nonprofit paperwork

Employment policies are vital to the well-being of your favorite nonprofit. Such policies set workplace expectations, define work guidelines, reduce and eliminate confusion and misunderstanding, and provide steps necessary for any disciplinary action. Formalizing workplace rules makes certain that everyone—from independent contractors to management to staff to board members—are informed and on the same page.

COVID-19 has been particularly tough on the nonprofit sector and organizations providing essential social services. Employment policies in this environment are important, but I understand they could easily fall to the budgetary backburner. That’s why I want to make it clear, upfront, that I will work with each individual Iowa nonprofit organization to come to an agreement for a fee that fair, but also accessible and not a strain on the nonprofit. So, in short, the cost of drafting essential employment policies or other employment documents, like an employee handbook, is entirely flexible to fit each situation.

Benefits of Employment Policies

An official set of well-developed employment policies provides many benefits for your nonprofit. For nonprofit employers, policies capture the values you wish to instill in your workforce, outline the standards of behavior you expect, and provide a clear guide for rights and responsibilities. Instituting strong, fair, and unambiguous policies not only contributes to a happier workforce, but it can also improve employee retention. Further, employment law is vast, complicated, and can be tricky to navigate. Well-drafted employment policies, as described below, can also help you avoid legal issues and costly mistakes.

Employee Handbook

Employee handbooks are not required by law, but having one is in the best interest of your nonprofit and those who work for you— even if you have just one employee. A good employee handbook effectively communicates your nonprofit’s policies and procedures to employees and makes clear the rights and responsibilities of employees in your organization. Many disputes can be avoided by a clear, easy-to-read, and straightforward employee handbook.

 Employment Agreement

An employment agreement sets the conditions, terms, and obligations between you as the employer and an employee. It’s considered a binding contract that should be administered in writing and signed by both the employee and an acting officer.

Employment agreements need to be individualized to suit each employment relationship. But important elements of employment agreements may include salary; benefits; work schedule; paid-time off (PTO) allotment; restriction on confidential information; non-compete and non-solicitation provisions; mandatory mediation and arbitration for all disputes; and making certain the employee is considered to be only “at-will,” that is, the employee can be fired at any time for any reason.

 Formal Performance Review

Formal performance reviews are an assessment of an employee by a supervisor and employee (it’s a two-way, not a one-way discussion) that are based on jointly determined job goals and performance objectives. While often overlooked—and sometimes dreaded—performance reviews are of great value to nonprofit employers and their employees.

You should have in place a standardized form and consistent processes for conducting individual performance reviews of all employees. Evaluating the quality of an individual’s work, ability to meet goals, communication skills, adherence to your nonprofit’s mission, attendance, and dependability, among other criteria, is key to effective workforce management and to building trust with employees.

 Employee Personal File

A personnel file is a hard copy folder or digital file that contains information related to every new employee, existing employees — full and part-time — and former employees. Knowing what needs to be stored in a secure personnel file — and what NOT to keep in it — will help your nonprofit in promotion and termination decisions; provide a means of tracking vacations, training, and achievements; and are necessary to comply with local, state, and federal regulations.

A personnel file should only contain items related to his or her job or employment status. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Application and resume
  • Signed acknowledgment page from employee handbook
  • Pay information including timesheets, W-4s, and withholding forms

Just as important as having the right information in a personnel file, is to avoid placing the wrong documents in a personnel file. Some items that should NOT be in an employee’s personnel file include:

  • Medical information and accommodation requests
  • Whistleblower complaints
  • Court orders, such as garnishment or restraining orders

Independent Contractor Agreement

Self-employed, freelancer, consultant. No matter what they call themselves, people who provide goods or services to your nonprofit, but are not your employees, are considered independent contractors. Independent contractors differ from employees in that IC’ers control their financial and work-related relationships and pay their own self-employment, Social Security, and Medicare taxes.

When you hire an independent contractor, you should have a written and signed contract that clearly outlines the scope of work, price, and payment, severability, deliverables, and clearly identifies the person as an independent contractor. Also, you can minimize and avoid legal liability by placing the right provisions in an independent contractor agreement.

phone sign here

Updating Employment Policies & Additional Policies Needed

If you already have some (or even all) of the above-listed employment policies in place, when were they last updated? Think about the many ways your organization has changed and grown since they were written, including new employees you hired and existing employees whose roles evolved. Changes to state and federal laws may have rendered some elements of your employment policies incomplete or out of compliance. It may be time to renew your commitment to a productive and happy workplace by revising employment policies.

What Other Policies Do You Need

Be aware this blog discusses only employment policies. To work toward optimal IRS compliance, you should adopt the nine major policies and procedures which appear on IRS Form 990. Also, you should have documents in place covering ethics; grantors and grantees; endowment management; and legal training for your board of directors.

Let’s Talk!

To discuss further, please don’t hesitate to contact me via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or on my cell phone (515-371-6077). I’d be happy to discuss employment law with you any time. I offer a one-hour free consultation, without any obligation whatsoever. Also, as I mentioned,  I allow my nonprofit clients to essentially choose their own rate during this trying time of COVID-19, when more than ever before, our communities need the essential services that Iowa nonprofits provide.

jeopardizing investments board meeting

Public charities and private foundations are both classified as 501(c)(3)s by the IRS. However, the different nonprofit operating structures come with different benefits, requirements, and challenges that can make navigating compliance difficult. I’ve written previously on aspects of private foundations including prohibited grants, payout requirements, and avoiding self-dealing. The best way to deal with many of the ins and outs of learning about private foundations is to deal with each individually; today let’s focus on jeopardizing investments.

Don’t Jeopardize the Foundation

Failing to exercise prudence and investing in ways that threaten the foundation’s ability to carry out its exempt purposes—called jeopardizing investment—and can result in a stiff penalty.

Many factors can contribute when determining whether or not an investment can be considered jeopardizing. At the least, a private foundation’s managers must exercise reasonable, ordinary business judgment and prudence in investing a foundation’s assets. Investments should also be made with the short and longterm financial needs of the entity in mind. This is part of baseline fiduciary duty board members must act with by closely overseeing the nonprofit’s finances.

Penalty Payment

In cases of jeopardizing investments, an excise tax of 10% is imposed on the foundation for the IRS-defined taxable period. Foundation managers can also be held personally liable and taxed up to a max of $10,000 (or 10% of the jeopardizing investment) if the “knowing, willfully, and without reasonable cause” participated in the making of the investment.

Furthermore, if the foundation does not take steps to remove an investment, an additional tax can be imposed on both the foundation and the responsible foundation managers.

High-Risk Activities: Proceed with Caution

While no category of investment is outright prohibited, a private foundation’s managers must pay close attention to high-risk activities, such as trading securities on margin, trading in commodities futures, and short selling, among others.

Get the Right Advice

All of this said, this is general advice and each charitable organization is unique. I highly recommend seeking out an attorney well-versed in nonprofit law to assist with multiple aspects of the charitable organization life cycle from the formation through employee hiring through board development.

Questions? Want to make sure your private foundation is taking the right steps to avoid adverse consequences like audits and taxes on top of everything else there is to keep track of? Don’t hesitate to contact me.

men on computer at table

Not paying federal taxes is a big deal for a nonprofit and is one of the major benefits of going through all that work of Form 1023, state filing requirements, drafting foundational policies, and the like. For oversight and evaluation purposes, many organizations that fall under the Internal Revenue Code Section 501(a) provision need to annually file Form 990 (Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax) instead. Beyond aspects of the organization’s finances, Form 990 also collects information related to practical and operational aspects like conflicts of interest, Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, and charitable gift acceptance. Submitting an annual filing (if required to do so under the provisions of Internal Revenue Code Section 6033) is also essential to retaining the coveted tax-exempt status. If an organization fails to file the required return for three consecutive tax years the IRS automatically revokes the entity’s tax-exempt status. (It’s one of many reasons why having updated, quality policies and procedures in place is so essential!)

One Form Doesn’t Fit All

Charities fall on a wide spectrum in terms of size, income, and number of programs. Consequently, not all organizations are required to file the same type of annual return. Indeed, some nonprofits are exempt from filing an annual return entirely. In addition to the “regular” Form 990, there are options for 990-PF, 990-EZ, and 990-N.

Form 990 and the shorter 990-EZ are the most common forms filed by tax-exempt charities. Nonexempt charitable trusts (which are not considered private foundations) and section 527 political organizations are also required to file such a return.

Read on to find out which organizations need to file which annual form. Note that this is general information and any specific questions on which form your organization needs to file should be directed to an attorney experienced in nonprofit law.

woman looking at computer

Form 990

There are financial thresholds that determine which form your organization must file. However, any tax-exempt organization can choose to file a full return if they so choose. Organizations that meet or exceed the highest financial threshold are required to file Form 990. This includes organizations with gross receipts greater than or equal to $200,000 OR a total of assets greater than or equal to $500,000.

Form 990-EZ

Don’t let the title of this form fool you! There is less required information to report on than the full Form 990, but it’s not exactly easy. 990-EZ generally applies to small to medium-sized organizations with gross receipts less than $200,000 AND assets totaling less than $500,000. Organizations that meet these revenue qualifications can opt to file the full 990 or the EZ version.

Form 990-N

This is the shortest version of the 990 and isn’t so much of a full form as a basic electronic “postcard” submission. (The official name is “Electronic Notice (e-Postcard) for Tax-Exempt Organizations not Required To File Form 990 or 990-EZ.” Needless to say, I’m glad it’s been shortened to a simple “N.”) Smaller nonprofits with gross receipts less than or equal to $50,000 qualify to opt for this form. These nonprofits could also elect to file the more comprehensive Form 990 is they so choose.

For example, let’s say a group of high school students formed a small nonprofit with the non-partisan mission of registering high school students to vote across the state. Their reach is growing, but it’s still a small nonprofit with just $24,000 in gross receipts. This organization could certainly elect to file 990-N, but if they wanted to (if even for the experience) they could still choose to file a complete and full 990 return.

man at standing desk

990-PF

Private foundations, regardless of gross receipts or asset value, must file Form 990-PF. Nonexempt charitable trusts treated as a private foundation also need to file this form.

Extension

Just how sometimes you need to file an extension for your personal federal income taxes, the same goes for tax-exempt charities. If needed, the organization should file IRS Form 8868 by the annual filing due date in exchange for an automatic six-month extension.

When in Doubt, File Above and Beyond

Many organizations may find they need to file one form one year and then as they grow or change, need to file a different form the next. Other nonprofits may report gross income very close to either side of the threshold, which can make it confusing as to which form to file. When in doubt, it’s always better to “file up” and provide more information and data, rather than less. Hypothetically let’s say your organization filed 990-EZ last year, and is very close to the financial threshold, but could technically file 990-N this year. Just in case, it doesn’t hurt to file the more comprehensive 990-EZ again. For specific advice on your nonprofit’s individual situation, again, seek counsel from a qualified nonprofit law attorney.

Organizations Exempt from Filing

I mentioned earlier that some nonprofit organizations are not required to file an annual return of any type. These organizations include the following condensed list from this full IRS guide:

State institutions, federal corporations, & governmental units

Examples of state institutions exempt from filing an annual return include state-run hospitals and state universities. Tax-exempt federal corporations (organized under an Act of Congress) are also exempt from filing. Qualified governmental units and affiliates are also exempt if they meet the requirements listed in this Revenue Procedure document.

Political organizations

small american flag

Local and state qualified political organizations are only required to file Form 990 if they have annual gross receipts equal to or greater than $100,000. Additionally, the following are all exempt from filing:

  • Local or state committee of a political party
  • Association or caucus of local or state officials
  • Political committee of a local or state candidate
  • Any organization excluded from the requirement to file Form 8871

Subsidiaries of parent organization

Let’s say there’s a statewide nonprofit organization that has small chapters in multiple counties across Iowa. If the “parent” organization files a group return that includes or “covers” the subsidiary, then that subsidiary would not need to file their own annual return. A parent organization may only file for the subsidiary organization if said subsidiary is covered under the IRS’ letter of exemption. Plus, the subsidiary covered by the exempt parent must give written consent for legal inclusion in the group return.

Additionally, parent organizations are under no obligation to file such a group return, in which case each subsidiary would be responsible for filing their own return.

Faith-based organizations

Faith-oriented organizations comprise a number of organizations that don’t need to file a version of Form 990, including churches, associations of churches, church-operated or religious-based schools, and some missionary organizations. Note that some religious groups that aren’t a church or associated with a church will need to register as a 501(c)(3) and file the corresponding annual return.

I recommend that all Iowa nonprofits have policies and procedures in place for top of the line compliance, but this advice especially applies to those organizations which need to file Form 990. For most nonprofits that do need to file Form 990, it’s typically due the 15th of the fifth month after the organization’s taxable year; this is May 15 for most organizations. However, in 2020, due to COVID-19, the IRS granted nonprofits and foundations the opportunity to extend the filing due date out to July 15, 2020.

Any questions about which forms your organization needs to file, or want to discuss how the 10 for 990 policy special could be helpful to your nonprofit? Contact me at any time via email or by phone (515-371-6077).

alarm clock on table

Most people have Tax Day earmarked in their minds like a birthday or federal holiday (typically it’s April 15, although with the nationwide COVID-19 pandemic the IRS pushed the due date for filing income taxes back to July 15, 2020). Nonprofit leaders should have another day highlighted on their calendars for the next few years: when the annual reporting return, Form 990, is due.

Tax-exempt nonprofit organizations don’t pay federal taxes (obviously from the “tax-exempt” category), but the IRS still requires certain information in order to evaluate organizations on details like programs, finances, governance, and mission. It’s a way of confirming that tax-exempt entities are still qualified to operate without paying federal taxes. Form 990s are also made available to the public so there’s also accountability and transparency involved.

Due date?

man typing on computer with phone in forefront

So, when is Form 990 due exactly? It depends on the end of your organization’s taxable year; the form is usually due the 15th of the fifth month after the organization’s taxable year.  For most tax-exempt organizations that follow the typical calendar year (January 1 through December 31), this means Form 990 is due on May 15 every year.

However, on April 9, 2020, the IRS issued Notice 2020-23, which granted nonprofits and foundations the opportunity to extend the filing due date out to July 15, 2020. Taxes owed with Form 990-PF and Form 990-T are also due at the time of the filing. Additionally, Form 8868, “Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File an Exempt Organization Return,” can be filed to request an additional extension until November 15, 2020. Note that

What happens if there’s a failure to file?

Just like if you fail to file your income taxes there are repercussions, if an organization is required to file Form 990 and fails to for three consecutive years, the IRS will automatically revoke tax-exempt status. That’s right, no questions, no appeal process, just revocation in accordance with the law. Timely submission of Form 990 also can help your nonprofit organization avoid filing additional documents and certain user fees.

What happens if tax-exempt status is revoked?

If your nonprofit’s tax-exempt status is revoked, then the organization will have to pay corporate income tax on annual revenue. Additionally, the organization may be subject to penalties and back taxes if the revocation date was in the previous tax year. The nonprofit will then lose any state tax exemptions that were dependent on federal tax-exempt status. (Common examples of such state tax exemptions are property, income, and sales/use taxes.) Of course, the organization will no longer be able to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions and, accordingly, donors will no longer be able to receive the federal income charitable deductions for any gifts post-revocation date. Losing tax-exempt status will also disqualify the nonprofit from receiving many private foundations’ grants.

Be prepared for the filing date!

Form 990 is over 10 pages (not including additional schedules and written attachments) so your organization should get jump start on the process. The best way to be prepared, year after year, is to have updated and applicable policies asked about on the form readily available to be referenced. I’m offering a great deal that features 10 policies related to Form 990 for $990. The rate includes a comprehensive consultation and full review round.

Any questions about when your nonprofit specifically needs to file, or want to discuss how the “10 for 990” special could work for you? Contact me at any time via email or by phone (515-371-6077).

board meeting with materials on table

While many nonprofit operations have shifted in some way or another during COVID-19, organizations do need to prep for a post-pandemic world. An ad hoc approach or reliance on what worked in the past may no longer be a strategic path forward.

I love the opportunity to speak with nonprofit boards of all sizes to help them govern the charitable organization in mission fulfillment in the utmost ethical and legal manner possible. While we can’t get together in the present due to public health concerns, leaders who are thinking ahead will want to schedule such trainings well in advance.

I highly recommend organizations of all sizes host training for their board members regarding their ten basic responsibilities, individually and collectively, within the broader context of modern best practices. I provide a two-hour training/orientation on these ten basic responsibilities, and the information below is intended as a simplified summary of this training.

Tailored Presentations

My live training session can be tailored to the nonprofit’s specific size, needs, and experience. The training includes an engaging visual presentation, handouts, and plenty of time for questions and discussion. Slides will also be sent out to attendees following the training. The following is a brief outline of the information I would present to the board.

10 Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Board Members

The ten basic responsibilities of nonprofit board members are as follows:

  1. Determine the organization’s mission, vision, objectives, and goals, and then advocate for them.
  • The board is responsible for ensuring’s mission, vision, objectives, and goals are plainly stated, embraced by all, and enthusiastically supported.
  1. Hire successful staff.
  • The board’s ability to recruit, support, reasonably compensate, and retain effective staff, especially the executive director, will be a crucial factor in the nonprofit’s success.
  • No matter how talented and experienced, employees need to clearly know their rights and responsibilities, through written policies and procedures, such as an employee handbook, employee agreement(s), and regular, formal performance review(s).
  1. Adopt “best practice” policies and procedures.
  • The IRS requires certain information from your organization to be submitted annually via Form 990 “Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax.” 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.
  1. Ensure effective planning.
  • Through planning, the board and staff translate the nonprofit’s mission into objectives and goals, used to focus resources and energy.
  • The board is responsible for actively participating in and approving decisions that set the nonprofit’s strategic direction.
  1. Monitor and strengthen programs and services.
  • Given limited funds, but unlimited demands on those funds, the board ultimately must decide among competing priorities.
  • What the nonprofit actually does, and how well it does it, should guide all board inquiries.
  1. Ensure adequate financial resources.
  • A nonprofit can only be as effective as its financial resources.
  • Although much can and should be expected of the staff, the board is chiefly responsible for ensuring it has the funds it needs and that the organization does not spend beyond its means.

board training at wood table

  1. Provide financial oversight.
  • Safeguarding organizational assets is one of the most important board functions.
  1. Build and sustain a competent board.
  • A major issue the board and executive director need to answer is: How should we define the ideal mix and number of professional skills, backgrounds, experience, demographics, and other characteristics we should seek in our board members?
  • Board members must set and persistently articulate the level of expectation that they will hold themselves and the organization to.
  1. Ensure legal and ethical integrity.
  • The organization’s reputation and public standing require everyone to take three watchwords seriously: compliance, transparency, and accountability.

Compliance

The term “compliance” is simply shorthand for the regulatory and legal requirements imposed by the government and regulatory bodies at local, state, and federal levels that are considered part of a board’s fiduciary responsibility.

Transparency

Nonprofit organizations are expected to routinely and openly share more, and more complete, information to the media and the public about their financial condition, major activities, and staff compensation. A charitable nonprofit should make certain information about its operations, including its governance, finances, programs, and activities, widely available to the public.

Accountability

Although the board sets and periodically assesses the adequacy of major organizational policy, accountability measures ordinarily and appropriately fall to management. But the board needs to consistently ensure the organization is accountable to those who it serves, those who support it, and to the greater community.

  1. Enhance the organization’s public standing.
  • Board members serve as a link – the vital link – between the nonprofit and its board members, donors, potential donors, employees, volunteers, other stakeholders, and the community at large.
  • Board members should think of themselves as the nonprofit’s foremost advocates and ambassadors, hopefully, even after they leave the board!

Training Beneficial for New and Continuing Members

The “ten basics: as set forth above, tends to be an important training I recommend for all nonprofit boards and both new and returning board members. However, if your board is in need of a different training related to a specific aspect of organizational governance, such as governing midst the consequences of COVID-19, I can tailor the training accordingly. Most importantly, the training needs to be applicable and appropriate for your individual board.

Let’s Discuss What Your Organization Needs

Interested in hosting a two-hour training containing content individualized to your organization? That’s great and we can look to a date when we expect to no longer be social distancing and quarantining.

Generally, I charge a flat fee and this fee means no surprises for you or your budget. I’m also very conscious of pervasive budget constraints and will work with you and your budget.

The fee includes as many conferences as needed in preparation, materials during and following the training, and an active Q&A session throughout the training.

To discuss further, please don’t hesitate to contact me via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or on my cell (515-371-6077).

board of directors hands in

If you’re thinking of forming a nonprofit organization, joining a board, or being a regular donor you may be confused by the differences between a “board of trustees” versus “board of directors.” It almost seems like they’re used interchangeably, and does it really matter? Isn’t a director a trustee, and vice versa?

In nonprofit practice and law today, both a “trustee” and a “director” describe an individual in a position of governance. But traditionally the term trustee was only used to refer to board members of a charitable foundation or trust. These days, generally, the name of a board of directors versus trustees mean the same thing and largely indicate syntactic differences.

Charitable Trust Laws

That said, some states have charitable trust acts (which are different from nonprofit corporation laws) and the term “trustee” can have a distinct meaning under such laws. In such cases, trustees are held to a higher fiduciary duty than directors, meaning trustees may be held liable for acts related to simple negligence. This means that a trustee could be held personally liable for certain acts even made in good faith.

As you might have presumed, trustees of a charitable trust have a duty to the beneficiaries of that trust.

The role of trustee can also come with an “absolute” duty of loyalty to the trust and a charge to the beneficiaries of the trust. Plus, even if approved by co-trustees, any personal transactions with the trust are prohibited.

What’s in a Name

If a nonprofit’s board members are referred to as trustees instead of directors, it doesn’t magically transform duties to those under the higher standard indicated in trust laws. But, there is a risk that in referencing board members as trustees in lieu of directors may inadvertently increase the governing board’s exposure to arguments that trust law and their associated standards applied.

Make Your Smart Start

When forming an organization or joining a nonprofit’s board, you want to be certain that the governing term—directors, trustees, or even governors—chosen is defined clearly and appropriately in governing documents. This helps ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding obligations, expectation, and legal standing. I highly recommend consulting with an attorney to make certain the officer terminology used with your organization is the best possible fit. It’s also important that the parameters of operation per that term are defined.

Questions? Concerns about your defining your board one way or another? Don’t hesitate to contact me for a free consultation. I can also assist with governing document drafting and review, as well as board training so that members know precisely their roles.

flowers in hand

My first attempt at a post to celebrate the spring equinox was a bad pun off of “springing power of attorney” (get it?!) that just didn’t work. Instead, I got to thinking about how all the great things about spring from green trees and baby bunnies, to finally putting away the snow shovel, evoke a sense of renewal. Spring is a time for cleaning out the old and opening up the windows to the new. So, allow me to plant a metaphorical seed of a few things nonprofit leaders should consider moving into the second quarter of the year so they can grow even stronger.

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Nonprofit Lesson: Seasons Change

All nonprofit organizations – no matter how successful – suffer through times of “winter.” Times when things seem bleak, cold, dark, icy, treacherous, and you just can’t get warm enough. But, always, these times pass. Sometimes, the best strategy is to just hang in there, like the seasons – metaphorical and real – always change and this too shall pass.

Nonprofit Lesson: Flower Power

The most beautiful flowers require lots of proper ingredients and care. Ask if you are tending to your nonprofit’s staff, board members, volunteers, donors, and other stakeholders, so they can help cultivate the beauty of your nonprofit’s mission?

With that in mind, nonprofits are typically understaffed and undercapitalized. Therefore it’s immensely important for nonprofit leaders to take time for self-care. Whether it’s a nature walk to listen to the birds trilling, taking your dog to the park, fishing, or spending time with your kiddos, it’s important to engage in your hobbies and peaceful activities to recharge, refresh, and start anew.

Nonprofit Lesson: Time for Spring Cleaning?

After a long Iowa winter, spring is always a welcome and refreshing thought. Yet, on top of all the wonderful aspects of emerging from frozen hibernation, this change of seasons reminds us that 2019 is moving quickly! The second quarter of the year is upon us. What are your nonprofit’s plans moving forward?

Let me suggest one “spring cleaning” project. Whether you’re on a nonprofit board, serving as staff, formed your own organization, or are an active donor or volunteer, the Nonprofit Policy Special: 10 For 990 is an important offer to consider and/or pass along to your colleagues, friends, and clients.

Tax-exempt organizations need to have specific guidelines in place to be compliant and meet the IRS’ expectations. It’s never too late to invest in comprehensive internal and external policies and procedures to help your organization work toward and achieve its mission.

Most annual information filing forms (Form 990) are due May 15. Now, through May 1, Gordon Fischer Law Firm is offering a special offer for 10 important policies asked about on Form 990. This also includes a comprehensive consultation and one full review round. Questions? Thoughts of how this can help your nonprofit blossom? Don’t hesitate to contact me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or 515-371-6077.

stop sign

Awarding grants is a primary way for private foundations to accomplish their charitable goals. It’s also an oft-used way to meet annual distribution requirements to avoid an IRS-imposed penalty of an excise tax. However, this area of nonprofit activity can be ripe for misstep and noncompliance because some grants are prohibited. Further, others require heightened diligence to steer clear of trouble.

Taxable expenditures

Taxable expenditures for non-charitable purposes are not considered qualifying distributions, including:

  • Lobbying
  • Political activity to influence legislation
  • Grants to organizations other than most public charities

Scholarships

  • Scholarships to individuals for travel or study are considered grants. However, grant-making plans need prior approval from the IRS and must include certain provisions, such as monitoring the performance of the grantee.

Adopt Smart Grant-Making Policies & Procedures

It is in the best interest of private foundations to exercise expenditure responsibility by setting in place a formal set of policies and procedures for grant-making. This document and its provisions, among other things, should:

  • Ensure that grant funds are spent solely for grant purposes
  • Obtain full and detailed reports from the grantee on how grant funds are spent
  • Make full and detailed reports to the IRS with respect to such grants

When it comes to high quality policies and procedures, you can and should avoid the time, energy, and monetary costs of DIY Internet templates. Set the foundation up for success when you enlist an attorney well-versed in nonprofit law to draft a document (or set of documents) and implement with an effective, engaging board/staff training. The benefits of investing in a qualified attorney to craft your important policies (like those related to grant-making) are numerous; the right attorney will put your organization’s best interests first, saving you resources in the long run.

two people talking at table

It’s important to note that the info in this post is, at best, a mere outline of just one of the complex regulations governing private foundations.  If you want to learn more, don’t hesitate to contact me as I offer a free consultation. You can also download my free, no-obligation nonprofit formation guide if you’re thinking about topics like this the pre-formation phase of the foundation’s life cycle.

Two woman at board meeting table

When forming a nonprofit organization, at some point founder have to weigh the merits of the public charity versus the private foundation. Both are classified by the IRS as 501(c)(3)s. There are indeed benefits and challenges to the structure of both nonprofits, but private foundations can be subject to stricter oversight and need to meet different requirements to retain compliance. Because all the different aspects of a private foundation can be difficult to parse out together, it’s helpful to break it down. We’ve covered self-dealing and now it’s time to explore the payout requirement for private foundations.

Qualifying Distributions

Unlike public charities, private foundations are required to spend a minimum amount—called a qualifying distribution—for grants, administration, and other charitable distributions every year, or pay a penalty. The amount of the qualifying distribution is equal to 5% of the fair market value of the foundation’s assets during that year.

The following are considered permissible for qualifying distribution payments:

  • Grants
  • Costs of all direct charitable activities
  • Program-related investments and loans
  • Administrative expenses necessary for the conduct of its charitable activities
  • Asset purchases for carrying out charitable activities (such as furniture or computers)
  • Program-related investments and loans

If a private foundation fails to make a qualifying distribution, the IRS imposes a hefty penalty (a 30% excise tax) on the funds a private foundation fails to distribute.

The More You Know

An important caveat to the qualifying distribution requirements is that a foundation may elect to set aside funds for up to 5 years for certain major projects. Furthermore, excess qualifying distributions may be carried forward for a period of five tax years immediately following the tax year in which the excess was created.

Leader Liability

Foundation managers should be aware that while the penalty is imposed on the foundation, individuals may also be charged penalties on the grounds s/he failed to exercise fiduciary duties.

Let a Lawyer Help

With all of that said, this is why it’s a smart (even essential) idea to enlist an attorney well-versed in the intricacies of nonprofit law to serve as a guide at different steps throughout the life cycle of a private foundation, from formation to board building, to continued compliance.

employees talking

Questions? Want to learn more about how to make certain your private foundation is set up for success from the start? Don’t hesitate to contact me for a free consultation. You can also download my free, no-obligation nonprofit formation guide!

two women talking about forming a nonprofit

Any good attorney worth their weight will advise you on multiple aspects of any given important action or decision. Let’s say you’re considering forming a new 501(c)(3). You may have thoroughly considered all the prospective benefits of a tax-exempt entity, but what about the responsibilities? Indeed, there are serious obligations that come along with creating and running a nonprofit. These can’t be overstated and should certainly be taken into account. Let’s dive into a few of them.

Monetary cost

Establishing a nonprofit organization does require a monetary cost including the filing fees to governmental agencies, such as the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office and the IRS. (The Iowa Secretary of State has a $20 filing fee, and the IRS 1023 Form has a current user filing fee of $600.) If you elect to hire a qualified nonprofit attorney to guide you through the formation process and draft the required forms, then that will be an additional cost.  (Although I would always argue a worthwhile one!)

Once the nonprofit is formed you’ll also want to invest in keeping your nonprofit organization on track, compliant, and successful. A major part of this is drafting and implementing quality internal and external policies and procedures. Again, a nonprofit lawyer can be a valuable asset and provide expertise here.

Cost of time & effort

On top of the monetary costs, there are additional costs of time and effort. It typically takes a few months to pull all the paperwork together for the formational documents—especially the lengthy Form 1023. After all the paperwork is submitted for IRS review, actual 501(c)(3) approval can vary in the time it takes. A submitted Form 1023 can take anywhere from a month or two to a year to make its way through the review process; the 1023EZ‘s turnaround time depends on the backlog of review at the time.

Even after all of the required documentation is submitted for recognition of exemption, the IRS may request additional information through follow-up questions and supporting materials. And, of course, actually operating the nonprofit will take significant, continuous time and effort which can range in extent, but can include new employee hires, nonprofit board orientations and training, and compliance with state and federal laws (like Sarbanes-Oxley, for instance).

The flip side of this is that nonprofit work is often incredibly rewarding and important, making the effort and time even more worthwhile. But, again, it’s something good to just keep in mind as you weigh all inputs to your nonprofit formation decision.

Paperwork

A nonprofit is required to keep detailed records and also submit annual filings to the state and IRS by particular deadlines to keep its active and exempt status. (Reminder: having well-written policies and procedures will make the annual filings, like Form 990, an easier process!)

Shared control

As an incorporator of a nonprofit, you will certainly have a say in the development of the organization. Although one who creates nonprofits may want to shape his/her creation, personal control is limited. A nonprofit organization is subject to laws and regulations, including its own foundational documents such as articles of incorporation and bylaws. An Iowa nonprofit is required to have a board of directors, who have certain legal and financial fiduciary duties to uphold. The board itself also has collective responsibilities, so no one person is held solely accountable. Board orientation, trainings, and materials—like a board handbook—organized in a specific way can go a long way toward ensuring the board is set-up for success in working toward the mission you as the founder envisioned.

Man writing on white board

Scrutiny by the public

In the eyes of the government and society alike, the nonprofit must be dedicated to the public interest in one area or another. This is where it derives its tax-exempt status. It’s also why its finances are open to public inspection. For these reasons, nonprofits must be steadfastly transparent in nearly all their actions and dealings.

Interested parties may obtain copies of a nonprofit organization’s state and federal annual information filings to learn about salaries, program expenditures, and other financial information. You should be able to view copies of exempt organizations’ forms for free on the IRS’ website, or you can request a copy from the organization and they must provide it. Additionally, to make it easy for the public, many nonprofits link to these documents on their website. The information can be useful to current and prospective donors, new board members and employees, and grant-making organizations.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but again, this is where superior policies like “public disclosure” and “Form 990 review” are paramount to the operation.

These responsibilities shouldn’t scare you off from forming your change-making organization, but rather important elements to be aware of from the beginning. Plus, if you know the big picture of what you’re getting into, you can plan by enlisting the appropriate professionals to help you with your endeavor!

Want to discuss how to move forward with your nonprofit? Don’t hesitate to take me up on my offer for a free consult and the 10 For 990 policy special! Contact me via email or by phone (515-371-6077).