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nonprofit paperwork

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

Benefits of Employment Policies

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

Employee Handbook

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

 Employment Agreement

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

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

 Formal Performance Review

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

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

 Employee Personal File

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

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

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

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

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

Independent Contractor Agreement

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

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

phone sign here

Updating Employment Policies & Additional Policies Needed

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

What Other Policies Do You Need

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

Let’s Talk!

To discuss further, please don’t hesitate to contact me via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or on my cell phone (515-371-6077). I’d be happy to discuss this blog post, and employment policies, with you any time. I provide a one-hour free consultation, without any obligation whatsoever.

spiral notebook

Submitting Form 1023 for “Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code” to the IRS is cause for celebration for any organization seeking that coveted tax-exempt status. While waiting for the determination letter from the IRS regarding the application, there can be many uncertainties regarding what to tell donors about donations, and what to do about other submissions, like Form 990.

For oversight and evaluation purposes, most nonprofits need to annually file Form 990 (Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax) instead. Beyond aspects of the organization’s finances, Form 990 collects information related to practical and operational aspects like conflicts of interestSarbanes-Oxley compliance, and charitable gift acceptance. Submitting an annual filing is also essential to retaining the tax-exempt status.

When is Form 990 Due?

So, when is Form 990 due exactly? It depends on the end of your organization’s taxable year; the form is due the 15th day 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.

notebooks on table

What Do New Nonprofits Need to Do?

What does this mean for new nonprofits and organizations waiting on the tax-exemption determination letter? Expect to submit a variation of Form 990 in the year following the close of the first tax year. This is the case even if the organization is still waiting on the determination letter from the IRS in regard to tax-exempt status.

So, for example, let’s say a nonprofit filed articles of incorporation with the Secretary of State and adopted bylaws in March 2019. The organization subsequently submitted Form 1023 to apply for tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status. In the governing documents, the organization’s tax year is established as the typical January to December. For this organization, they should expect to file Form 990 by May 15, 2020, with information related to the receipts for the 2019 operating year.

Plan Ahead to be Prepared to Submit

The full 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 to avoid a failure to file, 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 to discuss your organization’s need and a round of reviews so we can make certain the documents fit your organization’s needs.

No matter what stage of the nonprofit process you’re at—from just getting started to hiring employees to board management—don’t hesitate to contact me with questions or challenges. I’m available via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) and by phone (515-371-6077).

man questioning computer
Applying for tax-exempt status from the IRS is both exciting and an anticipatory waiting game. Even if you answer every question on Form 1023 and pay the correct filing fee it can take about 180 days to get a determination letter—the official notification that the organization meets the federal tax exemption as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
One of the key reasons entities choose to apply for that coveted tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status in the first place is so that they can offer donors the option to claim a tax deduction on donations. So, what are you supposed to say to donors in that bureaucratic purgatory between incorporation and submitting Form 1023 and waiting for the actual green light go-ahead to say you’re a tax-exempt organization?
The good news is that while your application is pending, the entity can treat itself as exempt from federal income tax back to the date of organization. This would be when the articles of incorporation were filed with the Secretary of State’s office.
That said, there is a big however when it comes to donors. Contributions do not have assured deductibility during this in-between period.
If the applicant entity is eventually granted tax-exempt status, then any donations made during this time period would be tax-deductible for the respective donors. But, if the entity is ultimately not granted federal tax-exemption, then any contributions made during the in-between period will not be tax deductible for the donor.
In the spirit of transparency, the uncertain status of donations (whether they are tax-exempt or not) should be something leaders of organizations should share with donors during this period. If appropriate, organization leaders can indicate that they have every reason to believe the donations in the interim period will be tax-deductible after 501(c)(3) status is achieved, but cannot be guaranteed in the present. Nonprofit pros will also want to indicate they will notify current donors about any status change following the determination letter. It’s also a good idea to implement a gift acceptance policy from the start.
I’m happy to help guide interested nonprofit leaders through the application process and then assist with all of those legal uncertainties and compliance requirements on the way to successful change-making. Don’t hesitate to contact me via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or phone (515-371-6077), no matter what step along the way you are.
reading gift acceptance policy article

I love the opportunity to write for the Iowa State Bar Association‘s monthly publication, The Iowa Lawyer. I enjoy even more that you don’t have to be an attorney, judge, or even work in the legal field to read it! I recommend all nonprofit professionals, as well as professional advisors that advise nonprofits, to give my latest piece a read. Entitled “Minding the GAP: Why Every Nonprofit Needs a Gift Acceptance Policy,” the article (on page 24) overviews:

  • what this important policy entails
  • why it’s essential
  • what provisions should be included
  • different types of charitable gifts to consider when drafting the policy

minding the GAP - why every nonprofit needs a gift acceptance policy

That all said, a gift acceptance policy is just one of many policies that each nonprofit should have drafted to fit their unique mission and operations. Other documents to review, adopt, and employ include:

I’m happy to discuss any elements regarding how a gift acceptance policy can help your organization; don’t hesitate to contact me by phone (515-371-6077) or email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com).

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.– Rudyard Kipling

I’ll use all six “serving men”—what, why, when, how, where, and who, albeit sometimes in slightly different order—to explain three broad topics: (1) estate planning; (2) trusts; and (3) business succession planning. If you’re unsure of any of the three topics listed, this is the blog post for you.

man taking notes in notebook

WHAT is an Estate Plan, Anyway?

What do we talk about when we talk about estate planning? There are six documents that should be part of everyone’s estate plan. Additionally, you should also keep these six documents updated and current. It’s also important you take note of assets with beneficiary designations (such as those on IRAs and bank accounts).

WHO Needs an Estate Plan? Everyone!

Everyone needs an estate plan. If you’re young, healthy, unmarried, have no children, and have no significant or unusual assets, perhaps you could talk me into the idea that you don’t entirely need an estate plan. Even in such exceedingly rare cases, I strongly recommend making sure your beneficiary designations are completed and up-to-date.

For example, beneficiary designations can be found on your checking and savings accounts and on your retirement benefit plan. But, if you’re married, and/or have kids, and/or have significant or unusual assets, and/or own part or all of a business, you most definitely need an estate plan.

WHY Do You Need an Estate Plan?

Estate planning is not exactly material for scintillating conversation. In fact, I’d bet most of us like to avoid this topic because it can be confusing, and requires lots of decision-making. And, yes, it forces one to think about the mortality of loved ones and the self. Estate planning, after all, is a roadmap about what you want to happen after you move on from this life. While it may not be a fun topic, it is indeed a necessary one. If you die without an estate plan, there are several negative consequences.

Without an estate plan, you cannot choose who receives your estate assets.

If you die without a will, you leave the decision of who will receive your property, in what amount, and when up to the Iowa legislature and/or Iowa courts. With this situation, there is always the very real possibility that the distribution of your estate will be greatly different than if you had chosen it through an estate plan.

Without an estate plan, you cannot choose a guardian for your minor children.

If you die without an estate plan, Iowa courts will choose guardians for your children. One of the most important aspects of a will is that it allows you to designate who will be the guardian for your children. This can ensure that your children are cared for by the person that you want, not who the court chooses for you.

Without an estate plan, Iowa courts will choose your estate’s executor.

If you die without an estate plan, the probate court is forced to name an executor. The executor of your estate handles tasks like paying your creditors and distributing the rest of your assets to your heirs. If the probate court has to pick who will be your estate’s executor, there is always a chance that you would not have approved of that person if you had been alive. If you have an estate plan, your will names a trusted executor who will carry out all of your final wishes, pay your bills, and distribute your assets as you intended.

Without an estate plan, you can’t help your favorite nonprofits.

If you die without an estate plan, all your assets— house, savings, retirement plans, and so on—will pass to your heirs at law as specified under Iowa’s statutes. If you have an estate plan, you can include gifts to your favorite nonprofits and see that they are helped for many years to come.

HOW Do You Structure Your Estate Plan?

light bulb on post-it note

Again, there are six basic documents that should be part of everyone’s estate plan:

  1. Estate Planning Questionnaire
  2. Last will and testament
  3. Power of attorney for health care
  4. Power of attorney for finance
  5. Disposition of personal property
  6. Disposition of final remains

We’ll go through each document briefly, so you have a sense of what each entails.

Estate Planning Questionnaire

Estate planning involves facing heavy questions, and depending on the number of assets and beneficiaries you have, may take quite a bit of time and thought. I recommend clients (and even those who aren’t my clients) complete an Estate Plan Questionnaire. An Estate Plan Questionnaire is a simple way to get all of your information in one place and makes it easier for your attorney to build your estate plan.

As with any project, it helps “to begin with the end in mind.” A questionnaire can help get you there.

hand holding orb

Last Will and Testament

Now let’s discuss your last will and testament. In sum, you’ll be answering three major questions:

Q1. Who do you want to have your stuff?

This includes both tangible and intangible things. An example of a tangible item would be your coin collection. An example of an intangible asset would be stocks.

Q2. Who do you want to be in charge of carrying out your wishes as expressed in the will?

The “executor” is the person who will be responsible for making sure the will is carried out as written.

Q.3. If you have kids under age 18: who do you want to take care of your minor children?

You’ll want to designate a legal guardian(s) who will take care of your minor children until they are adults.

Power of Attorney for Health Care

A power of attorney (POA) for health care designates someone to handle your healthcare decisions for you if you become unable to make those decisions for yourself. A healthcare POA can govern any kind of decision that is related to your health that you want to address. A healthcare POA may include decisions related to organ donation, hospitalization, treatment in a nursing home, home health care, psychiatric treatment, and more.

For example, if you don’t want to be kept alive with machines, you can make this clear in your POA for healthcare. But, keep in mind your POA for health care isn’t just about end-of-life decisions, again, it can cover any medical situation.

Power of Attorney for Finance

The power of attorney for financial matters is similar to the health care document just discussed, only your designated agent has the power to make decisions and act on your behalf when it comes to your finances. This gives them the authority to pay bills, settle debts, sell property, or anything else that needs to be done if you become incapacitated and unable to do this yourself.

It might be obvious by now, but I’ll state it just in case: choosing an agent for a power of attorney requires that you think long and hard about who would be best suited for the job and who can be trusted.

woman on laptop on patio

Disposition of Personal Property

Now, let’s get to the disposition of the personal property. This is where you get specific about items you want particular people to have. If you’re leaving everything to one or two people, then you may not need to fill this out. But, if you know you want your niece Beth to have a specific piece of jewelry, and your cousin Karl to have that bookshelf he loved, then you’d say so in this document.

Disposition of Final Remains

The disposition of final remains document is where you get to tell your loved ones exactly how you want your body to be treated after you pass away. It can be as general as simply saying “I want to be cremated and scattered in my garden,” or it can be specific and include details of plots you’ve already purchased or arrangements you’ve already made.

Beneficiary Designations

Along with the six basic estate planning documents, don’t forget about your assets with beneficiary designations.

Common accounts with beneficiary designations include savings and checking accounts, life insurance, annuities, 401(k)s, pensions, and IRAs are all transferred via beneficiary designations. These beneficiary designations actually trump your will!

Regarding assets with beneficiary designations, you must make sure that designations are correctly filled out and supplied to the appropriate institution. Remember to keep these beneficiary designations updated and current.

WHEN Do You Update Your Estate Plan?

Let’s say you’ve gone to an estate planning lawyer, and these six basic estate planning documents have been drafted and signed. What else? You need to keep these documents updated and current. If you undergo a major life event, you may well want to revisit with your estate planning lawyer, to see if this life event requires changing your estate planning documents.

What do I mean by a major life event? Some common events would include:

  • Selling or buying land
  • Birth or adoption of a child or grandchild
  • Marriage or divorce
  • Illness or disability of your spouse
  • Purchasing a home or other large asset
  • Moving to another state
  • Large increases or decreases in the value of assets, such as investments
  • If you or your spouse receives a large inheritance or gift
  • If any family member, or another heir, dies, becomes ill, or is incapacitated

This is just a short list of life events that should cause you to reconsider your estate plan. There are many others; if you think you might have undergone a major life event, check with your estate planning lawyer.

WHERE Do You Keep Your Estate Plan?

You should store your estate planning documents in a safe place, such as a fireproof safe at home, or a safety-deposit box. Another option in our digital era is storage on the “cloud.” Just make sure the important agents under your estate plan—say, for example, the executor of your will, or power of attorney representative—can access the documents if and when the need arises. For most folks, that’s enough: the six documents, keeping the documents current and remembering about those assets with beneficiary designations.

Don’t Forget About Benefiting Charities!

Perhaps most importantly, through proper estate planning, you can help your favorite charities in ways large and small. One common way grantors elect to support the causes and organizations they care about is by naming them as a beneficiary of a certain amount or percentage of the estate’s assets.

Time for a Trust?

Wait a second…what do you mean by “for most folks, that’s enough?” Indeed, for most Iowans what I’ve outlined here is enough. There may be folks who have a high net worth, or who have complex assets (for example, more than one piece of real estate), or own part or all of a robust business, or otherwise have unusual situations. In such cases, a trust may be helpful. That’s considered more “advanced” estate planning and will mean additional conversations and collaboration on what estate planning tools work best for the situation.

See? That wasn’t so bad!

Whether it’s complicated or simple, it does require some thought and time. But, it’s worth the investment. A proper estate plan can save you and your estate costs and fees, help your family and friends, and provide you peace of mind.

Do you have an estate plan? Why or why not? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. You can reach me at any time at 515-371-6077 or gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com.

Everyone has unique needs and thus every estate plan needs to be personalized. Online templates for estate plans won’t cover the nuances of your life, wishes, and assets. The best place to start on your personalized estate plan is with my Estate Planning Questionnaire.

two boardroom tables

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

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

Although Sarbanes-Oxley was passed with publicly-traded companies top mind, there are two provisions that are explicitly relevant to tax-exempt organizations: the whistleblower policy and document retention and destruction protocol.

Whistleblower

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

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

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

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

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

Record-keeping

macbook on table

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

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

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

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

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

Get Policies Set in Place: 10 for 990 Policy Special

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

Seize the opportunity to get strong policies in place for a compliant future! Additionally, if you have specific questions about Sarbanes-Oxley compliance don’t hesitate to contact me directly via email (Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or by phone (515-371-6077).

employees as a desk

An employee handbook is just an employee handbook…or so you may think. But, what happens when it doesn’t have an appropriate “disclaimer?”

Incorporate a Disclaimer

In addition to smart employment policies, all nonprofit entities should develop an employee handbook as a part of the onboarding/training process for all employees. The handbook, like other employment policies, serve the purpose of capturing the values you wish to instill in your workforce, outline the standards of behavior you expect, and provide a clear guide for rights and responsibilities.

That said, an employee handbook can actually be considered an employment contract if you’re not careful. And, to best set out the parameters of the employment relationship, it’s best if the handbook and contract are two different documents.

If you think about it, an employee handbook has all the elements of a contract—it’s written, it’s specific, it “promises” certain things will (or won’t) happen. It’s even “signed” by the nonprofit/company.

An employee handbook could actually be considered a unilateral employment contract unless the employer includes an appropriate disclaimer, with wording like this:

“The policies, procedures and standard practices described in this manual are not conditions of employment.  This manual does not create an express or implied contract between the Nonprofit/Company and employees.  Nonprofit/Company reserves the right to terminate any employee, at any time, with or without notice or procedure, for any reason deemed by the Nonprofit/Company to be in the best interests of the Nonprofit/Company.”

Free Employee Handbook Sample

To make all of this more salient, I’ve compiled a free Employee Handbook guide that you can use as a sample guide to better understand how a handbook and a contract or agreement differ.

There are many reasons why an employee handbook should be just that and not also serve as an employment contract. I would be happy to review the employment documents you currently have in place or outline what documents your nonprofit needs, to ensure you have the best possible foundation for legal compliance. Shoot me an email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or give me a call (515-371-6077) and we’ll get your free (no-obligation) one-hour consultation scheduled.

discussion over table with laptop

Imagine I’m working with a great new client named Daphne. She wants to found a nonprofit organization to assist at-risk youth in her local community and across Iowa. This is a hypothetical memo I would send to Daphne outlining the steps of what it takes to form a nonprofit in the state of Iowa. (Note, if you’re looking to form a 501(c)(3) it’s best work with a qualified attorney for advice and counsel specific to your situation and goals.)

To:                  Daphne Downright – SENT VIA EMAIL
From:             Gordon Fischer (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com)
Subject:         How to Form a 501(c)(3) Nonprofit
Date:              April 13, 2019

Dear Daphne:

Good afternoon! I very much enjoyed our phone conversation of this morning, where we discussed your intent to begin a nonprofit to assist at-risk youth. Certainly this is an noble mission and I have no doubt that you could make a big impact. I also acknowledge you are very busy and don’t have the time to allocate to dealing with all of the documentation. So, I’m here to take this stress off of your plate!

Let’s recap some details regarding the process for founding a nonprofit organization. These steps will set your public charity up for the best possible success.

Main Steps to a 501(c)(3)

To recap what we talked over, forming a 501(c)(3) involves four 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.

By far, the most difficult and time-consuming of the four steps is the IRS Form 1023. You should definitely review the form immediately, so you can gain a sense of the level of detail and involvement it requires.

How much does it cost?

While my regular hourly rate can go up to $300 per hour, I often have agreed with clients to perform all the legal work required to successfully begin a nonprofit for a flat fee of $4,800. I typically bill this over the span of five months, i.e., five easy payments of $980, due on, say, the first of each of the months.

Additionally, as you would expect, this matter will necessitate payment of 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 $850 or $400 filing fee depending on the amount of gross revenue expectations). Of course, clients are solely responsible for payment of all such governmental fees.

How long does this take?

It usually takes a few months to pull all the paperwork together, including and especially Form 1023. I’ve had, however, ambitious clients who wanted to do it much faster, and I was able to accommodate. The flat fee includes as many conferences with me as you reasonably need for us to complete steps 1-4, above.

Benefits of Nonprofit Formation

Daphne, the benefits of a 501(c)(3) are many and include:

Tax exemption/deduction

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

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.

Eligibility for public and private grants

Nonprofit organizations can solicit charitable donations from the public. Many foundations and government agencies limit their grants to public charities.

Being able to offer donors income tax charitable deductions for donations, as well as eligibility for public and private grants, are probably the two major reasons folks want to obtain 501(c)(3) status.

Formal structure

A nonprofit organization exists as a legal entity and separate 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. There are exceptions. A person 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, and not through, say, a for-profit business, it’s easier to focus the giving on a singular mission. A for-profit business may be easily pulled away from a charitable mission by the pet causes of lots of different customers, clients, vendors, and employees. A nonprofit should be much less susceptible to such pressure.

Responsibilities of Forming & Managing a  Nonprofit

Of course, there are serious responsibilities that come along with creating and running a nonprofit. These can’t be overstated, and include:

Cost

Creating a nonprofit organization takes time, effort, and money. Plus, keeping a nonprofit on track, compliant, and successful also requires great care.

Paperwork

A nonprofit is required to keep detailed records and submit annual filings to the state and IRS by stated deadlines to keep its active and exempt status. 

Shared control

Although one who creates a nonprofit may want to shape his/her creation, personal control is limited. A nonprofit organization is subject to laws and regulations, including its own articles of incorporation and bylaws. A nonprofit is required to have a Board of Directors, who in turn determine policies. 

Scrutiny by the public

A nonprofit is dedicated to the public interest, therefore its finances are open to public inspection. The public may obtain copies of a nonprofit organization’s state and federal filings to learn about salaries and other expenditures. Nonprofits must be transparent in nearly all their actions and dealings.

Continue the discussion

I hope this information is helpful to you as you begin this journey. It won’t always be easy (although I will attempt to make it as simple as possible for you!), but it will be worthwhile.

I would enjoy the opportunity to be of service to you. Thank you for your time and attention. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact me. As I told you this morning, I offer anyone/everyone a free one-hour consultation. Simply reach out to me anytime via my cell, 515-371-6077, or my email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com.

Warmest regards,

Gordon Fischer

Gordon Fischer Law Firm, P.C.

jeopardizing investments board meeting

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

Don’t Jeopardize the Foundation

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

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

 

Penalty Payment

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

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

High-Risk Activities: Proceed with Caution

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

Get the Right Advice

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

Questions? Want to make sure your private foundation is taking the right steps to avoid adverse consequences like audits and taxes.

private foundation board meeting

When you first read the headline to this blog post you might have been (rightfully) confused. A private foundation is a type of 501(c)(3), so isn’t this type of nonprofit tax-exempt from federal income tax? This is just one of the nuances of private foundations that can make forming and managing them complicated. Previously I’ve covered other aspects about the private foundation that are important for foundation leaders to understand including avoiding jeopardizing investments, prohibited grants, self-dealing, and payout requirements. Today let’s shine the learning spotlight on excise taxes.

Tax Exempt, But…

Even though private foundations are exempt from income tax, they are subject to an annual 2% excise tax on the income they earn on their net investment income. (This is often referred to as the private foundation excise tax.) The purpose of collecting this revenue is to fund IRS oversight of the nonprofit sector.

Can you Reduce the Tax?

In certain circumstances, the excise tax can be reduced to 1%. The tax is reduced in situations where a foundation’s distributions (measured as a percentage of assets) in a given tax year exceed the average payout rate of the foundation over the preceding five years, by an amount at least as much as the 1% tax savings the foundation will obtain. This is called the “maintenance of effort test” and was implemented to make certain that tax savings are being used for added charitable expenditures as opposed to being “pocketed” by the foundation.

Managing & Administering

Managing and administering the private foundation excise tax can be difficult and complicated, particularly because of the two-tier tax structure. This can also be challenging in decision-making because it somewhat discourages foundations to consider increasing gift for unanticipated grants, such as in the case of a natural disaster or other relief efforts. To comply with the private foundation excise tax requires staff to constantly monitor and adjust spending and savings in order to calculate the correct tax rate.

How to Prepare Your Private Foundation

I highly recommend enlisting an attorney well-versed in private foundation operations in order to stay on top all requirement and avoid detrimental missteps. You may also want to consider implementing training for foundation board members. It’s also a good idea to implement sound policies and procedures and update them when necessary as the foundation evolves and circumstances change.

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