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Still More On Crowdfunding Start Up Arts Orgs

If you have been reading my blog regularly over the last few months, you know I have been keeping an eye on the possibility of the crowd funding elements of the recently passed JOBS Act replacing non profit status as a viable method of creating and sustaining an arts organization.

If you haven’t been reading that long, well harken back to my original musings on the subject as well as some more recent musings with links to information on the implications of the law as passed.

Hat tip to Charity Lawyer Blog’s Ellis Carter (whom I have previously incorrectly identified as male. Sorry about that Ellis) for her link to a piece on Startup Company Law Blog about the problems with the law.

Author Joe Wallin confirms many of the general suspicions I had about the costs of compliance probably being overly burdensome given the $1 million limit.

One thing that surprised me was that the law actually prohibits start ups from the “do it yourself” approach which I have always assumed to be a hallmark of start ups.

3) The Law Forces Companies To Use Intermediaries

The law forces startups to use intermediaries to raise the funds. This is fundamentally different from what typically happens with startups. Most startups raise funds without the help of intermediaries. In fact, this is the prevailing norm for startup companies. The typical advice to a startup is–don’t use an intermediary! Founders, do it yourself!

 But here the law forces companies into the arms of either registered broker-dealers or registered funding portals. These entities are subject to numerous requirements, and their compliance with those requirements will make the process much more difficult and costly for companies.

Maybe arts organizations with their bare bones mentality about providing a product might make it work within the restriction, but the whole point of pursuing an alternative to the non profit business model is to adopt an alternative approach and mindset about providing cultural experiences. (a.k.a. ramen isn’t a default food group for artists.) Though it will probably bring it own attendant problems, success might be measured by how diversely arts and cultural organizations manifest after phasing away from non-profit status.

At the end of his post, Wallin suggests Congress go back and make some changes to the law to allow start ups to proliferate more easily. I am sure there is still plenty of opportunity for successful crowd funded start ups within the law. If it isn’t changed before that, perhaps the successes will lend credence to the idea this can be a viable path for entrepreneurs, moreso with a few changes.

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Info You Can Use: Commerciality Doctrine (What The Heck Is That?)

Hat tip to Non-Profit Law blog for providing the link to Charity Lawyer Ellis Carter’s 2009 post about the Commerciality Doctrine. As you can probably tell from the title of this entry, I wasn’t really aware of this doctrine at all, but it is actually very important in terms of an organization’s 501 (c) (3) status.

According to Ellis,

Commerciality Doctrine has evolved in the courts and is applied to determine whether an organization complies with Section 501(c)(3)’s requirement to operate exclusively for exempt purposes. A key factor indicating an organization is operating in an excessively commercial manner is that its activities are in competition with those of for-profit commercial entities.

Reading what criteria the courts use as a test for whether a non-profit organization is operating in an excessively commercial manner, I start to get a little nervous:

-pricing to maximize profits;

-generation and accumulation of unreasonable reserves;

-use of commercial promotional methods, such as advertising;

-sales and marketing to the general public;

-high volume of sales;

-the organization uses paid professional staff rather than volunteer labor;

-the organization discontinues money losing programs; and

-the organization does not receive significant charitable contributions.

Most organizations probably don’t have to worry about accumulation of unreasonable reserves and seating capacity may limit high volume of sales. If arts organizations start to adopt dynamic pricing for shows, they may have to watch how high they push prices. But a lot of non profit arts organizations have professional staffs who have replaced volunteers somewhere in their history. Even those without professional staffs use advertising, sales, marketing and discontinue money losing programs. How do you not flirt with violating your status under this criteria?

So is it actually good to keep those money losing programs around? Apparently so…

Factors evidencing the absence of a commercial purpose include the following:

-lack of competition with for-profit entities;

-below market rate pricing;

-relatively insubstantial reserves;

-lack of commercial advertising practices;

-the absence of sales to the general public;

-low volume of sales;

-use of volunteers and low-paid non-professional staff; and

-significant charitable contributions.

This list almost makes a virtue of incompetence and lack of ambition.

But the first thing I thought of after reading this list was, what about the Roundabout Theatre? How the heck have they avoided being shut down on this basis. Except for requiring as significant charitable contributions as anyone else, they are a non-profit that essentially fails on every one of these measures.

They actually may have run afoul these laws and I am just unaware of it. Plenty of commercial Broadway producers have expressed criticism about the way the Roundabout and other non-profits like Lincoln Center enjoy a competitive advantage over them. Back in 2000, long before he became chair of the NEA, Rocco Landesman wrote,

“increasingly the template of success comes from the commercial arena, which is, in the end, not dedicated to the art so much as to the audience. The uber-model for this trend is ”the American Airlines Roundabout Theater,” whose artistic director, Todd Haimes, saved a bankrupt institution by adapting contemporary, market-savvy, the-audience-is-king techniques of modern corporations. Pleasing the customers, giving them what they want in the form they expect, works for Coca-Cola –…It would, I suppose, be hyperbolic to say that Todd Haimes has had a more pernicious influence on English-speaking theater than anyone since Oliver Cromwell (and it wouldn’t be nice, either, since Mr. Haimes is a personable and honorable man)”

Now it should be noted that Landesman’s piece expressed regret that the non-profit theater movement toward a commercial orientation due to market forces has meant that little original work is created any more. Though he has “accused Haimes of running a wolfish commercial operation in the sheepskin of a publicly funded institution.”

The idea that decision making in non-profits shouldn’t be motivated by a need to compete with commercial entities is probably part of the basis for the criteria of the Commerciality doctrine. Although Carter provides an example of it, I wonder how often and strictly the Commerciality Doctrine is applied to non-profits. With cuts to arts funding at all levels and an oft repeated litany that performances should be self supporting or not occur at all, is it fair to require that non-profits ignore the pressure to support themselves with strategies that create more earned revenue?

Todd Haimes has said as much,

“I feel enormous pressure to generate income for our theater,’…`I’ll do anything within reason, as long as it goes back into the nonprofit purpose of the Roundabout,” Haimes said. “So I’m trying to be more creative.”

With a $40 million budget in 2008, $12 million in donated and needing $13 million in sales, most of us are not anywhere near Roundabout Theatre’s ability to raise scowls from commercial competitors. We do face similar pressure to perform well and might well find our ambitions causing problems for our tax status given that so many other aspects of non-profit operations are being examined.

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Info You Can Use: Board Action In The Age of Technology

Hat tip to the Non-Profit Law Blog for providing a link to a piece on the Charity Lawyer blog about board votes by unanimous written consent.

An organization upon whose board I sit was recently revising its bylaws and the subject of voting on courses of action between meetings arose. We were especially interested in the legality of voting by email.

I can’t imagine we are the only ones having this conversation and fortunately, Ellis M. Carter at Charity Lawyer provides some answers.

“Unlike directors voting at a meeting which may require only a majority of the directors to approve any board action, most states that permit action by written consent require unanimous approval. Once an action by written consent is signed by all of the directors, the written consent resolution will have the same effect as a unanimous vote of the Board.

In such cases, a consent resolution will be sent to each individual director by mail, email or fax for his or her signature. To streamline the signature gathering process, the written consent document can permit counterpart signatures. This means that each director can sign the signature page of his or her copy and the signed signature pages, when taken together, are considered a validly executed document.


Generally, the action is considered to be taken on the date the last director signs the consent. For recordkeeping purposes, the signed consents must be kept by the secretary in the corporate minute book. Additionally, the resolution should be entered into the minutes of the next board meeting and made part of the official record of the corporation.”

In respect to emails, in order to remove any question of legality or whether an emailed response may have been made by an unauthorized person who gained access to an unattended computer, it is best to use a password protected electronic signature such as is available in Adobe documents. If that is too difficult, Carter suggests just printing the email, physically signing it and send it back by fax, regular mail or a scanned attachment to an email.

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Info You Can Use: Volunteer Liability

An appreciative nod to the Gene Takagi at Non Profit Law blog for linking to a Charity Lawyer post about a non-profit’s liability in respect to volunteers.

Guest blogger Deanna Rader notes that a non-profit may be liable for the actions of their volunteers under a doctrine known as respondeat superior which holds that an employer can be responsible for the acts an employee commits in the course of executing their duties. Some states have extended this concept to include volunteers.

In this context, Rader suggests that care be taken in selecting and training volunteers.

* How will volunteers be utilized? The risk of liability increases as the volunteer is given more responsibility and independence. Carefully choose the responsibilities that will be given to volunteers. Also, there should be a clear delineation between the tasks performed by employees and those performed by volunteers.

* What selection criteria should be used? You should use care to ensure that the volunteers selected are fit to serve in the positions at your agency. Your selection criteria may differ based on the responsibilities given to different volunteers. If you are using volunteers to serve children, disabled individuals, or other vulnerable populations, your selection criteria may include a background investigation and criminal history check. If your volunteers sort food for a food bank serving adults, however, a background investigation may not be required.

* What training is necessary? Before putting volunteers to work, they need to be trained to perform the assigned tasks. Otherwise, you could be held liable for their negligent performance of those tasks if it causes injury to others. Also, the nonprofit organization could be held liable if a volunteer who is not properly trained injures himself or herself because of inadequate training.

* How will the volunteers be supervised? Volunteers should have appropriate supervision based on the tasks assigned. A warehouse volunteer who is performing physical labor may not need close supervision, whereas volunteers dealing with vulnerable populations may need to be closely monitored.

* How will problems be addressed? Although good volunteers provide invaluable assistance, bad volunteers can expose you to substantial liability. Do not be afraid to address problems head-on and terminate the volunteer relationship if a volunteer exhibits inappropriate behavior.

Rader also address injury that a volunteer might take in the course of the service to the non-profit. Employees are covered under worker’s compensation laws while volunteers are not. However, it is important to clearly delineate between the two categories of workers. In addition, employers have a responsibility to provide a safe work environment to everyone who may enter their premises, regardless of employment status.

“An employer also has a duty to maintain safe working premises for an employee. Many states have applied this doctrine expressly to nonprofit organizations, requiring them to maintain a safe place for volunteers to work or finding them to be negligent in failing to provide a safe place for a volunteer to deliver services. This duty can apply even if the volunteer is working off premises while providing services for the nonprofit organization, making the nonprofit corporation liable for the actions or inactions of a third party.”

Among the steps Rader recommends taking are having volunteers sign a general waiver and release that informs them about the possible hazards they may face. She also mentions having volunteers work with a buddy or a team so they are never alone.

All this seems very valuable for the performing arts. I have worked in places where volunteers have done everything from ushering to construction to driving farm tractors. There has been ample opportunity for them to injure themselves or each others. We rent our facility out to groups and have had other people’s volunteers damage equipment on a number of occasions for which we held the renter liable.

On the flip side, performance groups often don’t have their own facilities and have their volunteers meet them at an unfamiliar place like my theatre to help them put up a show. In such a situation, you are dependent on the performance facility’s maintenance program and good practices to keep your volunteers safe.

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