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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).

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).

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.