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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: Fundraising Must Benefit The Group, Not The Individual

The approach of the holidays provides me with a little more free time so I have been catching up on my “come back to and read” list. I got to reading a piece by Non-Profit Law blogger, Emily Chan addressing activities athletic booster clubs engage in that may endanger their non-profit status.

Since these clubs are organized under 501 (c) (3) just like arts organizations, I became a little concerned because I see similar things happening with some arts organizations.

The potential conflict Chan addresses is in making the amount of money a person raises directly correlate with the benefit to an individual like crediting against the payment of tuition/dues or travel expenses.

Furthermore, such a credit system still raises private benefit concerns regardless of whether a parent is considered an insider or even involved in the booster club. Lois Lerner, the Director of Exempt Organizations at the Internal Revenue Service, recently affirmed that crediting amounts raised by a participant against that participant’s costs (e.g., dues, travel expenses) is a private benefit violation that may jeopardize the organization’s exempt status.

What immediately came to mind is that a lot of dance schools have their students sell tickets, Entertainment coupon books, etc., keep track of what each person sells and rewards the kids. I don’t think there is any problem with one child only getting to choose glitter stickers because she sold less than the child who was able to claim a stuffed animal.

However, if those sales determined who got to perform or helped one person defray more of the cost of going to see a show in New York than another, there could be a problem. If it defrays the cost of everyone equally, or even a specific class within the group like sending the cast of a show to perform at a festival, then it isn’t problematic.

Really, it is mostly a matter of benefits specific to individuals. This also likely includes fund raising to benefit a specific individual, say the medical expenses of a musician who was in a car crash.

Individuals should not be soliciting contributions from donors with any suggestion or intention that the contribution will be directly used for that individual who solicited the gift. Additionally, the booster club should not accept any contributions that have been earmarked by the donor for a particular individual. Not only would such contributions not be tax-deductible for the donor, the booster club would likely be acting as a conduit in violation of the federal tax laws regulating private inurement and private benefit by allowing such money to pass through the organization to the individual without having exercised any control, oversight, or discretion over those funds

I wonder how this might apply to organizations that try to forge a deeper connection with donors by having them sponsor a student. Keeping in mind that I am not a lawyer, my guess is that if the organization is selecting the student being sponsored, there isn’t a problem. The money went into a general pot with no specific expectation of which student would benefit.

But what happens if the student drops out and the donor has taken a shine to another student and wants the sponsorship applied to her as a replacement? This is a tricky situation if you are hoping for the long term, continued support of the donor.

I also wonder if something changes with the student’s status that requires more funding than for any other student, say their place of residence changes so they must pay higher out of state tuition, can the donor be solicited or even direct additional money to benefit a specific student without endangering the non profit tax status?

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The Board Police

Via Non-Profit Law blog, Kevin Monroe of X Factor Consulting made a tongue in cheek post about crimes that the non-profit Board Police special investigation unit should be looking into. Among them are:

Impersonating a board officer. In many meetings, you may have difficulty spotting the board officers. They may not actually be the one running the board meeting…There are also reports of some organizations in which the officers have not officially been notified that they are board officers. They were absent at the meeting when elections were held and consequently unable to object to their election.


Misappropriation of focus - We know you’re familiar with misappropriation of funds — which itself is a serious crime. However, misappropriation of focus is also serious, but often undetected. This occurs when boards misunderstand their duty as directors and rather than focus on policy and strategy become obsessive about the operations of the organization. If you see repeated efforts to micromanage the staff, you’re probably observing a misappropriation of focus in action.

Conspiracy – … This often occurs before or after the actual board meetings to ensure a select group of board members always get their way on how they “run” the organization. You’ll know you’re in when you get invited to the “special meeting” of the select board members.

Obstruction of governance
– any act or action that distracts the board from having substantive discussions or decisions about important issues or policies to move the organization forward in a strategic manner. This could include rehashing the past, or debating what color to paint the lobby, but they are all ploys to prevent real governance from occurring.

Take a look at the whole post, framing the problem as something to be handled by the Board Police brings a humor to a somewhat serious subject.

Except, the Board Police are pretty much a real organization according to one of Monroe’s commenters.

This past Monday, Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission (ACNC) started operations.

One of their purposes is to provide advice and assistance to non-profit organizations, including ”

Reforms to remove duplication and streamline reporting and other regulatory obligations will make it easier for NFPs to go about their core business. They will allow donors and the general community greater access to information about charities, the type of work they do and the effect of their work.”

But the ACNC will also have enforcement powers to ensure compliance:

These powers aim to protect the reputation of charities doing the right thing so they are not tainted by the minority who are trying to avoid their obligations. Sanctions will only be used in the rare circumstances where charities deliberately do the wrong thing, do not respond to education or fail to take the opportunity to fix the problem.

In this case the ACNC will have the ability to take action like issue warnings or, in more extreme cases, issue directions or revoke a charity’s ACNC registration. Without the ability to issue serious sanctions if needed, the ACNC can’t effectively protect the vast majority of the sector or the general community.

According to the ACNC website, as of late August Parliament hadn’t decided on those powers. The commenter, Melaine, on the X Factor Consulting blog wrote, “NFP voluntary Directors will have duties and face penalties that exceed those of the biggest commercial boards. (Bad) Makes it even harder to recruit.”

Perhaps some of my Australian readers can provide more comment and context? (I’m looking your way Sydney Arts Management Advisory Group)

Would an organization like this be useful in the United States? Four years ago during the presidential election, people were calling for the creation of a cabinet level Culture Czar position. Presumably such a position would not only given arts and culture a higher profile and advocacy within the government, it would have likely resulted in some form of increased oversight and regulation. I wonder if everyone clamoring for the position considered the potential downside.

Given the increased scrutiny non profit charities are under across the country, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that the U.S. will get its own version of the board police.

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Info You Can Use: Doing Business With Board Members

Since I am on the topic of board decisions this week, Non Profit Law blog recently listed a link about non profits doing business with their own board members.

While it is natural for non profits to seek out people from specific professions/skillsets to be on their boards in order to provide some expert guidance and advice, things get a little sticky when it becomes necessarily to contract professional services.

Since board members often have a personal investment in the organization, they may tend to charge extremely competitive fees for their services. As the article notes, it can also be a little awkward to be talking about paying someone else to do work that a board member in the room is perfectly capable of performing.

The article notes that not only is it difficult to avoid having some business dealings with your board members, it may be hard to actually get good people to serve on the board if they perceive there will be undue scrutiny of how their professional and volunteer activities overlap.

However, it is important to have a conflict of interest policy for board service. Failing to have one and follow it create potential problems for the organization, especially given the role non-profits serve in their communities.

Experts say one danger of so many veteran board members is that a nonprofit could lose touch with how a community perceives the awarding of contracts to members of its own board.

“Public legitimacy and support are very important, and a more isolated board may not be as aware of that,” said Francie Ostrower…


Board Source , an organization for nonprofit boards recommended by the National YMCA, suggests that board members who want to do work for the organization should donate their services. If they can’t, they should follow the board’s conflict policies.

Other critics of the practice such as Joshua Humphreys, a fellow at Tellus Institute, a Boston policy think tank, take a dimmer view.

“Best practice for nonprofits is to draw a bright line between board service and doing business with service providers,” said Humphreys. “It creates divided loyalties between the public purpose of the charity and the private gains someone is motivated by.”

Siegel (Jack Siegel, Charity Governance) said the practice chips away at the independent thinking of board members who are the recipients of contracts, as they tend to side with their supporters on the board in other matters.

“If you see conflict (of interest), you can almost bet there are other problems in the organization,” Siegel said.

The article goes on to quote Siegel pointing out that it is difficult to hold the work of board members to the standard you should because you have a relationship with them. This point struck a sympathetic chord with me as I remembered some occasions in my career where the quality of the work by a board member was never in question, but changes to elements no one really liked were never requested for fear of offending the board member by questioning their style/taste.

One of the suggestions for eliminating the conflict is that the person leave the board for the duration of their company’s contract under the assumption that if the person is really invested in the success of the organization, they will extend the same discounts as they would when they were serving.

What the article doesn’t mention is that if they don’t extend the same discount it may actually be better for your relationship with the person. If all those involved feel that a fair market price is being paid for the work, there is less potential for resentment on the part of the service provider over sacrificing time and income on a difficult project and less hesitation on the part of the non-profit to assert that their standards be met.

Still, this is all easy to say in theory. In practice, you run into the old question, “how do you fire a volunteer?” When people generously provide time, energy and expertise, they are investing a lot of themselves personally. It can be difficult to refuse their help without making it seem like you are refusing them as a person.

That is why it is good to have a well-constructed conflict of interest policy to which to point. When the situation arises where a board member will start to do business with the organization in a significant way, you can point to the policy and note that providing the service will, of necessity, change the board member’s relationship with the organization and as such the following actions must be taken per the conflict of interest policy.

Board Source has some general information on conflicts of interest on their website and some samples conflict of interest statements for purchase and download. (I have never read them so I can’t attest to their usefulness.)

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