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volunteers walking on grass

Even if you don’t work at a nonprofit organization, undoubtedly you know someone who does! There are more than 26,361 nonprofit organizations (including public charities, private and public foundations, civic leagues, chamber of commerce, veterans organizations, and others) in Iowa. Nonprofits not only make our state and world a better place to live, they also make a substantial economic impact in Iowa. The nonprofit sector employs 135,300 people (11% of the total workforce) and generates annual revenue of more than $20.3 billion (according to data from 2016)!

I founded Gordon Fischer Law Firm with a dream of a legal practice that involved consistently strives to promote and maximize charitable giving. A big part of that mission is assisting nonprofit organizations of all creeds and sizes be successful through all stages of operation. From formation to hiring, board building and donor retention, to legal compliance and facilitation of charitable gifts, GFLF is here to help nonprofits build up to be the best they can be. So, if not for your own use, pass along the good word of our services to just one person you know in the nonprofit sector, be it an executive, fundraiser, board member, or active volunteer! Click the image below to get an easily shareable PDF on how to build a better nonprofit.

Build a better nonprofit

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.

https://www.gordonfischerlawfirm.com/nonprofit-board-collective-responsibilities/

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).

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).

Giving Tuesday How Will You Get

Giving Tuesday is held the Tuesday after Thanksgiving (November 28 this year) and is an important day for nonprofits to reach out to current and potential donors. Scroll through your social media feeds with the hashtag #givingtuesday and it seems like every organization, from the Malala Fund to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, is running digital marketing campaigns related to the day. Unlike Black Friday’s lines outside of stores in the middle of the night, #GivingTuesday’s activity is largely social media based. For nonprofits all of this online activity is typically directed to online giving portals.

These online giving pages facilitate easy charitable giving, but before you send inspired donors to your giving portal, it’s wise to ensure your organization is compliant with associated legal issues. Whether you have created your own donation platform or are using a third-party platform embedded on your site, make sure to follow these legal tips:

Donation Receipt

It’s important to offer a donation receipt to your donors so they make take the charitable contribution deduction on 2017 taxes. A proper receipt—whether in a generated pdf, email, mailed letter, or other printed/printable form—should state the donor’s name, date of contribution, and amount given.

If the donation is greater than $250 a written statement should be obtained stating that the organization did not give any services or goods. If the charity does in fact give goods or services to the donor in return for a donation, the acknowledgment should describe what was given and provide an estimate of value of the goods or services.

If those goods and services provided are valued greater than $75, the written statement must also specify the the amount of the donation that is tax deductible. (This figure is the amount of money that exceeded the value of the goods or services exchanged by the charity.)

You want to make certain your communications (such as written acknowledgements and receipts) with donors meet all legal requirements, as just discussed. But that doesn’t mean you can’t also have some fun with these communications, or use them as an opportunity to stick out above the noise with creativity. Here are a couple solid articles, from The Balance and CauseVox  featuring ideas for upgrading your thank you’s to donors.

Online Charitable Solicitations

Fundraising activities fall under state law, and many states require charities (as well as individuals hired to assist the nonprofit with fundraising) to register with that state BEFORE any donations are solicited from residents of said state.

A charitable solicitation can be considered anything from a YouTube video with a call to action to donate, an e-newsletter sent to a subscriber list, to a simple Facebook post (and everything in between). Obviously, online giving has made figuring out which states your organization needs to register with complicated. Case in point, your organization may operate and be registered in Iowa, but if you have a “donate” button on your website, donations could come from residents of any state (or any country for that matter). Even the presence of a donation button could subject an organization to registration requirement in some states, but won’t in other states. (Charitable solicitation registration is not currently required in Iowa.)

The main policy guidance for state regulators on this matter was published in 2001 by the National Association of State Charity Officials (NASCO), called the Charleston Principles. But, these provisions aren’t law, merely suggestive, so how should your charity deal with online donations? It’s far better for the organization to be safe rather than found noncompliant which can involve costly penalties.

Initial Registration Requirements

Nonprofits accepting online donations have a two main approaches, according to the white paper, “Guidance for Compliance with State Charitable Solicitation Registration Requirements,” published by Harbor Compliance and the National Council for Nonprofits.

  1. Your charity could register (or file for an exemption) in all 41 states that require such registration, but that can be costly. The total fees to register your charity in all those states can range up to $5,000, (and that doesn’t even include professional fees you may need to incur, like paying lawyers or CPAs).
  2. A second option is to register only with states that require registration and from which you would reasonably expect donations. For instance, if your nonprofit operates in Iowa, depending on your fundraising activities, it could be reasonable to expect donations from residents of neighboring states such as Minnesota. Or, if a significant percentage of subscribers to your e-newsletter are from Illinois, it’s smart to register there. With this option it’s important to note that if you do receive a contribution from residents of another state that requires registration that triggers the need to register with that state.

Either way, it’s a good idea to look into the Unified Registration Statement (URS), a consolidated multi-state registration form. It’s also important to remember not only the initial registration, but also registration renewals (complete with deadlines and late fees).

Crowdfunding Considerations

Crowdfunding is anticipated to be a $90-96 billion dollar industry by 2025, and there are more and more nonprofits utilizing it as a tool within the fundraising mix. If your charity is using a crowdfunding site (Kickstarter and Indiegogo are both popular platforms) the charitable solicitation registration requirements covered above apply. But, this is also a good subject to broach the topic of fraud and misrepresentation because crowdfunding has opened the door to more people being involved. Charitable organizations are prohibited from engaging in fraud, using deceptive practices that are likely to create confusion, and misrepresenting the nature, purpose, or beneficiary of the charitable solicitation. This one’s a biggie because committing fraud or misrepresentation could mean a lengthy and expensive litigation process.

To avoid this risk it’s wise to have a vetted gift acceptance policy with clear guidelines regarding crowdfunding. Organizations should keep an eagle eye on fraudulent crowdfunding campaigns that may use the nonprofit as a beneficiary, but fail to ever actually donate funds. Yet, if dedicated volunteers and donors do want to crowdfund for you, that’s fantastic. The organization just needs to keep close watch on the campaign’s operation and offer crystal clear guidance on what campaigning on behalf of the charity is acceptable and what is not.

A day when the world comes together


#GivingTuesday is coming up quick (where did the year go?!), so now’s the time to double check any potential issues for noncompliance that could occur. If you have any questions with regard to your online donation compliance I would love to offer a free one-hour consultation. Contact me via email or on my cell phone (515-371-6077). Best of luck with your #GivingTuesday campaigns!