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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).

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.
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).

compass journal near macbook

To get the ball rolling in forming a tax-exempt charitable organization there are just two main documents to put in place. Seriously, just two–articles of incorporation and bylaws. Let’s start with exploring the components of what should be in your nonprofit’s articles of incorporation. (We’ll dig into bylaws in another post!)

Articles of Incorporation

Think of articles of incorporation as the constitution of your nonprofit. While articles of incorporation can be fairly short, there are some necessary elements required under both Iowa and federal law to gain and retain that golden tax-exempt status.

woman holding red heart

Legal Requirements in Iowa for a Nonprofit’s Articles of Incorporation

Under Iowa law, articles of incorporation for a nonprofit must contain the following:

A corporate name which satisfies two requirements.

First, the corporate name must be distinguishable from any other nonprofit or business authorized to do business in Iowa. In other words, the name must be different and unique from all other names – even if it’s different by just a single letter. For example, no one could incorporate using the name, “Gordon Fischer Law Firm.” But if there were another lawyer with my name, he could legally incorporate simply by naming his business, “Gordon R. Fischer Law Firm,” or “The Gordon Fischer Law Firm.”

The second requirement is that the name does not contain language stating or implying that the corporation is organized for an unlawful purpose. To take an extreme example, “The Nonprofit Association of Heroin Dealers” would not be a proper name (in addition to many other legal issues!).

The address of the corporation’s initial registered office and the name of its initial registered agent at that office.

The “registered agent” is a legal name for “contact person”–the person who will be mailed if there’s any sort of problem or issue with the corporation. The “initial registered office” is simply that person’s (the registered agent’s) physical address, like a home address. It cannot be a PO Box; it must be a street address.

Be certain that the registered agent is responsible and involved. There can be obvious, profoundly negative consequences if the Iowa Secretary of State, or a taxing and/or regulatory agency (like the IRS) were to mail to the registered agent, and the registered agent doesn’t see the mail, and/or doesn’t provide the mail to the organization.

The name and address of each incorporator.

The “incorporator” is a legal term meaning the founder(s); the person(s) responsible for starting the nonprofit.

Whether or not the nonprofit will have members.

Unlike a regular corporation, a nonprofit does not have stockholders. (Of course, this is because nonprofits do not issue stock.) Instead, nonprofit can choose to have “members.” A formal “membership” structure often grants members certain basic rights, such as the power to vote for directors and approve a sale or merger. Most nonprofits (especially smaller ones) do not have members, due to the additional paperwork and required formalities. Instead, most nonprofits instead rely on their board of directors. In any case, a nonprofit must formally declare in their articles whether or not it will have members.

Provisions not inconsistent with law regarding the distribution of assets on dissolution.

When a nonprofit dissolves (i.e., terminates), any remaining assets must be distributed to another nonprofit (or government entity for a public purpose). No individual or group can be unduly enriched when a nonprofit ends. And, if you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. Folks contribute to a nonprofit to support its tax-exempt purposes, they wouldn’t want their funds to end up supporting non-charitable purposes.

An incorporator must sign and file the articles of incorporation.

The articles of incorporation must be filed with the Iowa Secretary of State’s office (and the ISOS will check that all the requirements above are met before filing is allowed). Currently, the filing fee is $20.00.

Federal Legal Requirements for a Nonprofit’s Articles of Incorporation

Of course, like all organizations, a nonprofit is governed by both state and federal law. Simplifying a bit, the IRS has two major requirements for a nonprofit’s initial governing documents.

  1. The articles of incorporation must limit the nonprofit’s purposes to exempt purposes set forth in Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3). The exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3) are “charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals.” An explicit reference or citation to 501(c)(3) and one or more exempt purposes is sufficient to meet this requirement.
  2. In addition, an organization’s assets must be permanently dedicated to an exempt purpose. This means that if an organization dissolves, its assets must be distributed for an exempt purpose pursuant to 501(c)(3), or to the federal or state government or a local government entity, for a public purpose.

Amended and Restated Articles of Incorporation

No doubt some of you are thinking, hey, we already have articles of incorporation! Sure, we may need better articles, or improved articles, but we do have them.

In such cases, when a nonprofit wants to update or revise current articles, the organization files with the Iowa Secretary of State what is known as “amended and restated articles of incorporation.” These amended and restated articles completely supplant the earlier articles.

If filing amended and restated articles, Iowa law requires a statement in the document to the affect that all the amendments, changes, revisions, etc. are reflected in this new, single document. To meet this requirement, I use this statement:

“I [the incorporator] hereby certify that these Amended and Restated Articles of Incorporation consolidate all amendments into this single document.”

So, How Do I Go About Getting Articles of Incorporation

Each organization is unique and it’s smart to enlist someone (like an attorney well-versed in nonprofit law!) to draft a quality, comprehensive set of articles personalized for your nonprofit’s needs, mission, and goals.

Questions? Want to learn more about turning your dream of an organization that makes a significant impact or positive change? Grab my complimentary Nonprofit Formation Guide and then contact GFLF for a free consult!