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Nonprofits & Sarbanes-Oxley Compliance

If you’ll think back to the early 2000s, in the aftermath of the Enron scandal (among others such as Tyco, Global Crossing, and WorldCom) the climate of distrust and dramatic malfeasance demanded reform of corporate accounting, governance, and other business practices. Accordingly, U.S. Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a law name that’s easier to remember than the actual full legislation name: The American Competitiveness and Corporate Accountability Act of 2002. In summary, the legislation required adherence to certain governance standards by corporate management, and expanded the role the governing board plays in financial and auditing oversight and procedures. It also applied standards of operation to public accounting firms.

Sarbanes-Oxley’s intended consequences were multitudinous including closing accounting loopholes, increasing accountability and disclosure requirements, rebuilding public trust in American corporations, and increasing penalties for corporate and executive wrongdoing.

Although Sarbanes-Oxley was passed with publicly-traded companies top mind, there are two provisions that are explicitly relevant to tax-exempt organizations.

Whistleblower

A whistleblower policy is not technically mandated for nonprofit organizations, but it makes smart sense to adopt such a policy. Why? First off, it encourages stakeholders in the organization to bring attention to problems in the early stages where issues may be more solvable. It’s also important for state and federal liability purposes and ensuring organization executives, board members, and other stakeholders understand their right to report as well as the implications of inhibiting such reporting.

Section 1107 of Sarbanes-Oxley makes it a federal crime to knowingly take any action with the intent of retaliation against a person who has reported truthful information to law enforcement relating to any current or possible federal offense. Violators of this provision are subject to fines and/or imprisonment for up to 10 years.

An ideal nonprofit whistleblower policy should both set a process for complaints to be addressed and include protection for whistleblowers. A well-written whistleblower policy can encourage an appropriate, swift response of investigation and solutions to complaints.

Form 990, the annual information report the majority of nonprofit organizations are required to file, states the following in its instructions:

A whistleblower policy encourages staff and volunteers to come forward with credible information on illegal practices or violations of adopted policies of the organization, specifies that the organization will protect the individual from retaliation, and identifies those staff or board members or outside parties to whom such information can be reported.

Record-keeping

macbook on table

The acts of document retention and destruction are also covered under Sarbanes-Oxley. Section 802 of the Act defines the criminal penalties for tampering with documents in relation to federal investigations and bankruptcy. It reads:

Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

You read that right. Violators of this provisions can be fined and/or imprisoned for up to 20 years.

Additionally, Section 1102 of Sarbanes-Oxley makes it a crime to tamper with a record or otherwise impede an official proceeding. Violators of the provision may be fined and/or imprisoned up to 20 years if they “corruptly” alter, destroy, mutilate, or conceal a record, document or other object, or make an attempt to do so, with the intent to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding. (Note, the term “corruptly” is not defined, but your organization can and should use best judgement on the word.)

Your nonprofit should include specifics related to these Sarbanes-Oxley provisions in a document retention and destruction policy. This policy should clarify what types of documents should be retained, how they should be filed, and for what duration. It should also outline proper deletion and or destruction techniques to ensure compliance and reduce liability risks.

Get Policies Set in Place: 10 for 990 Promotion Now Through March 15

Nonprofit organizations should have relevant and updated policies in place that provide guidance for compliance with these Sarbanes-Oxley requirements. Now through March 15 I’m offering the 10 for 990 nonprofit policy special where I’ll draft 10 policies related to annual reporting on Form 990 for only $990. Two of the policies included—whistleblower and document retention and destruction—specifically address requirements under Sarbanes-Oxley.

Seize the opportunity to get strong policies in place before filing Form 990 by contacting Gordon Fischer Law Firm today. Additionally, if you have specific questions about Sarbanes-Oxley compliance don’t hesitate to contact Gordon via email (Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or by phone (515-371-6077).

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Collective Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards

If you’ve been glued to the 2018 Winter Olympics like me, you know that each of the team sports like ice hockey, bobsleigh, and curling depend on each of the team’s members to perform their position to medal. While not as exhilarating to watch, nonprofit boards are similar to team sports; the board of directors (the team) can only be successful if each of the individual members (just like individual athletes) play their positions well. That means individuals board members must hold one another accountable for the overall outcomes of the nonprofit organization. In this way, there is shared responsibility of the individual board members for their actions, for the good of the board as a collective entity.

While each nonprofit can vary in structural organization, let’s review what a typical board of directors is collectively responsible for. (Note: directors can be known by other names, such as trustees, regents, directors, or a council.)

Governing with Compliance Top of Mind

cooperative on rock

The board has a responsibility of compliance.

First off, it’s important to remember that the nonprofit board is the ultimate governing authority of the tax-exempt organization. The board is therefore responsible (and can be held legally liable) for what happens within and to the nonprofit. Compliance is the word to keep in mind. A board makes certain the organization is compliant with local, state, and federal laws as well as its own policies and procedures. Nonprofit policies are invaluable documents that provide structure and guidance in operations and decision-making. They supersede the individual team members’ opinions for the good of the nonprofit as a whole. Without updated and relevant adopted policies nonprofit boards have a significantly difficult time achieving a solid standard of compliance.

Now through March 15 I’m offering a special deal on nonprofit policies related to Form 990 (annual information return) such as gift acceptance, investment, conflict of interest, and whistleblower policies.

Money on the Mind

Speaking of important policies, nonprofit boards have a responsibility to approve some compensation decisions. Boards are involved with compensation decisions to various extents from approval of just the top executive’s salary to all staffers’ compensations, it just depends on organizational structure. However, at the very least, board members should be involved with compensation points asked about on Form 990. (Again, a great reason to snag the 10 for 990 deal!)

Keep a Quorum

The board has the responsible to maintain a quorum for meetings. Your nonprofit’s bylaws (a foundational document a part of formation) should define a quorum—the minimum number of voting members present—needed to hold a meeting. How do you decide on a quorum? It’s the minimum number of board member who should be reasonably able to attend a meeting. Maintaining a quorum means a majority of voting members are making decisions on behalf of the organization. If a quorum is left to be too flexible, the organization runs the risk of that a few members (not the majority) are making executive decisions.

Three Ds

The board’s responsibilities can be summed up in the easy to remember “three Ds”: duty of care, duty of loyalty, and duty of obedience. This isn’t just a useful pneumonic device, these are the legal standards (as defined by case law) to which a board’s actions are collectively held.

  • Duty of care: This means that board members are expected to actively participate in making decisions, resolving issues, and participate in planning.
  • Duty of loyalty: Board members must put the interests of the nonprofit ahead of their own personal and professional interests. This means that even merely potential conflicts of interest must be studiously avoided. (Your nonprofit MUST have a conflict of interest policy dispersed, reviewed, and signed by each board member.)
  • Duty of obedience: Compliance with all local, state, federal regulations, and laws applicable to the nonprofit is an essential responsibility for board members.

Mission Ready

Ultimately the board has the responsibility to keep the organization committed and focused on its stated mission. This is encompassed within the three Ds. In working to uphold the tax-exempt purpose of the nonprofit it’s important all board members recognized their individual responsibilities and those of the board as a whole overlap. If the board fails to uphold its duties, in some situations, an individual on the board could be found legally liable (and typically served with fines and/or other restrictions).


Questions about collective responsibilities and how they apply to a nonprofit board you’re involved with? Want to schedule a board training or orientation to brief board members on their legal and financial duties? Need to get those important policies asked about on Form 990 in place? Don’t hesitate to reach out via email or by phone (515-371-6077).

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Nonprofit Policy Special: 10 for Form 990

Tax-exempt organization need to have specific guidelines in place to be compliant and in order to meet the IRS’ expectations. It’s never too late (or early!) to invest in comprehensive internal and external policies and procedures. That’s why I’m offering the Nonprofit Policy: 10 for 990 special. You don’t have to feel overwhelmed or burdened at the thought of trying to draft legally correct and comprehensive policies. February 15 through March 15 I’m offering a special deal for 10 important policies (read on for an overview of each) at the rate of $990. This also includes a comprehensive consultation and one full review round.

If you’re a nonprofit founder, executive, board member, or even an active volunteer, this is an excellent way to ensure the organization you’re deeply invested in is meeting (and exceeding!) the gold standard for tax-exempt organizations.

I don’t know anyone who loves paperwork more than the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). But, if you’re operating a nonprofit, you’re going to have to learn how to embrace paperwork as well. Why? The IRS requires certain information from your organization be submitted annually via Form 990 “Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax.” This 12-page document (not including schedules) serves as a check to make certain nonprofit organizations are still qualified for that coveted tax-exempt status. To that point, the 990 asks nonprofits about policies and procedures that help ensure the nonprofit is conducting business in a transparent way that’s consistent with their exempt purposes. Specific governance policies encouraged by the IRS limit potential abuse, protect against vulnerabilities, and prevent activities that would go beyond permitted nonprofit activities.

Major Benefits & Reasons for Policies for Compliance

If governance policies are not technically required, why do them?

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The existence of a policy doesn’t mean compliance is assured, of course, but having policies in place provides a framework and the expectations for an organization’s executives, employees, volunteers, and board members. Such policies can also be referenced if/when issues arise.

One of the major reasons to invest in strongly written, organization-specific policies is because the IRS audits tax-exempt organizations, just as it audits companies and individuals. (Having certain policies in place will only serve a benefit should the organization happen to be audited.)

Another major reason to have proper policies and procedures in place is because they provide a foundation for soliciting, accepting, and facilitating charitable donations. Last, but not least, the 990 is made accessible to the public, meaning it can be used as a public relations tool if filled out diligently. Major donors can and often do review a charity’s 990 to ensure the charity is compliant, putting charitable donations to good use, and continues to operate in alignment with the overall mission.

Form 990 also serves the greater nonprofit sector as the data collected allows for the monitoring of growth and trends, tracking the types of needs/issues being addressed by nonprofits, and identifying specific adopted practices adopted.

What Policies are We Talking About?

One thing’s for certain, articles of incorporation and bylaws are just the beginning when it comes to foundational documents.

The IRS made a major revision to Form 990 in 2008. The old version information focused largely on financial data. Now, Form 990 reports extensive information on operations such as board governance, fundraising, international programs, non-cash receipts, joint ventures, use of subsidiaries, and more. Let’s cover all the policies the IRS asks tax-exempt nonprofits to report on:

Conflict of Interest

Found on Form 990: Part VI, Line 12 a-c

A conflict of interest policy should do two important things:

  1. require board members with a conflict (or a potential conflict) to disclose it, and
  2. exclude individual board members from voting on matters in which there is a conflict.

The Form 990 glossary defines “conflict of interest policy” as follows:

A policy that defines conflict of interest, identifies the classes of individuals within the organization covered by the policy, facilitates disclosure of information that may help identify conflicts of interest, and specifies procedures to be followed in managing conflicts of interest. A conflict of interest arises when a person in a position of authority over an organization, such as an officer, director, or manager, may benefit financially from a decision he or she could make in such capacity, including indirect benefits such as to family members or businesses with which the person is closely associated. For this purpose, a conflict of interest does not include questions involving a person’s competing or respective duties to the organization and to another organization, such as by serving on the boards of both organizations, that do not involve a material financial interest of, or benefit to, such person.

Form 990 asks whether the nonprofit has a conflict of interest policy, as well as how the organization determines and manages board members who have an actual or perceived conflict of interest. This policy is all too important as conflicts of interest that are not successfully, ethically managed can result in “intermediate sanctions” against both the organization and the individual with the conflicts.

If consistently adhered to, this policy can inspire internal and external stakeholder confidence in the organization as well as prevent potential violations of federal and state laws.

Document Retention and Destruction

Found on Form 990: Part VI, Line 14

This policy should clarify what types of documents should be retained, how they should be filed, and for what duration. It should also outline proper deletion and or destruction techniques.

The document retention and destruction policy (DRD policy) is useful for a number of reasons. The principle rational any organization would want to adopt such a policy is that it ensures important documents—financial information, employment records, contracts, information relating to asset ownership, etc.—are stored for a period of time for tax, business, and other regulatory purposes. No doubt document retention could be important for proof in litigation or a governmental investigation.

You may have heard of the federal law, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. It reaffirms the important of a DRD policy. Sarbanes-Oxley reads:

Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

While the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation generally does not pertain to tax-exempt organizations, it does impose criminal liability on tax-exempt organizations for the destruction of records with the intent to obstruct a federal investigation.

Another reason a DRD policy is an excellent idea is it forces an organization to save space and money associated with both hard copy and digital file storage by determining what is no longer needed and when…it’s like sanctioned spring cleaning!

man writing on paper

Whistleblower

Found on Form 990: Part VI, Question 13 

Nonprofits, along with all corporations, are prohibited from retaliating against employees who call out, draw attention to, or “blow the whistle” against employer practices. A whistleblower policy should set a process for complaints to be addressed and include protection for whistleblowers.

Ultimately this policy can help insulate your organization from the risk of state and federal law violation and encourage sound, swift responses of investigation and solutions to complaints. Don’t just take it from me, the IRS also considers this an incredibly helpful policy:

A whistleblower policy encourages staff and volunteers to come forward with credible information on illegal practices or violations of adopted policies of the organization, specifies that the organization will protect the individual from retaliation, and identifies those staff or board members or outside parties to whom such information can be reported. (Instructions to Form 990)

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (referenced under the document retention and destruction policy above) also applies here. If found in violation of Sarbanes-Oxley both an organization and any individuals responsible for the retaliatory action could face civil and criminal sanctions and repercussions including prison time.

Compensation

Competitive compensation is just as important for employees of nonprofits as it is for for-profit employees. Data related to compensation is reported in three different places on form 990: the section entitled: “Officers, Directors, Trustees, Key Employees, and Highest Compensated Employees;” “Statement of Functional Expenses,” lines 5, 7, 8, and 9; and Schedule J, “Compensation Information for Certain Officers, Directors, Trustees, Key Employees, and Highest Compensated Employees.”

Having a set policy in place that objectively establishes salary ranges for positions, updated job descriptions, relevant salary administration, and performance management, is used to establish equality and equity are compensation practices. A statement of compensation philosophy and strategy, which explains to current and potential employees and board members how compensation supports the organization’s mission, can be included in the compensation policy.

Generally, this policy provides the benefits of:

  • Enhanced confidence of donors and supporters
  • Consistent framework for decision making on compensation
  • Increased compliance with federal and state employment laws
  • Reduced risk to the organization and its management and governing board

Fundraising

The topic of fundraising gets substantial attention on Form 990 and fundraising income and expenses are asked about in Part I, three places in Part IV, Part VIII, Part IX, and Schedules G and M. Almost every nonprofit needs a fundraising policy as almost all engage in some sort of charitable fundraising. This policy should include provisions for compliance with local, state, and federal laws as well as the ethical norms the organization choose to abide by in fundraising efforts. Remember that fundraising doesn’t just include solicitation of donations, but also receipt of donations.

Gift Acceptance

Found on Form 990: Schedule M, Part I, line 31

While related to the fundraising policy, the gift acceptance policy relates to charitable contributions. There are no legal requirements for a gift acceptance policy, however this policy provides written protocols for nonprofit board members and staff to evaluate proposed non-cash donations. The policy can also grant some much-needed guidance in how to kindly reject donations that can carry extraneous liabilities and obligations the organization is not readily able to manage.

rubix cube on desk

Investment

One way a Board of Directors can fulfill their fiduciary responsibility to the organization is through investing assets to further the nonprofit’s goals. But, before investment vehicles are invested in, the organization should have an investment policy in place to define who is accountable for the investment decisions. The policy should also offer guidance on activities of growing/protecting the investments, earning interest, and maintain access to cash if necessary.

Beyond the specifics of investments, this policy can also govern financial management decisions regarding situations like accepting charitable gifts of securities.

The policy should be written to give the nonprofit’s managements personnel the authority to make investment decisions, as well as preserve the board’s oversight ability.

Many organizations hire a professional financial advisor or investment manager to implement investments and offer advice. This person’s role can be accounted for in the investment policy.

Form 990 does not ask if an organization has a specific investment policy, but it does refer to investments in multiple places throughout the form, hence the obvious need. 

Financial Policies and Procedures

Different than the aforementioned investment policy, the financial policies and procedures policy specifically addresses guidelines for making financial decisions, reporting financial status of the organization, managing funds, and developing financial goals. The financial management policies and procedures should also outline the budgeting process, investments reporting, what accounts may be maintained by the nonprofit, and when scheduled auditing will take place. Similar to the investment policy, Form 990 does not make a specific ask about an organization’s financial policies, but this type of policy will serve as an indispensable guide to organizing, collecting, and reporting financial data.

Form 990 Review

Found on Form 990: Part VI, Section B, Line 11

Form 990 asks the following questions:

  • Has the organization provided a copy of this Form 990 to all members of its governing body before filing the form?
  • Describe in Schedule O the process, if any, used by the organization to review this Form 990.

In asking these questions, the IRS is indicating that distribution of the form prior to filing is optimal. (This is also one of those gold standard governing practices that is beneficial when using the form as a public relations material.) There are no federal tax laws requiring Form 990 review, and Form 990 does not mandate a written policy. However, a written policy is incredibly useful in clarifying a specific process for distribution and procedure review by the governing body (such as the board of directors). It also formalizes a review process and acts as a reminder to nonprofit leaders to distribute accordingly.

paper and pen on desk

Public Disclosure

Found on Form 990: Part VI, Section C, Lines 18 – 20

Public charities exist to serve the public in some way or another and some organizational documents must be made available to the public upon request. Other documents can be kept entirely internal. This policy should overview (1) what documents must the organization disclose and (2) to what extent does it want to make other non-required documents and information available to the public.

Form 990 specifically asks the filing organization to report if certain documents are made available to the public, such as governing documents (like the bylaws), conflict of interest policy, and financial statements. Additionally, the form asks for the name, address, and phone number of the individual(s) who possesses the financial “books” and records of the organization.

Where Do I Start?

The mission of Gordon Fischer Law Firm is to promote and maximize charitable giving in Iowa, and to that point I want to help every Iowa nonprofit be legally compliant.

The 10 policies a part of this promotion will save you time, resources, and you can feel good about having a set of high quality policies to guide internal operations, present to the public (if appropriate), and fulfill form 990 requirements.

If you already have some (or all) of the above listed policies in place, seriously consider the last time they were updated. How has the organization changed since they were written? Have changes to state and federal laws impacted these policies at all? It may be high time for a new set of policies that fits your organization.

Contact GFLF before the deal is up (March 15) via email (Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or by phone (515-371-6077) to get started!