Archive for the ‘IRS’ Category

What Your Nonprofit Can Learn From the “Three Cups of Tea” Scandal

In the early 1920s, America’s faith in the presidency was rattled by something called the “Teapot Dome” scandal, in which President Warren Harding’s administration accepted bribes from the oil industry.

Flash forward to April 2011.  America’s faith in the nonprofit sector is currently in limbo—in something that’s been dubbed the “Three Cups of Tea” scandal.

Author and philanthropist, Greg Mortenson, made waves in the nonprofit sector and media by founding 170 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan through his Central Asia Institute and documenting his travels and experiences in his popular book Three Cups of Tea.

A recent investigation by 60 Minutes and writer Jon Krakauer revealed that that Mortenson had fabricated parts of his story.  Even worse, 60 Minutes visited 30 of the schools supposedly built by his Central Asia Institute and found half empty or otherwise not receiving support from the Institute.  And according, to a May 5, 2011 article in Slate, additional stories of “ghost schools” have emerged after the program aired.

The scandal has already attracted the attention of Montana’s attorney general (Central Asia Institute is incorporated in Montana).  As Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock said in a statement:  “I’ve been in contact with attorneys for the Institute and they have pledged their full cooperation in addressing our concerns. While looking into this issue, my office will not jump to any conclusions – but we have a responsibility to make sure charitable assets are used for their intended purposes.”

So what are the lessons learned for nonprofits and for donors?

Charity Ratings Aren’t Perfect. 

The Central Asia Institute had garnered high ratings from some large charity websites.  According to the Wall Street Journal, CharityNavigator.org, a ratings website, had previously awarded the Institute four stars (the website’s top rating).  The Institute’s ratings have since dropped and a “donor advisory” has been issued since the scandal broke.

“Like financial markets, ratings are supposed to have a predictive value,” Perla Ni, founder of GreatNonprofits, told the Wall Street Journal. “But we’re still in our infancy. There are going to be scandals in nonprofits, just like any industry.”

The takeaway for donors is obvious—it’s important to look beneath the surface and make an informed decision, based on more than a rating.  Nonprofits should learn not to be content with a high rating but should work to cultivate good donor relations—and base their operations on strong governance, transparency, and accountability. 

Using IRS Filings as PR Tools.

As noted by Guide Star, the IRS’s 990 requirements present an opportunity for organizations to “capitalize on the opportunities created by the increased transparency. If unprepared, they may be unnecessarily subjected to potentially damaging external risks.”   The 990 is no longer merely a tax-exemption compliance measure, but can now be leveraged by organizations as a tool for reaching out to potential donors.  990 forms filed with the IRS are public record, and the recent changes to the 990 requirements gives potential donors greater access to important funding-related considerations such as the organization’s mission statement.  For example, many potential donors might not be aware of an organization’s mission statement, which was previously buried on page three of the 990.  Following the new changes, however, potential donors won’t be able to miss the mission statement, which now appears prominently on page one.

In general, it very important that all nonprofit publish their 990s in some manner.  This may be done in one of two ways—either by making 990s available via the organization’s website or through GuideStar, a service that enables nonprofits to disclose various information.  For more information about GuideStar, visit www.guidestar.org .  

Consider an Independent Audit.

Self-reported numbers by staff members are obviously not as trustworthy as numbers prepared by an independent audit.  According to an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy,  “[t]he Central Asia Institute did not have an audit even in 2008 when its net assets exceeded $10 million, it spent more than $5-million, and it generated a surplus of more than $8-million.  The board’s decision to forgo an audit until fiscal 2009, combined with the problem of the small size of the board and the financial self-interest of the charity’s founder and executive director, raise suspicions that it failed to exercise appropriate oversight and might have misused charitable assets.”  While audits are often mandatory for larger organizations, smaller organizations may want to consider retaining an independent firm to conduct an audit, simply for transparency reasons.

It remains to be seen what will come out of this scandal and the investigation to follow.  But the lessons are clear.  Whether your organization is large or small, trust matters.   Although controversies like this one and the Bernie Madoff scandal before it erode the public’s trust in the nonprofit sector, the only way to address this is for organizations to proactively re-earn this trust.

Dodging a Bullet: More Than 200,000 Nonprofits Avoid Losing Exemption Thanks to IRS Extension of Filing Deadline

After several weeks of tense speculation that as many as 400,000 nonprofit organizations were set to lose their tax-exempt status, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is offering a time extension to more than 200,000 small charities that missed the May 17 filing deadline to file their IRS Form 990.

A 2006 law required nonprofit organizations with receipts of less than $25,000 to file IRS Form 990 for the first time in 2007. If charities fail to file for three (3) years, they will lose their tax-exempt status.

According to a May 18 press release from the IRS: “The IRS will be providing additional guidance in the near future on how it will help these organizations maintain their important tax-exempt status — even if they missed the May 17 deadline. The guidance will offer relief to these small organizations and provide them with the opportunity to keep their critical tax-exempt status intact.   So I urge these organizations to go ahead and file — even though the May 17 deadline has passed.”

Speaking on the upcoming guidance that the IRS plans to issue, IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman said “The guidance will offer relief to these small organizations and provide them with the opportunity to keep their critical tax-exempt status intact…Filing a tax return for the small organizations is easier than you’d think. It just takes a few minutes to fill out the electronic notice Form 990-N.”

Organizations that have questions or concerns regarding 990 filing procedures and the automatic revocation process should check out the following list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) provided by the IRS.

Although many nonprofits may be unhappy about having to file additional tax forms such as the 990 and at the costs associated with the new requirement, there are certainly good reasons for the new requirement.

As Suzanne Garment and Leslie Lenkowsky of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University note in a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, the primary purpose of the filing requirement is to make sure that tax-exempt organizations are, in fact, “doing good” in some way.

Garment and Lenkowsky go on to argue that the IRS can and should continue vetting organizations to make sure they are operating charitably, but they express fear that the IRS and state regulators may feel pressure to deny exemptions based on public anger over “eccentric” tax-exempt organizations (the authors cite as examples a nonprofit women’s roller derby league in Oregon and an organization called “The Red Nose Institute,” which sends red clown noses to U.S. troops overseas).

As the authors recognize, the “IRS and state regulators have sought mostly to ensure that charities behave charitably, not to pass judgment on the relative value of their activities.”  It will be interesting to see if that role begins to shift in the years ahead.

Finally, because it’s always best to plan ahead, we would like to wrap up by highlighting some of the key considerations involved in preparing a 990:

  • Know your mission. Your organization should have a clear understanding of its mission and be able to articulate its mission in a manner that helps maintain its exempt status and attracts new donors at the same time.
  • Know your board. Your organization’s board should be engaged, informed, and independent.  They should be aware of and abide by all rule related to conflicts of interest, self-dealing and private inurement. Board meeting minutes should be duly recorded and kept on file by someone in your organization.
  • Know your budget. Your organization should ensure appropriate use of assets and should develop and implement policies and practices that address executive compensation, support independent financial audits.
  • Know your lawyer. If the advice here seems like a lot to take in, the good news is you’re not alone.  Most smart nonprofit organizations rely on the advice of skilled nonprofit lawyers to help them with these questions and in the preparation of 990 forms as well as other IRS documents. Please contact a nonprofit lawyer before attempting to prepare your 990 or any other documents related to tax, accounting, or governance. Our firm would love to start a new relationship with you today!

In general, it very important that all nonprofit publish their 990s in some manner.  This may be done in one of two ways—either by making 990s available via the organization’s website or through GuideStar, a service that enables nonprofits to disclose various information.  For more information about GuideStar, visit www.guidestar.org .

Please feel free to contact Elliott & Davis, PC with all of your questions about 990s, as well as nonprofit formations and management.  Elliott & Davis is a full service law firm with expertise in the areas of nonprofit law, civil litigation, corporate law, real estate law, estates & trust, immigration law, entertainment law, civil rights law and domestic relations law.  For more information about these or any of our other practice areas, please visit our website at: www.elliott-davis.com.

All I Want for Christmas Is… a 990?

It’s that time of year again.  Yes, we realize the holidays are here, but (being the hopeless nonprofit lawyers that we are) we actually had tax and governance issues on our minds!

Although the holidays will provide a much-needed break for many of us, nonprofit organizations everywhere will find themselves spending these last few weeks of 2009 and the early part of 2010 thinking about the tax, accounting, and governance issues involved with transitioning into a new year.

The most noticeable change for organizations in recent years is probably the newly revised IRS Form 990, “Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax,” which nonprofit organizations began filing for the 2008 tax year.   In this post, we hope to share with you some ways to capitalize on the IRS’s recent 990 requirements by helping you find the right questions to ask yourself as an organization.

Although there’s a tendency to see any additional paperwork as a negative, there are actually some good reasons for your organization to embrace the new 990 as an opportunity to further your mission.

As Joel Wilson noted in an article for Guide Star, the IRS’s new 990 requirements, with the right preparation, organizations will be able to “capitalize on the opportunities created by the increased transparency. If unprepared, they may be unnecessarily subjected to potentially damaging external risks.”

The new IRS requirements mean that the 990 is no longer merely a tax-exemption compliance measure, but can now be leveraged by organizations as a tool for reaching out to potential donors.  990 forms filed with the IRS are public record, and the recent changes to the 990 requirements gives potential donors greater access to important funding-related considerations such as the organization’s mission statement.  For example, many potential donors might not be aware of an organization’s mission statement, which was previously buried on page three of the 990.  Following the new changes, however, potential donors won’t be able to miss the mission statement, which now appears prominently on page one.

So what are some things your organization should think about when preparing its 990?

  • Know your mission. Your organization should have a clear understanding of its mission and be able to articulate its mission in a manner that helps maintain its exempt status and attracts new donors at the same time.
  • Know your board. Your organization’s board should be engaged, informed, and independent.  They should be aware of and abide by all rule related to conflicts of interest, self-dealing, and private inurement. Board meeting minutes should be duly recorded and kept on file by someone in your organization.
  • Know your budget. Your organization should ensure appropriate use of assets and should develop and implement policies and practices that address executive compensation, support independent financial audits.
  • Know your lawyer. If the advice here seems like a lot to take in, the good news is you’re not alone.  Most smart nonprofit organizations rely on the advice of skilled nonprofit lawyers to help them with these questions and in the preparation of 990 forms as well as other IRS documents. Please contact a nonprofit lawyer before attempting to prepare your 990 or any other documents related to tax, accounting, or governance. Our firm would love to start a new relationship with you today!

In general, it very important that all nonprofit publish their 990s in some manner.  This may be done in one of two ways—either by making 990s available via the organization’s website or through GuideStar, a service that enables nonprofits to disclose various information.  For more information about GuideStar, visit www.guidestar.org .

Please feel free to contact Elliott & Davis, PC with all of your questions about 990s, as well as nonprofit formations and management.  Elliott & Davis is a full service law firm with expertise in the areas of nonprofit law, civil litigation, corporate law, real estate law, estates & trust, immigration law, entertainment law, civil rights law and domestic relations law.  For more information about these or any of our other practice areas, please visit our website at: www.elliott-davis.com.

Happy Holidays!