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Welcome to the newest post in the 25 Days of Giving series. Have questions or a topic related to charitable giving you want covered as a part of the series? Contact me!

You want your favorite charity to be wildly successful. Whether you’re working for the nonprofit as staff, serving on the board of directors, or assisting as a donor or volunteer, you want your nonprofit to have every chance to reach its goals and objectives. 

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) strongly encourages nonprofits to adopt specific governance policies to limit potential abuse, protect against vulnerabilities, and prevent activities that would go beyond permitted nonprofit activities. The IRS also audits nonprofits, just as it audits companies and individuals, and having these policies in place can only help you should you be audited. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, having solid policies and procedures in place will provide a foundation for soliciting, accepting, and facilitating charitable donations. 

Each nonprofit is unique, and accordingly policies and procedures needed will vary for each. For instance, a non-operating private foundation will likely need a different set of documents than a public charity. However, most nonprofits will want, at the very least, to consider having the following policies in place. 

Articles of Incorporation

Articles of incorporation are necessary to even form a nonprofit corporation; the document is filed with the state and accompanied by a filing fee. This policy can be known by other monikers as “certificate of incorporation,” “articles of organization,” or “charter document.” Think of this as the constitution of the organization. While it can be fairly short, there are some necessary elements in the articles that are required for federal tax-exempt status. Those elements include a statement of purpose, legal address, emphasis on not-for-profit activities, duration, names and address of director(s), and a dissolution clause, among others. You may want to check out the IRS’ sample charter.

Board Roles and Responsibilities

Nonprofit board members are generally tasked with two major responsibilities of support and governance. A board’s rules and responsibilities document should outline the requirements and responsibilities of board members. Some examples of basic components include fundraising participation, determining the organization’s mission and direction, selecting and regularly evaluating the nonprofit director/CEO, and protection of public interest. A policy regarding board roles and responsibilities should encourage nothing short of ethical and legal integrity within board members.

boardroom chairs

Bylaws

If you’ve ever been part of any board or committee, you’ve definitely heard reference to the bylaws and received a copy upon joining the organization. Nonprofit bylaws serve as the internal operating methods and rules that specify things like the election process of directors, employee roles within the nonprofit, and operational manners of meetings. Specific language in the bylaws is not required by federal tax law, but some states may require nonprofits to have written bylaws to be considered tax-exempt. This document can most often be used to resolve uncertainty between board members and takes the guesswork out of operations.

Code of Ethics

Just as it sounds, a code of ethics document puts in place a set of guiding principles for behavior, decision making, and activities of those involved in the nonprofit, including board members, employees, and volunteers. While principles innate to your organization such as honesty, equity, integrity, and transparency may be understood by all involved, this formal adoption allows those involved to make a formal commitment to ethical actions and decisions. Sometimes this document is known as a “statement of values,” or “code of conduct.” Many organizations post their code on their website to demonstrate accountability and transparency.

Compensation Policy

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

Confidentiality

A nonprofit’s board members have a duty of confidentiality due to their fiduciary obligation to the organization. This duty is there regardless of any written policy or not, but it’s certainly a best practice to clarify and explain why and how confidentiality is important to the specific organization. A confidentiality policy can include elements such as the following:

  • definitions of what matters are considered confidential
  • determination to whom the policy applies
  • a statement that board members do not make any public statements to the press without authorization
  • a process by which confidential material may be authorized for disclosure

secret mouth

Conflict of Interest

This is arguably one of the more essential policies a nonprofit board should adopt. A conflict of interest policy should do two important things:

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

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

Document Retention

A document retention policy doesn’t mean that EVERY piece of paper and digital report should be kept for a specific duration. But, consider if a document is unknowingly tossed by a nonprofit employee and is later needed in a legal matter. That can cause irrevocable damage. So, ensure all board members, staffers, and volunteers are trained and have a copy of the document retention policy, which should clarify what types of documents should be retained, how they should be filed, and for what duration. This policy should also outline proper deletion/destruction techniques.

Employee Handbook

An employee handbook is another one of the more common nonprofit documents. A quality handbook should clearly communicate employment policies and enforce at-will provisions to all employees. Employment laws are complicated and complex. An employee handbook written/reviewed by a licensed attorney is a good legal step toward avoiding employment disputes. (Yes, just as you need a lawyer to write your estate plan, you’ll need a lawyer to craft/review your employee handbook.) Review your employee handbook regularly, as an out-of-date or poorly written handbook can leave the organization open to employment ambiguity and conflicts.

Financial Policies and Procedures

This document specifically addresses guidelines for making financial decisions, reporting the financial status of the organization, managing funds, and developing financial goals. The financial management policies and procedures should also outline the budgeting process, investment reporting, what accounts may be maintained by the nonprofit, and when scheduled auditing will take place.

Endowment

This resolution concerns funds (and the interest from these funds) that are kept long term. It generally aids the organization’s overall operations. An endowment policy should consider the purpose of the endowment, how the endowment will benefit the mission of the nonprofit, management practices of the endowment, disbursement policies, and investment strategy. (This blog post from GuideStar offers five steps to starting an endowment.)

Gift Acceptance

Gift acceptance is yet another policy the IRS considers to be a best practice for any tax-exempt nonprofit, and the gift acceptance policy can help set acceptance policies for both donors and the board/staffers. There is no federal legal requirement, but this policy does allow you to check “Yes” on Form 990. If well-written and applied across the organization, the policy can help the organization to kindly reject a non-cash gift that can carry extraneous liabilities and obligations the organization is not readily able to manage.

Outstretched hand

Investments

One way a Board of Directors can fulfill their fiduciary responsibility to the organization is through investing assets to further the nonprofit’s goals. But, before investment vehicles are invested in, the organization should have an investment policy in place to define who is accountable for the investment decisions. The policy should also offer guidance on activities of growing/protecting the investments, earning interest, and maintaining access to cash if necessary. Many organizations hire a professional financial advisor or investment manager to implement investments and offer advice. This person’s role can be accounted for in the investment policy.

Whistleblower

Nonprofits, along with all corporations, are prohibited from retaliating against employees who call out, draw attention to, or “blow the whistle” against employer practices. A whistleblower policy should set a process for complaints to be addressed and include protection for whistleblowers. Ultimately this policy can help insulate your organization from the risk of state and federal law violation and encourage sound, swift responses of investigation and solutions to complaints. Don’t just take it from me, the IRS also considers this an incredibly helpful policy:

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

Policies = Powerful

While these documents may sound like a lot of work, the time and energy you place into ensuring your nonprofit is set up for success will pay off in the long run by saving you legal and IRS fees, internal conflict, violations, and compliance issues. Plus, you can enlist a qualified nonprofit attorney to do the leg work for you! 

You may say, “My organization already has a great set of policies in place!” Which is great. But, you should continuously update them as needed/wanted. A policy from 2002 may have been perfect at the time but could be in dire need of updates.

I’d advise making policies the main subject of a board meeting to review what policies have been adopted, which policies need revisions, and which policies you’re missing altogether. If you’re not sure where to start, or how policies should be drafted, read, or enacted, I would be happy to offer you a free one-hour consultation. You can also take me up on my 10 for 990 policy special.

I’m here to assist in drafting or revising your set of nonprofit policies, so don’t hesitate to contact me via email or phone (515-371-6077). We’ll schedule your free one-hour consultation and make a plan to set your organization up for success!

(Note this article is provided for general information only and not intended as legal advice for your specific nonprofit organization. Again, please contact me to discuss your organization’s unique needs.)

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 it can vary year-to-year). 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 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 15th every year.

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 no doubt your organization should have a 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).

men on computer at table

Not paying federal taxes is a big deal for a charity 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 the 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 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 due in May, but it can vary. Technically the form is due the 15th of the fifth month after the organization’s taxable year.) Currently I’m offering a 10 for 900 nonprofit policy special, so that your organization may be prepared to file Form 990 and meet the gold standard for exemption!

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).

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).

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, as 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 April 15, 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.

hockey-rink-stanley-cup

Robert Frost famously quipped that writing poetry that doesn’t rhyme is like “playing tennis without a net.”

Right now, a different sport without a net is grabbing our attention. Currently the NHL sports fans are tuned into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, an epic battle between two seemingly evenly matched teams: the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. So, allow me to make a Frost-ian point about nonprofits in a hockey context.

For a nonprofit to operate without having proper policies and procedures in place, is like playing the Stanley Cup without a net – and without sticks, skates, helmets, or a puck. Without certain policies in place, a nonprofit simply cannot run properly. Without rules, there can be no expectations. Board members, officers, staff, donors, volunteers, and other stakeholders must work to ensure they’re not skating on thin ice. Give your stars the protection they need, and the tools they require, to be a winning team.

don't just stand there book on table

Where to Start?

From working with a wide range of nonprofit clients, I’ve learned that many want proper policies and procedures, but they are simply stymied or confused on where to start. That’s where an attorney well-versed in nonprofit law can come in.

Many nonprofits have to fill out an annual form, IRS Form 990. Form 990 is unique in that it not only asks about financial information, but also many of its questions directly ask about policies and procedures. There are at least 10 major polices asked about on Form 990.

Special Offer!

Right now, I’m offering 10 major policies and procedures nonprofits definitely need for a flat fee of $990. This includes consultations and a full review round to make sure the policies and procedures fit the needs and operations of your particular nonprofit. Adopting the policies explained in this guide will ultimately save your nonprofit organization time and resources, and you can feel great about having a set of high quality documents to guide internal operations, and present to the public.

All Nonprofits Need These 10 Policies

Whether a nonprofit is large or small, new or decades-old, a mission which is narrow or multi-faceted, all nonprofits should have these policies in place. Yes, these policies are asked about on Form 990, but even if a tax-exempt organization is not required to submit a variation of the 990, the benefits are still immense. In general, having policies in place provides a framework and the expectations for an organization’s executives, employees, volunteers, and board members. Such policies can also be referenced if/when issues arise.

Another major reason to have proper policies and procedures in place is because they provide a foundation for soliciting, accepting, and facilitating charitable donations.

Additionally investing in strongly written, organization-specific policies is a practice in preparation in case of an audit. (The IRS audits tax-exempt organizations, just as it audits companies and individuals.

Policy Highlight

Among the major policies and procedures included in my special 10 for 990 offer are the following. (You can download my free guide with more extensive information and explanations regarding these policies and procedures.)

Compensation

Under IRS rules, compensation for nonprofit staff must be “reasonable and not excessive.” The IRS recommends a three- step process for determining appropriate compensation: (1) conduct a review of what similarly-sized peer organizations, (2) in the same or similar geographic location, (3) of comparable positions.

Conflict of Interest

A conflict of interest policy should do two important things: (1) require board members with a conflict (or a potential conflict) to disclose it, and (2) exclude individual board members from voting on matters in which there is a conflict. If consistently adhered to, this policy can inspire internal and external stakeholder confidence in the organization, as well as prevent potential violations of federal and state laws.

Document Retention and Destruction

The document retention policy should specify what types of documents should be retained, how they should be filed, and for what duration. This policy should also outline proper deletion/destruction techniques.

Financial Policies & Procedures

This specifically addresses guidelines for making financial decisions, reporting financial status of the organization, managing funds, and developing financial goals. The financial management policies and procedures should also outline the budgeting process, investments reporting, what accounts may be maintained by the nonprofit, and when scheduled auditing will take place.

Form 990 Review

Form 990 asks about . . . . Form 990! That’s about as meta as the IRS gets. Specifically this policy covers how Form 990 was prepared and how it was approved. A written policy is incredibly useful in clarifying a specific process for distribution and procedure review by the board of directors.

Fundraising

This one may seem obvious, but almost every nonprofit needs a fundraising policy, as almost all nonprofits engage in some sort of charitable fundraising. Your organization is no exception! This policy should include provisions for compliance with local, state, and federal laws, as well as the ethical norms the organization chooses to abide by in fundraising efforts.

Gift Acceptance

If well-written and applied across the organization, the policy can help the organization to kindly reject a non-cash gift that can carry extraneous liabilities and obligations the organization is not readily able to manage.

Investment

Before investments are made on behalf of the organization, there should be a sound investment policy in place to define who is accountable for the investment decisions. The policy should also offer guidance on activities of growing/protecting the investments, earning interest, and maintain access to cash if necessary.

Public Disclosure

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

Whistleblower

Nonprofits, along with all corporations, are prohibited by the federal government from retaliating against employees who call out, draw attention to, or “blow the whistle” against the employer’s practices.

Keeping Up-To-Date

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

Why 10 For 990

The mission of Gordon Fischer Law Firm is to promote and maximize charitable giving in Iowa, and to that point I want to help every Iowa nonprofit be legally compliant. It’s like how the coach wants to do everything they can to help their team win the coolest sports trophy—the Stanley Cup. The 10 policies a part of this promotion will save you time, resources, and you can feel good about having a set of high quality policies to guide internal operations and present to the public.

Again, for now, I’m offering these 10 policies—including needed consultations—for the low flat fee of only $990. Contact me anytime at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or give me a call at 515-371-6077. I look forward to discussing your tax-exempt organization’s needs and how we can set you up for compliance success.

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.