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Info You Can Use: Fiscal Sponsorship As Apprenticeship Program For Non-Profits

Non-Profit Law blogger Gene Tagaki recently tweeted a link to an article he wrote for the American Bar Association about 5 years ago urging lawyers to consider alternatives to forming non-profits organizations for their clients.

I should note that this article was written before the first Benefit Corporations were legal in the U.S. so that also remains an option to forming a non-profit.

One of the biggest considerations for not forming a non-profit is the fact that there are so many, with more being formed every day, but an ever shrinking supply of funding to support their efforts.

“Ron Mattocks, author of Zone of Insolvency: How Nonprofits Avoid Hidden Liabilities and Build Financial Strength, asserts that as many as one-third of the nation’s 1.4 million registered nonprofits operate in the zone of insolvency.
If a nonprofit is insufficiently prepared to compete and operate in such an environment, the end product may be gross inefficiencies, frustrated founders, disillusioned donors, and fewer resources ultimately reaching its intended beneficiaries.”

There is also the issue of whether the founders have a realistic business plan that is viable amid the economic conditions present. Takagi also spends some time cautioning against founder’s assumptions of the amount of control they can legally exert over the organization.

Among the alternatives to forming a non-profit Tagaki suggests is actually working with an existing non-profit. I often wondered, if people are able to muster the resources to create an entirely new non-profit that overlaps or competes with an existing one, why not first approach the existing non-profit first proposing to enhance their efforts with an ancillary or complementary program.

That is pretty much what Tagaki suggests:

When appropriate, lawyers should make their clients aware of the following benefits of working with an existing nonprofit:

-Avoidance of start-up costs and administrative burdens of a new nonprofit.
-Increased efficiency in furthering the charitable mission by using an established infrastructure.
-Opportunity to gain experience and expertise in running a nonprofit.
-Development of connections in the nonprofit community.

Collaborating with an existing nonprofit is an alternative that may be considered even where the contemplated charitable idea is not currently being implemented by an existing nonprofit. A nonprofit with a compatible mission may be receptive to implementing and operating a new program, particularly if a volunteer is willing to bring resources to the table. Alternatively, the nonprofit may have institutional knowledge relating to the charitable idea and its implementation. Moreover, the nonprofit may open doors and leverage assets that might not be otherwise readily available, such as

-Existing resources, including staff, volunteers, infrastructure, and systems.
-In-house experience and expertise, which may allow the contemplated program to be launched and operated efficiently and in compliance with the law.
-Donor and business relationships, including with institutional funders, nonprofit leaders, allied organizations, and the media.
-Goodwill, which may provide the program with name recognition and built-in public trust.

The other alternative he suggests is a Fiscal Sponsorship where a project is housed within the auspices of an existing non-profit. It allows the project to take advantage of the non-profit’s status without needing to create a separate entity. If the sponsorship agreement is written correctly, the project has the freedom to move to another non-profit or perhaps spin off as a separate non-profit once they have experienced sufficient growth. Fiscal sponsorship arrangements have been used to host short term projects or as an incubator for fledgling non-profits.

The Sponsor usually retains a portion of the gifts as a fee (5-10 percent is common) and allocates the rest to the Project. The Project Initiators may serve as employees or volunteers of the Sponsor delegated with the responsibility of operating the Project. They also may retain the right to move the Project to another Sponsor or to a new exempt organization created to permanently house the Project. Any such rights should be precisely spelled out in the fiscal sponsorship agreement.

Fiscal sponsorship may provide a Project with immediate tax-exempt status, advantageous treatment as a public charity (i.e., nonprivate foundation) without independently passing a public support test, some degree of administrative support, and a governing body that has a duty to ensure that the Project is operating in compliance with applicable laws. The Project Initiators must weigh such benefits against a lack of autonomy; their limited control over the Project, which remains under the ultimate control of the Sponsor; and the sponsorship fees.

The trade-off aside, if a fiscal sponsorship agreement is written well it can be an extremely helpful process of essentially testing the viability of a concept and learning how to run a non-profit organization without incurring the start up costs.

I was not aware that this option really existed. It might almost be better if aspiring non-profits pursued this option more regularly. Even if it didn’t result in new organizations spinning off all that often, it could potentially create more robust non-profit organizations. (Perhaps even resulting in more nimble sponsored programs growing to subsume their nominal sponsoring parent.)

Since the fiscal sponsorship option is relatively unknown as an option, perhaps the biggest hurdle will be getting both parties prepared and willing to engage in such an arrangement.

It is well known that non-profits start new programs in order to garner funding to support their main goals. It would be easy for a sponsoring organization to starve the program it agreed to house of the resources it needs to succeed. From the other side, as Tagaki mentioned, once you bring your program under the auspices of a fiscal sponsor, their priorities need to become your priorities to a large degree.

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Info You Can Use: Legal Tips

A couple weeks ago, Gene Takagi of the Non-Profit Law Blog made a post cautioning lawyers about issues to consider when representing a nonprofit.

As you might imagine, every one of his tips were important for members of a non-profit board and leadership to know as well. Some of his traps and tips are frequent points of conversation in the non-profit arts community: don’t write a mission statement that is too restrictive; be sure you have a viable business plan and don’t assume non-profit status is your only option; boards members should be aware they have a very real governance role; non-profit doesn’t mean tax-exempt or no-profit; all overhead is not bad; get board and directors insurance.

There were also some topics that are less frequently discussed:

1. Failing to inform the client at the outset of representation that you represent the organization and not any individual directors or officers.

4. Including “non-voting directors” in the organization’s bylaws (under most states’ laws, there is no such thing as a “non-voting director” and, subject to very limited exceptions, each director has the right to vote on all matters before the board).

5. Providing in the bylaws that the board of directors may combine in-person votes at a meeting with email votes to take board actions.

6. Reinforcing the myth that nonprofits should always minimize overhead expenses (even at the expense of building an appropriate foundation on which to build the organization’s operations).

7. Failing to inform the client about the differences among volunteers, independent contractors, and employees, and the risks of misapplying these classifications.

10. Failing to discuss with the client the benefits of having organizational policies that address the legal and management implications of conflicts of interest, proper gift receipts, misuse of social media, expense reimbursements, acceptance of noncash gifts, document retention/destruction, and whistleblowers.

For me, that first one about the lawyer representing the organization and not you always strikes me as worth repeating. I have never had the ill-fortune of being in a situation where there was a even the whiff of legal action. However, when I am reviewing contract clauses that make me uneasy or am faced with a potentially contentious encounter, I will find myself thinking that the legal department will cover me if worse came to worse. Then I have to remind myself that in fact, they won’t necessarily have my back because they serve the interests of the organization, which may not include protecting me.

Point #5 about mixing in-person and email voting is a reference to a prohibition in California law. However, reading the rationale behind the illegality of such action, it seems reasonable to expect other states would have a similar restrictions.

Since I have heavily summarized his post, it is worth taking a look at everything Takagi cautions and advises for the legal health of a non-profit

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Is It Against The Law To Pay Me More?

You may have heard about Dan Palotta’s recent TED Talk about how judging charities on concepts like administrative overhead ratios is hobbling their ability to solve huge problems.

He makes some persuasive points, though some of the concerns I had with his proposals when they appeared on the Harvard Business Review blog three years ago still remain.

Gene Takagi picked up on the talk and addressed legal considerations which would prevent non-profits from operating in the manner Palotta suggests. (Just to be clear, Palotta never suggests charities cleave to non-profit status.)

Takagi notes that charity pay scales are limited by laws governing 501 c 3s and so can’t compete well on salary if supporters show tolerance for doing so to attract the best talent. Expenditures are limited in much the same manner,

“If a for-profit spends 90 cents to make $1, it may be a perfectly acceptable profit margin, but if a charity spends 90 cents to make $1, it would be widely viewed as a terrible waste. As a result, many charities fail to properly report their fundraising expenses, and the IRS has raised the possibility of utilizing the controversial commensurate test, which addresses whether a charity is using its resource in line with its charitable mission…But this can’t be judged strictly on percentages, and charities should be allowed to experiment so if an honest fundraising and mission awareness-raising campaign fails, the charity isn’t slaughtered for it. The problem, however, is not the law, but the misguided public ideology of which Dan spoke.”

Charities are also often limited and discouraged from pursuing new revenue ideas by federal and state laws as well as popular sentiment.

I think the biggest question that this whole discussion raises for me is whether social attitudes are such that a for-profit company raising money for social issues will be tolerated. Given that people will give money to projects via things like Kickstarter without much consideration about whether it is non-profit or not, is the idea that non-profits do things that companies won’t due to lack of profitability and governments can’t/won’t due to lack of political will and expertise, over?

Currently I think there is a capricious element to Kickstarter campaigns that make it an unsuitable model for garnering long term support. However the very existence of such mechanisms may be shifting mindsets to a place where worthiness and overhead ratios are not mutually exclusive.

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Info You Can Use: You Tweeted What About Me?!

So after my post a couple weeks ago about why it is bad in a legal sense to have a restrictive social media policy, I am sure some of you have been wondering under what circumstances you can actually discipline someone for what they post online.

Well thanks to a piece on Forbes website, we have an answer (and hat tip to Gene Takagi)

As I had mentioned in my earlier entry, you can’t forbid, and therefore punish, any attempt to organize employees in a discussion about employment conditions. Under labor law, this is termed “protected concerted activity.” If a person is speaking for a group of employees or attempting to organize a discussion among employees, it is protected.

However, there are some tricky nuances to this and a link on the Forbes article to a National Labor Relations Board report, “Report Concerning Social Media Cases,” delves into the matter and presents specific cases to explain why the employee was or was not protected by the law. As Kashmir Hill, the author of the Forbes article notes, it is actually pretty easy and interesting to read for a government document.

My read is that with the current state of social media it may be fairly difficult to fire someone for complaining about work conditions. Essentially, if other employees chime in either on or off line to agree that an employer is a jerk for making employees work under certain conditions, the speech is protected as representing a group complaint. If other employees just comment that they are sorry to hear a situation upset the poster, then the poster may not be speaking on behalf of other employees.

It is only when a comment passes a certain threshold where a person is wishing violence upon people or making statements which are maliciously false that protection of representing a group complaint may not apply. However, being called a power-hungry, martinet jackass does not meet the standard for maliciously false. Suggesting a restaurant buys rat dropping to make their ground beef go further probably would.

Complaints that are clearly representative of an individual’s opinion aren’t protected, especially if they do not invite or receive the agreement of other employees. The same with complaints about the job which are not terms and conditions of employment like saying your store gets the ugliest customers in town.

One interesting fact that came up in a number of the NLRB case studies is that you can not have a blanket policy prohibiting people from posting pictures of themselves in company uniform or in connection with the company logo. ”

“…Employer’s logos or photographs of the Employer’s stores would restrain an employee from engaging in protected activity. For example, an employee could not post pictures of employees carrying a picket sign depicting the Employer’s name, peacefully handbill in front of a store, or wear a t-shirt portraying the Employer’s logo in connection with a protest involving terms and conditions of employment.”

The NLRB documents didn’t say it outright, but presumably you could fire someone if they posted a picture of themselves drunk in uniform at a strip club or urinating on your corporate logo. Though I have no idea if a number of employees urinating would be considered a group cause or not.

Another part of the NRLB document I found useful was two case studies starting on page 19 that first discussed a company’s social media policy that they considered to be too broad. In the second case, they found the policy was lawful but the other prohibitions were too broad. Finally, there was a case where a company’s policy restricting employees’ contact with the media was deemed lawful.

I felt all three were very useful because they all contained rules that any of us might include in our policies. In the first two cases, it is good to know what types of language one should keep out of policies. The last case included restrictions on media contact out of a desire to have one voice speak for the organization. Again, a situation for which many organizations strive.

“…we determined that a policy that stated that “the company will respond to the news media in a timely and professional manner only through the designated spokespersons” could not be read as “a blanket prohibition” against all employee contact with the media. Additional language in the rule referring to “crisis situations” and ensuring “timely and professional” response to media inquiries further clarified that the rule was not meant to apply to Section 7 activities.

Similarly, we concluded here that the Employer’s media policy repeatedly stated that the purpose of the policy was to ensure that only one person spoke for the company. Although employees were instructed to answer all media/reporter questions in a particular way, the required responses did not convey the impression that employees could not speak out on their terms and conditions of employment.”

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