) asking for more, as if in reproach, instead of trusting you to give more if you’re able.  But of course they’re keeping track of what you’re giving—how inept would you think them if they weren’t?—and of course they’re always working to raise more—ditto.  So the first thing to recognize is that it’s not the practice so much as the expression that annoys you.

The practice is at least 40 years old, and was pioneered by the universities, probably because it’s natural for those institutions to think of givers in terms of the passage of time: the class of 1960 can reasonably be expected to have more resources than the class of 2010.  It arose, the Nonprofiteer suspects, in response to the habitual nature of many people’s giving: if they gave $100 last year, they go on giving $100 into eternity.  This seems like a great thing and, in fact, is the reason individual giving is such an important source of funds to organizations: while foundations often won’t continue their support unless you do something new and different for every grant, most individuals will just keep on giving unless you affirmatively offend them.

But what you’re saying is that the request for elevated support is just such an affirmative offense.

The problem is that the cost of everything continues to go up, and unless the monetary inflow goes up at the same time the agencies you support will find themselves seriously behind the 8-ball.   Perhaps the agencies requesting your increased support would do better if they reminded you of that—”We haven’t been able to give our actors a raise for five years while their rents and grocery bills just keep on rising”—rather than beginning with a flat-out demand that you do more.

The Nonprofiteer prefers to err on the side of thinking that’s what they meant, anyway, and that the only thing they can be reproached with is their effort to raise money based on need instead of on opportunity.    Most prospective donors, whether offended by an appeal or not, give money to agencies because of what they’re going to do and not because of how much they need.  That, most probably, is the source of your feeling offended by the approach: that what you want to hear is how great they are and how much they can do with your help, not how needy they are and that they’re so desperate for your support as to reach their hands directly into your pocket.

The question of what gets said to people who are getting fundraising letters over your signature—or at least under your aegis—is a separate one.  You are utterly within your rights as a Board member to say “I’m happy to solicit my friends but I won’t send out a letter telling them how much to give,” so that the staff can prepare your letters without the offending terminology.  Those letters are from you, and therefore should represent your own approach to the people you’re soliciting, whether that’s “This group is in desperate need” or “This is the only group I’m supporting this year because of the fabulous new program they’ve launched.”

In other words, it’s one thing to shake off what you consider a slight directed at you, and another to permit the agency to direct that slight at your friends.   In that spirit, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to notify the agencies whose appeals have troubled you that you wouldn’t ask your friends for money with that inflection and that they might consider not asking their friends for money that way, either.

But consider this.  The Nonprofiteer remembers being unable to ask how much something cost in Paris because the straightforward “Combien?” seemed so abrupt and rude but she lacked the syntax skills to soften it, not to mention the language facility to know what phraseology would constitute appropriate softening.  People who ask for money and people who get asked are speaking different languages.  Those doing the asking never mean to be rude—they just lack the skills to determine what constitutes being polite.  Perhaps if you consider the transaction from that perspective you’ll be less annoyed.

Dear Nonprofiteer, Who are they to tell me what to give?

February 6, 2012

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.

Of water bills, credit unions and self-help

November 7, 2011

Alarms are sounding in the Nonprofiteer’s home town of Chicago today about the first budget proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, which requires nonprofits to pay for water and sewer services they previously received free.  A sector-wide outcry produced one modification—a phasing-in of the charges over three years at smaller nonprofits—but generally the Mayor is keeping a campaign promise to ask nonprofits to bear their “fair share” of municipal costs.

He also seems to be following the lead of the Illinois courts which, as previously noted, are re-examining the nonprofit status of several of the state’s hospitals.  The Nonprofiteer’s colleagues at The Nonprofit Quarterly characterize Emanuel’s move as over-reaching, in that it affects nonprofits other than hospitals.  But the Nonprofiteer has no difficulty identifying non-hospital nonprofits whose water and sewer bills she doesn’t feel like subsidizing: the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago (which, notwithstanding the social services it provides, is mostly a very successful health club that uses a lot of water); the Art Institute of Chicago (which, notwithstanding the educational programs it provides, is a wealthy institution with very low personnel costs because every art-history major wants to work there); the University of Chicago (whose housing and athletic facilities use as much water as any suburban development and whose property tax exemption is secured by the Illinois Constitution).  And let’s remember that the smallest nonprofits are renters, most of whom get water and sewer as part of their leases from for-profit landlords, and won’t be affected in the least.  So a bit less howling, okay?

Especially as we contemplate this past weekend’s flood of accounts transferred to nonprofit credit unions in reaction to the obvious greed of the largest banks, particularly Bank of America.  (Even a major philanthropist has moved his accounts to protest B of A’s failure or refusal to modify a reasonable number of mortgages).  Maybe if the credit unions get wealthy enough they’ll be able to provide the rest of the sector with the working-capital loans it can rarely get from commercial banks.  Maybe they’ll offer special water-and-sewer-bill loans.

And maybe a little taste of self-help will remind the sector that it’s supposed to be independent.  Political trends come and go but the work we do must continue, and it’s our business to organize ourselves so it can.

Beyond “Will not!” “Will so!”

October 27, 2011

Kudos to the Nonprofiteer’s nonprofit consulting colleagues Campbell and Co. for sponsoring a study by the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy to determine the impact on giving of increased marginal tax rates and a cap the charitable-giving deduction.  While some of us have been arguing that both of these moves toward social justice should be supported by the nonprofit community, and others have been arguing that the world will come to an end if every penny of tax savings isn’t afforded to the generous rich, these institutions decided to look for the facts.

The facts–as elegantly stated in a Congressional Research Service study that came to the same conclusion–are these:

The estimated effects of the cap and other elements of the budget package depend on whether the proposals are compared with the current tax rates of 33% and 35% or the rates scheduled for 2011, 36% and 39.6%. Compared with current rules, estimated effects are between one-half a percent and 1% decline in charitable giving . . . . When compared with tax rate provisions in 2011, charitable deductions are estimated to fall by about 1.5% if only the cap is considered, but if income effects from the entire budget package are included contributions actually rise 2.5%.  The relatively modest effects of the proposal arise because (1) the effect of caps on the subsidy value is limited, (2) only a fraction (about 16%) of charitable giving is affected, and (3) because evidence suggests that behavioral responses to changes in subsidies are relatively small.

(Emphasis the Nonprofiteer’s.)  To paraphrase: the tax subsidy isn’t much reduced; that small reduction doesn’t affect 84% of charitable giving; and, in fact, charitable giving isn’t all that tied to tax benefit.

So whether we take the IUPUI findings that charitable giving is likely to decline modestly if these tax reforms are enacted, or the CRS findings that it might actually go up, we should realize that everyone who’s hyperventilating about the impact of these changes on their poor struggling private school, museum or hospital should just take a deep breath.   Given that the reforms will support many of the social programs, environmental protections, educational institutions and health care options the nonprofits themselves seek to provide, it’s about time for the community to stop whining and agree to pony up.

The rich get richer, once more

January 19, 2011

Take a look at this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education documenting the important role of legacy preferences—admissions boosts to the children of alumni—in college acceptance rates.  It raises the question, as our colleague Rick Cohen puts it at the Nonprofit Quarterly, “why tax preferred institutions of higher education in many cases get to use their tax-exempt status to serve children of immense wealth and privilege.”

This is the real issue embedded in another question frequently asked: “Why do well-endowed universities get tax breaks?”   The answer to that can easily be “because education is a public good,” but if that good is available disproportionately to a tiny subset of the public then the entire edifice of tax protection for elite institutions starts to crumble.

Legacy preferences are regularly justified on the grounds that they’re necessary to assure alumni loyalty and therefore alumni financial support.  As the Chronicle article documents, the evidence for this is ambiguous at best.  But even if it were true, it’s not clear why the convenience of fundraising officers should trump society’s legitimate questions about how it’s allocating scarce benefits among competing groups of beneficiaries.  And as long as universities receive tax breaks, it is the broader society that’s doing the allocating and has the right to ask the question.

And here’s another question we have a right to ask: why is affirmative action a problem when it benefits poor people and minorities but not when it benefits wealthy white people?  “Legacy preferences” is, after all, a euphemism for making sure that thems that has, gits—and gits more.

Most colleges and universities these days would regard it as an ethical violation to accept tobacco money, or porn money.   Why should their ethical standards tolerate accepting privilege money—which means, essentially, accepting a bribe?  It makes little sense for the source of money to be evaluated for purity while its purpose goes unquestioned.

As an ex-admissions officer, the Nonprofiteer is more familiar with legacy preferences than she ever wanted to be, and she can assure her readers that merely being the child of an alumnus is not a bona fide occupational qualification.   Plenty of successful alumni have no-’count kids—hence the old saw about “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”  Nor does it matter that the practice is long-established.  Ivy League colleges had a long-established practice of coordinating their scholarship packages (to keep students from choosing among them on the basis of cost), until someone read and implemented the antitrust laws.  The sky didn’t fall as a result of that change, and it won’t as a result of this one.

Of all the ways in which universities violate the spirit if not the letter of the laws granting them tax advantages (from running semi-professional sports teams to serving as research arms of the military), legacy preferences are perhaps the most damaging.  Every legacy preference helps perpetuate a system of inequality.  Every legacy preference deprives someone better-qualified of an opportunity s/he’s earned.  What’s more, the howls of protest that go up when that accusation is leveled at some other system of preference are nowhere to be heard.

If institutions of higher learning want to maintain their tax-favored status, they should abolish legacy preferences.  If they don’t—if they go on practicing white people’s affirmative action—they deserve to be knocked off the comfortable perch on which they now sit.

Are you a tax-exempt charity? Sure about that?

August 18, 2010

While it’s not yet true that “Illinois Does A Few Adult Films To Make Ends Meet”, the state has begun to cast lascivious glances at its nonprofits.  Those property-tax exemptions look mighty comfortable.  Why don’t you push that  cushion over to my side of the bed? And with most interactions taking place behind closed doors, don’t expect a warning before the moment of truth arrives—or to be kissed while you’re getting screwed.

Unlike other localities re-evaluating nonprofit tax exemptions, Illinois has bypassed the legislative process, allowing county assessors and the Department of Revenue to take the initiative.  And this spring the Illinois Supreme Court decided that the state’s constitutional provision exempting charities from property taxes applied not to all nonprofits but only to genuine charities.

When the Court ruled that Provena Covenant Hospital didn’t merit a property tax exemption because it failed to provide adequate charity care, there was a brief frenzy of press speculation about the decision’s impact on hospitals—but hospitals only.  Rarely do the media connect the dots between the budget crises of state and local governments and their relationships with nonprofits, and then generally the focus is on the governments’ failure to pay nonprofits for contracts they’ve already performed.

But revocation of property tax exemptions poses an even bigger and longer-term threat than governments’ failure to pay.  And it’s a threat of which few nonprofit executives—let alone members of the public—are aware.

Two cases of denied exemption, one in nearly-bankrupt Chicago and the other in one of its suburban counties, are now working their way through the Illinois courts.  Each concerns a luxury retirement community, and either could break new ground by clarifying what qualifies as “charity” and how much of it a nonprofit has to provide.

The state legislature hasn’t specified a percentage of charitable services required to support continued property-tax exemption.  And though the Provena court ruled that the hospital’s practice of charging fees for nearly all patient care meant it could not be considered a charity, it too stopped short of prescribing when enough charity will be enough.

“The property-tax assessors out there are going to be aggressive, because they need you back on their rolls,” said Elaine Waterhouse Wilson, a partner at the Quarles & Brady law firm. “They’re going to make you come in and prove” charitable work.  Ms. Wilson said the charities that may be at risk “include organizations that are supported primarily by fees . . . . It was very clear [under the ruling] that you had to be giving things away rather than providing general charitable benefits,” she said.

It’s not a tragedy that people are asking whether Illinois nonprofits are worthy of favored tax treatment.  What would be a tragedy is if the challenge came as a complete shock, catching agencies unaware with the sudden need to prove their charitable nature.  Yet that’s what seems likely to happen.

Executives at several Chicago-area nonprofits seemed incredulous at the idea that Provena would be applied to them.  “We provide human services and all our activities are nonprofit,” said Karen  Singer, Executive Director of the Evanston/North Shore YWCA.  “So it’s not on my radar screen at the moment.  It probably should be, but there are only so many things I can think about.”  William Ratner, Executive Director of Lawyers for the Creative Arts, and Alvin Katz of Mayer Brown LLP, the attorney for Victory Gardens Theater and the Chicago Architecture Foundation, both expressed confidence that the organizations they represent are secure in their exemptions.  “They’ll keep going after the hospitals because it’s easy, and because that’s where the money is,” Mr. Ratner said.

But there’s also money in, or rather under, many other nonprofits.  The Chicago retirement development sits on prime Gold Coast real estate.  Can YMCAs in gentrifying neighborhoods withstand challenges to their exemptions when they look and feel—and charge—so much like for-profit health clubs?  Can settlement houses be considered charities if they get paid, by government or clients, for all the services they provide?  Can arts organizations be considered “charitable” just by offering art, or do they have to give out a certain number of free admissions?  (Churches and schools are immune from this calculus because the Illinois constitution separately exempts them; but the educational programs of arts groups aren’t considered “schools.”)

Perhaps the charities will organize and persuade the Illinois legislature to clarify the amount of “charity” necessary to retain tax exemption.  But Professor Phillip Hablutzel of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, co-author of the Illinois Not-for-Profit Corporation Act, doubts it.  Though he predicted Illinois nonprofits other than hospitals will soon find themselves battling efforts to withdraw their exemptions, “In the twenty years I’ve been involved, there hasn’t been a coherent front among charities in facing the legislature.  It’s hard to get these people to make common cause–the museum people don’t see what they have in common with the churches.”  Nor, apparently, do many human services agencies or arts groups see what they have in common with the hospitals.

If and when a Provena-style loss of exemption hits another nonprofit, the impact on its operation will be substantial.  “In the current economy,” said Professor Hablutzel, “it would be hard to do fundraising for another one-third of your budget so the taxes could be paid.”

Maybe there’s something to be said for making adult films after all.

Bankers: Don’t try to use charities as human shields

January 11, 2010

The Nonprofiteer comes roaring out of seclusion to point out that big-bank donations to charity, and/or big banks’ making donations to charity mandatory among their employees, are NOT substitutes for big banks’ and bankers’ payment of a fair share of their earnings in taxes that support the operation of the United States government.  (You’re welcome to translate “fair share” as “the 90-plus percent banker-bonus tax recently enacted in the United Kingdom.”)

While the Nonprofiteer is as enthusiastic as anyone about the work of the nonprofit sector–all of its work, whether advocacy or arts or higher education or social services–she hardly thinks that donations to the Metropolitan Opera and Harvard should be considered an appropriate alternative to making tax funds available for health care or schools or housing or child care–or even the military.

Taxation is the expenditure of our common funds on common purposes.  Expenditure of private funds on private purposes–however worthy–is something else entirely, and the latter can’t be offered in trade for the former.

If the big banks want to dampen public outrage over the enormous bonuses they’re paying, they should take the simple step of not paying them.  And, as they seem unlikely to do anything that sensible or decent, public criticism should be made law in the form of taxes and regulations to recapture the windfall profits the banks made with public money.

Charities are real entities with real work to do.  We shouldn’t be treated as fig leaves for the worst excesses of capitalism.

And the Nonprofiteer certainly hopes we don’t hear from self-appointed sector spokespeople hastening to tug their forelocks and say “What a swell idea!  Thank you, thank you, Goldman Sachs!”  It’s not just the public at large: even nonprofits are better off with a government suitably supported by taxes than with a temporary infusion of tax-free guilt money.


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