boardroom with large table and chairs

Recently I had the pleasure of presenting on the legal and financial duties of nonprofit boards at the Iowa Museum Association. One of my main core services is nonprofit formation and compliance, and a nonprofit’s board of directors (or supervisors, depending on what they’re called) is essential to both of those categories.

Had a great time speaking with the wonderful people at the #Iowa #Museum Association on the legal & financial duties of #nonprofit boards, earlier this week! 👨🏼‍💻👨🏼‍💼#presentation #GFLF #boardroom #nonprofitlaw

Posted by Gordon Fischer Law Firm, P.C. on Wednesday, July 11, 2018

When submitting a 501(c)(3) application (or a different type of tax exempt application), the IRS almost always requires at least three distinct individuals be listed on the board of directors. In terms of compliance, the nonprofit board is the governing body of the organization and therefore has distinct duties and obligations to the corporation.

Whether just starting out or continuing a long-standing tradition of operational excellence, it’s essential your nonprofit’s board know their responsibilities, understand their fiduciary role, and implement best practices. This goes for the board of directors as a collective body, as well as each of the individual directors.

Each nonprofit organization is unique and consequently, each nonprofit benefits from individualized counsel on how to maximize board operations. But, there are general guidelines of good advice that apply across the board. (Ha! Get it?) To that point, I’ve created a resource explaining board duties, best practices, and legal and financial responsibilities that most all nonprofits will find useful. If you’re a nonprofit leader (such as an executive director) you could even print this out and include it in board orientation materials and board handbook.

Download your copy of the “Best Board Ever” guide here!best board ever handout image

Questions? Thoughts? Need a speaker to present on a topic related to nonprofit formation and guidance or employment law? Don’t hesitate to contact Gordon via email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or by phone at 515-371-6077.

World Cup Trophy

What a game! Instant classic!

While I’m far from any type of soccer expert, I closely watched the FIFA 2018 World Cup final, and it struck me that there were three evident lessons from the victorious French team’s play that are transferable to your favorite nonprofit.

World Cup Final score

The Need for Speed

Croatia is a truly great team and played extremely well. But it seemed to me France was simply the faster and quicker team. Faster to loose balls, faster down the field, faster to set up defensive and offensive plays.

Does your favorite nonprofit have the requisite speed to operate in our hyper-digital, I-want-it-yesterday world?

Of course, there’s most definitely times for quiet, sure-but-steady deliberation. You don’t want to be rushed into making bad decisions.

But let me ask you: How fast is your fave nonprofit in getting out thank you notes after a donation or event?

When a potential donor contacts you, how fast is your response time?

When a potential donor contacts you with an unusual gift, a non-cash gift, how quickly can you respond as to whether you take such gifts and that you’ll take this particular gift? (A gift acceptance policy and a gift acceptance committee can work wonders here).

How quickly do you respond to someone who contacts you and wants to become more involved in your nonprofit as a volunteer, committee member, or board member?

To take the simplest example of how being quick and “on the ball” can make a difference, think about if you receive a thank you note just a couple days after a donation is made. It means more and makes a lasting impression rather than a thank you note received a month after a donation is made.

One Superstar Is Not Enough, Not Even Luka Modric

Even the most rabid fan of Les Bleus, would probably agree that Croatia’s Luka Modric is/was the best individual player on the pitch today.

Nonprofits often rely on superstars, too–the executive director who toils for decades; the board president with the knack of bringing board members together, and the volunteer who shows up every week to keep the database totally updated.

But, soccer is a team sport, and in the long game, so is philanthropy.

You don’t need just one of the “superstars,” you need all three…plus many other active staff, volunteers, board members, and stakeholders.

As awesome and spectacular as Modric is as a soccer player, he’s just one player. You need a whole supporting cast to win the match, every match, and stay consistent.

As commentators noted even before the game, France has such a litany of stars that anyone could step up to be counted on a given day. Griezmann, Mbappe, GiroudPogba, and others make France champions because they came to the field with such a deep bench.

Calm, Concentration, and Confidence

One of France’s coaches said he wanted his team to remember just three things during the match today: calm, confidence, and concentration. The same could be said by a leader at your favorite nonprofit.

Calm

On any day, at a small (or even large) nonprofit, all heck can break loose. Instead of one big problem, five, six, or 10 “fires” may break out. In these times, calm is needed. Don’t panic. Panicked people are not productive people. Work your way through each problem in order of importance. Communicate with the others that you’ll be back with them as soon as possible. It will get better. We all have bad days, don’t make a bad day even worse or last all week by not remaining cool and collected.

Concentration

Don’t be constantly distracted by our uber busy, get-it-to-me-yesterday work culture. Decide what’s most important and try to stick to not only tackling it but finishing it, despite the myriad of distraction that no doubt will be thrown at you.

Confidence

If you are not fully confident in your mission, goals, and objectives, potential donors and other stakeholders will be able to sense this. I believe expert legal counsel can help tremendously in this regard. To take just one prominent example, there is no such thing as being too compliant. How many of the policies and procedures the IRS asks about on Form 990 do you have? Were they copied off the Internet willy nilly or personally crafted for the unique needs of your nonprofit? When was the last time they were reviewed and updated? Demonstrate confidence by taking charge of your compliance.

What lessons did you and your favorite charity take from today’s World Cup championship game?

Also, what was your favorite part of the match? I’d love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts in the comments below, or contact me by email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or on my cell, 515-37-6077.

Have you read GFLF’s latest contribution to the Iowa Bar‘s monthly publication, The Iowa Lawyer? The piece, “IRS Form 990: 10 Policies and Procedures Most Iowa Nonprofits Need” covers:

  • how important the annual information filing (Form 990) is for tax-exempt organizations;
  • top policies and procedures highlighted on the form
  • why investing in sound policies and procedures means investing in success
  • deadlines and failure to file for Form 990

While targeted toward the attorneys who subscribe to the magazine, this article provides excellent information for all nonprofit board members, officers, staff, donors, volunteers, and other stake holders. Give the article a read and then get a jump start on top notch compliance well in advance of next year’s due date for the Form 990!

If your nonprofit hasn’t yet adopted all of policies outlined in the article (or they are in dire need of an update), what are you waiting for? Contact Gordon about the 10 for 990 deal (10 essential policies asked about of Form 990) for just $990. The rate includes a consultation, documents drafted to fit the unique needs of your organization, and one full review round. The benefits are numerous and the compliance risk is frankly too great to NOT have these important policies and procedures in place.

#SelectionSunday

As we basketball fans get ready for #SelectionSunday, is your team on the bubble? Lots of reporting (like here and here and here) features teams that are oh-so-close to being in the NCAA Tournament, but perhaps not quite so.

Which reminds me to ask, how is your nonprofit team doing? In terms of compliance, is your favorite nonprofit safely “in” the compliance zone and ready to play to win, or are you hoping that the team can be just compliant enough to slide in?

Who do YOU cheer for?

person shooting on basketball court

When I say favorite nonprofit, think of it like the team you have slated to go all the way and win the final round! Perhaps your fave nonprofit is arts-oriented, like Revival Theatre Company in Cedar Rapids. Maybe your top pick is a local human services organization, like The Crisis Center in Johnson County. You could cheer the most for an animal welfare organization, like Friends of the Animal Center Foundation in Iowa City. You may be a tried and true support for a nonprofit that works for the benefit of developing countries, like Self-Help International based in Waverly, Iowa.

In any case, the nonprofit topping your list will likely need to submit an annual filing with the IRS to be “in” the compliance zone. The majority of nonprofit organizations must file some version of IRS Form 990, which asks about a number of policies and procedures.

Go for the win!

Just like the game of basketball is played within an established set of rules, tax-exempt organizations must also “play” within specific guidelines. Doing so means having specific policies and procedures in place to be compliant and in order to meet the IRS’ expectations. When a nonprofit invests in comprehensive internal and external policies and procedures it’s like investing in the right training and resources to maximize the sport team’s strengths.

To continue the analogy, consider me the coach for these policies and procedures and I want to help all Iowa nonprofits teams play their best. This is why I’m offering the 10 for 990 nonprofit policy special now through March 15. Leave the legal drafting to someone else while you continue to maximize your mission. Note that the $990 rate for the 10 important policies asked about on Form 990 also includes a comprehensive consultation and one full review round.

Help your team!

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 standard for tax-exempt organizations.

The 10 policies a part of this promotion will save your tax-exempt organization 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.

Don’t wait for a last second shot!

As the game changes your team needs to adapt. If you already have some (or all) of the policies your team needs 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.

After you’re done filling out your March Madness bracket, commit to helping your own nonprofit team be a champion. Contact GFLF before the policy promotion is up (March 15) via email (Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or by phone (515-371-6077) to get started.

In the days since the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida on February 14, many of the surviving students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, along with students across the country and their supporters, have banded together to demand “never again.” Their battle cry is built on the disappointment and frustration with elected policymakers at the state and federal levels that fail to change the current status quo. They are calling out the politicians’ collective “there’s nothing we can do about it” shrug and the cumulative sag of the democratic system weighted by prescribed partisanship, undeniable deadlock, and constricting lobby money.

Parkland Students

Cameron Kasky, Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and Delaney Tarr (art by Kimothy Joy) via Vince Reinhart, Flickr

In the wake of yet another senseless mass shooting, these students are calling for actionable policy changes that will serve to protect other youth from having to face the same horrific scenario of murdered friends, teachers, and administrators that they did. Without a doubt, these teens have shown an impressive level of organization that has already resulted in some changes and important conversations on the issue. The Stoneman Douglas students have inspired school walkouts across America, published impassioned articles and op-eds, given interviews on national news, led televised press conferences, influenced a lie-in in front of the White House, took center stage at a CNN town hall, have advocated for gun control at their state Capitol, are creating “wining” social media content to spread their message to legislators and the general public, and so much more. The March For Our Lives is planned for March 24 in Washington D.C. (and in more than 460 sister sites/events around the world) as activists will “demand that their lives and safety become a priority and that we end this epidemic of mass school shootings.”

As time goes on, the #NeverAgain movement may take on different forms, pursue various routes, and try different tactics. Given the life cycle of major protests, it can be difficult to sustain the momentum of continued interest and activism so imperative for driving change. Because of this I want to offer up some legal strategies the Parkland activists and others could employ.

https://twitter.com/neveragainmsd

Form a 501(c)3

One legal strategy the Parkland youth (and other groups interested in pursuing progressive gun policies with a structured platform) could take is forming a 501(c)(3) organization. But, as we mentioned, the Never Again activists are making waves and changes without an official nonprofit platform to stand on, so why would they bother? It’s a good question, and the answer is a multitude of benefits including the following:

Tax exemption/deduction: Organizations that qualify as public charities under Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3) are eligible for federal exemption from payment of corporate income tax. Once exempt from this tax, the nonprofit will usually be exempt from similar state and local taxes.

Tax-deductible contributions: Even better—if an organization has obtained 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, an individual’s or company’s charitable contributions to this entity are tax-deductible. (It’s true that charitable deductions are generally not as “valuable” since the changes made by the 2017 tax bill, but that’s a topic for another post entirely).

Eligibility for public and private grants: Nonprofit organizations can not only seek charitable donations from the public, they can also seek funding from grant making organizations, like foundations and government entities.

Formal structure: A nonprofit organization exists as a legal entity and separately from its founder(s). Incorporation puts the nonprofit’s mission and structure above the personal interests of individuals associated with it.

Limited liability: Under the law, creditors and courts are limited to the assets of the nonprofit organization. The founders, directors, members, and employees are not personally liable for the nonprofit’s debts. Also these folks have no personal liability for the actions and obligations of the nonprofit. Of course, there are exceptions. A person obviously cannot use the corporation to shield illegal or irresponsible acts on his/her part. Also, directors have a fiduciary responsibility; if they do not perform their jobs in the nonprofit’s best interests, and the nonprofit is harmed, they can be held liable.

Focus your giving: With charitable giving flowing through a central nonprofit organization, it’s easier for donors and the organizers alike to focus the giving on a singular mission (such as advocating for progressive gun control and reform at both the state and federal policy levels). An organized nonprofit can be much less susceptible to varied causes and cases of the different donors, volunteers, and employees, because a platform can be clarified.

With all of these benefits in mind, the present-day Women’s March is great example of a movement that has spawned dynamic nonprofits including March On, Women’s March LA Foundation, Women’s March Alliance, and Women’s March Canada. Women’s March leaders also launched a super PAC in 2017, March On’s Fight Back PAC. (Note: The 501(c)(3) organization Gathering for Justice served as the presenting partner for the Women’s March on Washington, meaning the organization lent their 501(c)(3) status to the grassroots movement, so that all donations could be tax-deductible.)

Women's March on Washington

Wait, Can Teens Even Form a Nonprofit?

Some of the criticism the Parkland students have weathered in the recent weeks has been based on their age. Without a doubt, these students have the right and have demonstrated a clear, mature ability to speak up for their cause even if some cannot legally vote in an election yet. Additionally, being a minor doesn’t prohibit them from founding a nonprofit organization. There are countless success stories of inspiring youth who haven’t let age hold them back from pursuing an amazing missions such as those behind The Ladybug Foundation, We Movement (which began as Free the Children), Kids Saving the Rainforest, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, and FUNDaFIELD (among many others).

The one things teens need to be aware of is that minors are typically not permitted to enter into legal contract unless they are emancipated. So, a teen could form a nonprofit, but then they may need to hand over control to a legal adult executive director in order for the nonprofit to pursue certain agreements and the like that would be beneficial.

person with backpack

How to Form a Nonprofit

Previously on this blog I wrote about how to form a nonprofit organization, but let’s review the basics; forming a 501(c)(3) involves four main steps:

  1. drafting, editing, and filing articles of incorporation;
  2. drafting and editing bylaws, with new board members then voting in favor of the bylaws in a duly authorized meeting;
  3. applying for an Employer Identification Number (EIN); and
  4. drafting, reviewing, and editing the IRS non-exempt status application, known as IRS Form 1023, as well as all the supporting materials IRS Form 1023 requires.

Note that each state can have different requirements for initial registration and filing, annual and employment filing, charitable fundraising compliance, and governance structure requirements. For example, in Iowa, there needs to be a minimum of one director (directors comprise the governing body of the nonprofit and serve as stakeholders in its mission and success) and an annual meeting is required.

So, if high school students in Florida form a nonprofit it would differ in process and compliance than if high school students in Iowa did the same.

What About Political Activity?

The limits on political activity is something that the Parkland students would have to adhere to if they formed a 501(c)3 organization. To maintain tax-exempt status, nonprofit organizations cannot participate with political campaigns on the behalf (or in opposition) of a candidate running for elected public office. So, this includes campaigns for U.S. president, senate, house of representatives, governor, state legislators, and even local offices like the county trustee. The IRS takes this rule super seriously and violations can result in a range of penalties from corrective actions to ensure the violation won’t reoccur, to excise taxes, to the revocation of tax-exempt status.

If the students did form a 501(c)(3), what could they do in terms of political-related activities?

peace flag

The rule of thumb here is nothing partisan. So, nonprofits can certainly engage in non-partisan activities like voter education and registration drives, as well as non-partisan political debates. (Nonprofits just need to be prepared to demonstrate that their activities don’t help or harm any particular candidate, and how the activities fit in with the organization’s exempt purposes.)

Up until now the Parkland students have been advocating largely for a specific stance (legislation that favors gun control) and not specific political campaigns. They could continue to do this issue-related advocacy work, so long as boundaries are not overstepped and the lobbying turns into political campaigning.

Remember that individuals associated with a nonprofit (say a founder or director of fundraising, for example) retain their right to participate in the democratic process by campaigning for specific candidates and vocalizing opinions; individuals just cannot do so as a representative of a nonprofit organization.

Other Options for Organization

501(c)(4)

If the Parkland students and their supporters want more of an active role in directly supporting candidates that agree and support gun control, they may want to pursue forming a 501(c)(4) instead of or in addition to the 501(c)(3).

A 501(c)(4) IRS designation indicates a “social welfare” organization, which the IRS defines as, “Civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” (Note: A 501(c)(4) can also include local associations of employees.) Some commonly recognized examples of this type of organization are volunteer fire departments, homeowners associations, Disabled American Veterans chapters, and community service groups like the Rotary Club. Even Miss America Organization is a 501(c)(4)! You may also know 501(c)(4)s that are openly connected with a specific political party or ideology, like Organizing for Action and Crossroads GPS.

What differentiates the 501(c)(4) from it’s (c)(3) cousin is this type of organization is allowed to participate directly and indirectly in politics…so long as it is not the organization’s primary focus. Under this type of designation, organization representatives can conduct unlimited lobbying efforts and engage in partisan campaign activity…but only as a secondary activity. In practice, this means the organization must spend less than half of their funds on political campaigns, candidates, and the like. (Most counsel would recommend 30 to 40 percent of funds to be on the safe side).

Super PAC

Another option would be for the students to form a super political-action committee (PAC). Super PACs are not a category of nonprofit, but rather their own beast. I could (and will!) write a full post on this type of entity’s history, fundraising abilities, and limitations. What’s important for you (and the Parkland students) to know is that that super PACS have no limitations on who (be it unions, corporations, associations, or individuals) can contribute and how much they spend on elections, specific candidates, and in opposition of other candidates. This is why the 2016 presidential election saw super PACs donate massive amounts like Priorities USA Action spent more than $133 million supporting Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and Right to Rise gave $86 million to Jeb Bush’s candidacy.

When it comes to political activity, the main restriction is that a super PAC cannot spend funds “in concert or cooperation with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, the candidate’s campaign or a political party,” according to the Federal Election Commission. It’s also important to note that donors can give to a nonprofit anonymously, but cannot make anonymous contributions to PACs.

Tax-exempt organizations interested in direct political work can form a PAC as a separate legal and funded entity in addition to their normal mission oriented work.

This is all to say that the Parkland students (and their supporters) have a multitude of options if they wanted to harness the benefits a nonprofit organization and/or an entity like a super PAC allows.


For anyone looking to form a nonprofit (regardless of age!) I recommend you meet with an attorney experienced in nonprofit formation and compliance to ensure you’re meeting all requirements, as well as drafting the important policies and procedures.

I would be happy to offer you a free consultation, address any questions, or help you get started on pursuing your mission-oriented organization. You can contact me via email or by phone (515-371-6077).

I’ll never forget that night. Several months ago, a simple notification popped up on my Twitter account. Very rarely have five words caused me such joy: “Soledad O’Brien is following you.”

I was social media starstruck!

Sure, I know that this was likely the doing of a digital tool that auto-follows accounts that tweet about certain subjects. Or, maybe it was one of the social media interns who saw my retweets of @soledadobrien and decided to throw me a follow as a fan. Since she follows 447k accounts I have no doubt that the impressive individual herself didn’t actually follow me…but hey, we all like to feel liked and heard even if it’s a digital facade.

To understand why this was such a Big Hairy Audacious Deal (if you got the reference to Jim Collins’ concept, applause!), let me put this into context of my small, “local” Twitter account and Ms. O’Brien’s worldwide acclaim.

A Lonely 440+

My Twitter account has merely around 440 followers (at the time of publication). I put out great content, and it’s growing slowly and surely, but would love for more people to join the party. (In fact, if you’re reading this and haven’t followed @FischerGordon yet, check out all the great info I share on estate planning, nonprofit formation and compliance, and charitable giving on top of Iowa-centric news and all around interesting factoids.) But, let’s be honest I have a long way to go to catch up to the likes of the Big Ben clock that simply tweets “bong” in various quantities and the San Francisco fog, apparently named Karl.

Soledad is Superb

In contrast to my lowly follower count, @soledadobrien has a well-deserved follower count at 809k and counting. For those few of you who are unaware, Soledad O’Brien is a world-famous broadcast journalist renowned for her roles as anchor and correspondent for MSNBC, CNN, HBO, and Al Jazeera America. She has been a tremendously well respected presence in broadcast news since 1991. She has covered so many huge stories I can’t possibly list them all. Countless times she’s been on “best of” lists and she’s won a Peabody Award and four Emmy Awards.

Presently, Ms. O’Brien is the host of Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien, a show focusing on politics and socioeconomic concerns produced by her very own multi-platform Starfish Media Group.

Newsworthy Nonpxrofit Policy Special Worthy of O’Brien’s Reporting

I would regularly check to see if Soledad O’Brien ever unfollowed me. Maybe the social media software algorithm wised up or the social media intern was tasked with clearing out the followings of accounts with sub-500 followers. But, my coolest follower (sorry everyone else!) is still there! This fact has, of course, let me to the inevitable conclusion: O’Brien must want me on her show! Why else would she follow an attorney who’s on a mission to maximize charitable giving in Iowa?

Why would she want me on her show at all? I’m biased, but I think the 10 for 990 nonprofit policy special (available through March 15) is certainly newsworthy! While not a political scoop, the 10 for 990 deal could benefit (Iowa) nonprofits working toward the betterment of socioeconomic issues and/or advocating for increased engagement in American democracy.

A journalist of O’Brien’s caliber would need some more details before she ever agreed to have me on as a guest. As such, the 10 for 990 offer provides nonprofits the ten policies discussed on the IRS’ Form 990 for the flat fee of only $990. (IRS Form 990 is the tax form nonprofits must complete once they’ve reached a certain monetary threshold. Just like individuals have to fill out a personal income tax form). The 10 policies asked about on the Form 990 include conflict of interest, document retention and destruction, whistleblower, compensation, fundraising, gift acceptance, financial policies and procedures, and investment.

If Ms. O’Brien were to ever interview me on this truly fantastic deal, I would share the benefits of having a qualified attorney craft these important policies and explain the collective responsibilities of nonprofit boards.

Even if you’re not an award-winning journalist turned CEO, I would love to talk to you about this policy special. Because Form 990 is typically due in May, now is the perfect time to get ahead on compliance. Nonprofit executives, board members, and even engaged volunteers should contact me via email or phone (515-371-6077) to learn how this could fit in with your organization’s goals.

shaking hands across table

In the age of the Internet there’s a free template, instructional, and how-to video for just about everything under the sun. And, for many things, from great recipes, to exercise guides, to Ikea furniture blueprints (why is there always one extra piece left over?!), this is fantastic. Sometimes it’s even hard to remember what life was like before we had access to information on just about everything at our fingertips.

There are still some things that, despite being free and appearing easy to do, are better done by a trained professional. For instance, let’s say I wanted to redo my bathroom, but have extremely limited working knowledge of how to reconfigure the plumbing to make sure it’s functional within the new design of the room. I could certainly click through step-by-step instructions on Reddit or watch a smattering of YouTube videos, but I’m still not an expert. If I tried to DIY the plumbing in my new bathroom, it would certainly take me much longer than an expert and without a doubt the finished product would be of a lesser quality. There’s also a good chance I would invest all this time and energy in the project, and still mess up, and end up having to hire a professional contractor to fix my mistakes.

Some things are just better left to the professionals. In regard to your nonprofit’s policies and procedures, this is where an experienced attorney comes in.

As a nonprofit leader, you’ve specialized in a multitude of different aspects while working toward achieving your organization’s mission. But, when it comes the super important policies and procedures, you need to have in place for top of the line legal compliance, it’s best to outsource to a legal expert. You could try the DIY way by finding free templates online and trying to muddle through the process. But, if legal issues arise and your policies are called into question you’re then going to have to call in the specialized professional to help keep the bathroom from flooding (metaphorical reference to my hypothetical plumbing mishap). If written poorly, policies could provide little to no guidance because they were too vague, not applicable to your organization, or contrasting with federal/state/local laws. An attorney can help you put all the pieces of the compliance puzzle together into an image that’s valuable.

puzzle pieces

Avoid the time, energy, and monetary costs of DIY, and opt for quality policies and procedures that are written specifically for your nonprofit by an experienced attorney in nonprofit law. Need a little more information to convince the board, the boss, or yourself? Here are three practical reasons why you should work with a professional to draft your tax-exempt organization’s policies and procedures:

Save Time

Time is a common thread amongst the majority of nonprofits I’m lucky enough to work with. There’s never enough time. When it comes to initiatives like writing a full set of beneficial policies and procedures unique to your organization, it costs time! And that is time away from all the other change-making that could be happening. Without a doubt, most nonprofits are also short on administrative help. When you hire an attorney well-versed in nonprofit law it’s a double win when it comes to time—your time isn’t wasted or misused and you get to reap the benefits of a subject matter expert’s time.

https://www.gordonfischerlawfirm.com/nonprofits-form-990-due-date/

Save Money

My 10 for 990 special for nonprofits includes 10 policies asked about of Form 990 for a flat rate of $990. Sure, it’s an investment. But, less than $1,000 is worthwhile in exchange for policies that limit potential abuse, protect against vulnerabilities, and prevent activities that go beyond permitted nonprofit activities. Adopting internal and external policies can only help in the case that your tax-exempt organization is ever audited by the IRS.

Receive Dedicated Attention & Advice

Just like I tell my estate planning clients, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the important documents that will be the blueprint to your legacy. The same goes for nonprofits.

Each nonprofit is unique and accordingly your internal and external guidelines will want to reflect this. For instance, a non-operating private foundation will likely need a different set of documents than a public charity. With a dedicated nonprofit attorney working on your policies, you get unparalleled and individualized service. This type of dedicated service and attention to detail will further save you from wasting resources on forms and other legal documents that aren’t useful or beneficial to the organization. Ultimately, working with a nonprofit attorney will mean counsel that sets your nonprofit up for success, unhampered by compliance issues.

The benefits of investing in a qualified attorney to craft your important policies are numerous; the right attorney will put your organization’s best interests first, saving you resources in the long run.

Given my experience, mission, and passion for helping Iowa nonprofits, I would love the chance to fill the role of topical expert for your organization. Learn more about the 10 For 990 policy special and don’t hesitate to contact me via email (Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or on my cell (515-371-6077).

monthly calendar highlighter

In pretty much any industry—finance, business, health care, marketing, etc.—you can and should always be learning. For me, continuous learning often translates into better advice for my clients, especially on trends and new technologies within my main areas of service. One of my favorite ways to do this is to attend webinars presented by subject matter experts. Recently I attended one such presentation, hosted by NonProfit PRO, entitled “Effectively Managing a Monthly Giving Program That Exceeds the Thousand-Sustainer Mark.”

This subject is super interesting and important for nonprofit leaders, but nonprofit leaders are notoriously busy, so I took notes for you! Read on for the four main takeaways for managing a monthly giving (or monthly sustainer) program. The information presented was directed toward large giving programs, but much of it applies to any giving program, regardless of number of donors or nonprofit size.

Background

Monthly giving (or sustainer) programs can be the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations. These types of programs enlist, encourage, and facilitate regular donors—think automatic monthly or quarterly charitable donations. They are a definite best practice within the fundraising mix as they provide predictable funding and more engaged donors at a high retention rate. These types of programs also produce higher average annual gifts and can be mission critical for net revenue. Needless to say, monthly giving programs are extremely valuable and should be managed accordingly.

Be Dedicated to Donor Care

people laughing on beach

Your monthly donors are valuable and are going to be who help sustain the organization’s operations and key programs. Take care of prospective donors as if they are donors already. What does this mean?

Start at the beginning of “the funnel” and walk through the entire process of what joining your organization looks and feels like. Be honest about your sign-up process and review any barriers to entry. Your nonprofit is likely going to spend more money to bring regular donors into the fold, but the value of an invested sustainer is immense in the long-term. Make it just as easy to sign-up to be a donor, as it is to be a part of something—a movement, an initiative, a solution.

Taking care of your donors means paying attention to intentions. For instance, a donor might accidentally create two accounts, or a donor may make a large gift they intended to be a one-time donation, but registered it as monthly. The organization’s staff need to be available, organized, and equipped to facilitate requests to change whatever was set-up initially. If a donation situation seems strange or you have immediate questions, be proactive and contact the donor. Donors will feel the best about continuous giving if they’re able to donate exactly as they intended.

Taking care of donors means being prepared to be excellent communicators. If you’re running a donor drive or launching a new campaign, expect an increased number of calls, emails, and even social media messages from prospective donors. First of all, make contact information easily accessible. Equip all staffers that may have contact with prospective donors with FAQs, and other information they may need, including flexible phone and email scripts, so that messaging is clear and conducive to the campaign and overall mission.

Taking care of donors means that they need to feel engaged and part of the team from the get-go. This can look different at every organization, but common examples include a progression of on-boarding “welcome emails,” gift acknowledgement/thank you letters, and branded content they can share on social media.

Deliver a Personalized Experience

Collect data from your donors across all platforms and use it to deliver as much of a personalized experience as possible, with targeted messaging via social media and e-newsletters, direct mail, and engaging phone calls. One idea from the presentation was to follow up with donors with an update on the topic that encouraged them to become a donor in the first place. For example, let’s say Jill Donor joined as a monthly donor as a result of a specific campaign featuring the story of a little boy who would directly benefit from increased giving to the nonprofit. It would be smart to target Jill Donor with an update on that same little boy a few months later, and illustrate how her donation made a difference and will continue to do so.

computer on desk with booksThis is, of course, easier said than done, especially for nonprofits that source donors from multiple platforms. To that point, you’ll want all your data systems “speaking” to one another, regardless of which specific systems your organization operates with. If your systems are not centralized or properly organized, it could be detrimental. For example, you wouldn’t want to accidentally send an automated “lapse in giving” letter to an individual who has been one of your regular, steady donors of two years.

This advice goes not just for your information technology systems, but also personnel systems. Staffers involved with donor care should be able to view all available information on a single donor in a single centralized contact file.

Pay Attention to Trends & Analytics

green light

On its front, donor management may not seem like a data-centric field. Yet, data plays an extremely important role in gaining insights into the state of your sustainer programs. Define your key performance indicators (KPIs) and create reports and graphs that make it easy for other organization stakeholders to view trends over time. The webinar experts suggested the following main KPIs:

  1. Attrition: Who is falling off and when? This should provide some information to the bigger question: “Why are sustainer accounts declining at all?” (Hopefully you don’t have to ask this question at all, but if you do, you want to plug in the numbers for  who, when, and why.)
  2. Credit card updates: This KPI refers to credit card updater systems that automatically edit donor credit card information when the card expires or otherwise. It should measure if the credit card update service/system employed is working effectively. How many cards could not be accurately updated?
  3. Chargebacks: How many and for what amount did chargebacks to credit cards occur? Negative trends here could indicate a flawed process that requires updates.
  4. Reactivation: How many donors reactivated after previously cancelling a regular donation?
  5. Deactivation: How many donors canceled from the sustainer program?
  6. Average monthly gift: How much are donor gifts averaging?
  7. Online sign-ups: How many people are registering as repeat donors and where are they coming from—social media, e-newsletter, search engine, directly from the website, direct mail (send recipients to a shortened and tagged URL that will indicate how many people came from each letter campaign.) etc.?
  8. Cost to acquire: What’s the average spend in exchange for donor acquisition?

Ability to track all or some of these will likely depend on the size and capacity of your organization. If your nonprofit is small just focus on a couple main KPIs for donor management. Use your historical KPI data to set goals and expectations for coming periods.

Know When You’re Getting Paid

The webinar speakers used this phrase “know when you’re getting paid,” to discuss the important topic of billing capabilities.

One subject discussed were the differences and advantages of different billing options. If possible, offer your donors a variety of options for billing, so it’s tailored to their intent. But, not every organization will be able to offer a selection, so you choose between the merits of monthly/fixed-day (billing on the same day of each month, regardless of when the donor initially registered) and anniversary (each invoice is the same day of the month the donor registered).

Credit card payments are typically one of the easiest ways for donors to register, but know that the average nonprofit will see 15 to 30 percent of all credit cards payments declined due to failure to renew. That means that either a donor didn’t update their billing info, or a credit card updater system you pay for failed to update automatically. If possible, keep track of what cards are about to expire and then reach out to the donor directly. This is a good time to reconnect with the donor, discuss initiatives, and explain how an increase in giving could further along the mission.

Be sure to offer the ability to accept as many different types of payments as possible. To that point, and to surpass the many complications credit cards can present, the webinar leaders also recommended exploring options for ACH (Automated Clearing House Network) payments. ACH, as you may already know, is a network that facilitates electronic money transfers. ACH payments can be as fast as a wire transfer and the banking info required doesn’t tend to change or expire like credit cards do. However, ACH payments are subject to strict policies, so just be sure to adhere to the rules and regulations if you’re going to offer this option.

Finally, know when you’re going to actually have access to donated funds and at what amounts. This impacts cash flow and budget development and execution.

Don’t Delay Effective Management

Successful fundraising can and should involve sustainer giving programs, as they can be incredibly successful and rewarding for both the organization and donor alike. But, if you don’t implement effective donor-centric tactics as well as data organization and analysis from day one, you are at risk of losing your sustainers before you even start.

https://www.gordonfischerlawfirm.com/nonprofit-policy-special-10-form-990/

In addition to the four main points, I would also like to add that that having sound, quality policies and procedures in place can make all the difference for effective management, let alone legal compliance. I’m offering a deal for 10 important policies asked about on Form 990. Policies like a gift acceptance policy fit in as an important piece of the fundraising puzzle.

Questions? Thoughts? Advice from your own experience with monthly sustainer programs? Comment below or reach out via email or by phone (515-371-6077).

Did you miss the most recent edition of my monthly newsletter, GoFisch? It “swam” (punny, get it?) into inboxes on Valentine’s Day and fittingly featured how estate planning is a way of saying “I love you.” While Valentine’s Day has come and gone, every day is a great day to show your friends and family you care, so give the highlighted posts about different aspects of estate planning (like final disposition of remains and testamentary trusts) a read.

This GoFisch edition also included:

  • An exciting policy special for nonprofit organizations running through March 15. Read more about the 10 For 990 deal here.
  • A love-inspired curated Spotify playlist to play while you work through your estate plan.
  • Iowa-based nonprofit & philanthropy news.
  • Must-read GoFisch blog post highlights.

Like what you read? Don’t forget to subscribe to GoFisch and tell your friends! You can also scan through previous editions of the newsletter here.

talking at a table

If you’re like me, you love watching team sports be it baseball in the summer, basketball through the winter, or curling and volleyball during the Olympics! For a shot at winning, each of the team members must expertly perform their position. 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 individual 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.

Download my free guide for nonprofit leaders on policies and procedures your organization needs. Then, check out my 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 responsibility 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 a few members (not the majority) 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, and 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 recognize 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).