Tuesday, May 24, 2016
A compelling article from the ABA’s Business Law Today on the risk of loss to client bank accounts from cyber-theft highlights the dangers faced by all bank account holders across the United States, including non-profits. In a technology driven economy, while efficiency is promoted through instantaneous transfers, a door has opened for a new type of cyber-crime.
This article explores some of the inconsistent and unpredictable case law that has developed over who should bear the risk of loss from a cyber-attack, the bank or the customer. Loose standards of “commercial reasonableness” lead to a wide range of possible interpretations. For example, the same banking practice was “reasonable” for one bank, but “unreasonable” for another.
This issue is particularly important for non-profits, who would likely be forced to close their doors if they were to bear the consequences of a large cyber-attack, leaving them without the necessary funds to continue operation.
The article concludes with some practical advice on how an organization should assess their banking needs and what type of protection is best for their own needs.
The new overtime regulations taking place on Dec. 1, 2016, will certainly effect labor decisions across the country. For the first time in twelve years, the threshold amount to determine if salaried workers are exempt from overtime pay will be raised from $23,660 per year, to $47,476 per year. Generally, an employer paid a salary under the new threshold will be required to be compensated for overtime worked, unless an exemption applies. In order to qualify for the new overtime payment rules, an employee must work for a covered enterprise, or be a particular worker who is covered.
If a non-profit meets the “enterprise coverage test,” all employees working for the organization are covered by the new regulations (unless an exemption applies). To be considered a covered enterprise, “an entity must have annual revenues, that is, volume of sales made or business done, of at least $500,000.” However, non-profits are not considered covered enterprises unless they engage in “ordinary commercial activities that result in sales made or business done” that exceeds $500,000. Ordinary commercial activities are those normally associated with operating a business, such as selling products or services. Charitable activities, however, such as providing food, shelter, or clothing, generally are not ordinary commercial activities.
To determine if a non-profit is a covered enterprise, only business purpose activities are considered. Income used to further the non-profit’s charitable activities is not factored into the $500,000 (e.g., membership fees and donations). Organizations can engage in both charitable acts, as well as business activities, and such organizations could potentially qualify as a covered enterprise.
Finally, the new regulations will automatically apply to some entities unless there is a specific exception. These entities include: “hospitals; institutions primarily engaged in the care of older adults and people with disabilities who reside on the premises; schools for children who are mentally or physically disabled or gifted; federal, state, and local governments; and preschools, elementary and secondary schools, and institutions of higher education.”
These regulations will certainly impact the way in which non-profits decide how to earn and spend revenue, attempting to have as much revenue as possible further its charitable activities to keep them below the $500,000 threshold. One thing is for sure, volunteers and donations will be crucial to a non-profits’ success.
For a detailed look at individual exemptions, please see the provided link.
Monday, May 23, 2016
A recent article on proposed Delaware legislation highlights the complexities and competing objectives lawmakers face when deciding if a nonprofit should be exempt from paying local property taxes. Here, the decision is whether or not to add the Milford Housing Development Corporation, EJB Inc., and Martha and Mary’s Place Inc., to the current list of 76 nonprofits in Delaware that currently enjoy being exempt from local property tax. These entities provide housing and/or drug treatment services to community members in need. While these organizations undoubtedly provide essential public services, granting these entities tax exempt status can have negative effects on other public services.
For example, the Milford Housing Development Corporation paid almost $30,000 in property taxes last year. To further add to the conundrum, almost all of those funds were appropriated to a local school district. In times of financial hardship, policy makers are faced with tough decisions and must balance different objectives in deciding where tax revenue should come from, and what that revenue should benefit. A thorough cost-benefit analysis must be undertaken to determine the full reach of granting an entity tax-exempt states, including both positive and negative effects. Granting an entity tax-exempt status, or deciding to appropriate tax funds to a particular area, almost inevitably means that another worthy entity will bear the cost.
Some municipalities try to alleviate this burden by requiring those entities that are designated tax-exempt to pay set fees to contribute back to the greater good. However, this can hinder the accomplishment of the entity’s purpose and cause due to a lack of funds.
Ultimately, it would take an army of professionals to make a “perfect” decision on who should be granted tax-exempt status, and who should bear the cost of that status. Even then, by the time a thorough analysis has been undertaken, the state or municipality will likely be facing different needs as a community. Policy makers must employ great foresight in making these tough appropriation decisions.
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
The California Legislature is currently considering a bill (AB 2855) that would mandate that all nonprofits who are soliciting donations in California to "include a prominent link [on their website] that immediately directs all consumers to the Attorney General’s Internet Web site, which contains information about consumer rights and protections and charity research resources." The bill as initially proposed would have required soliciting charities to prominently disclose the amount of money that the organization spent on overhead and on the executive director's salary and benefits.
The bill has been sharply criticized by many nonprofits, including the California Association of Nonprofits and the National Council on Nonprofits, who argue that the bill essentially attaches a "warning label" to all organizations that would scare off donors. The Bill's sponsor, Assemblymemeber Jim Frazier, defended the bill as a needed tool to protect worthy organizations from the "shadow cast upon them by bad actors." (In something of a jab at critics, Assemblymember Frazier paused to highlight that the "president, executive director, and chief operating officer [of the California Association of Nonprofits] made over $600,000 combined in salary and benefits."). Other critical commentary on the bill comes from Carol Luong (Great Positive) and Gene Takagi (NEO Law Group / Nonprofit Law Blog).
Some of the critics have argued that the bill would raise a First Amendment objection by compelling speech (i.e., including a link to the Attorney General's website on the organization's webpage and in solicitation materials). In Riley v. National Federation of the Blind of North Carolina, Inc., 487 U.S. 781, 795 (1988), the Supreme Court struck down a state mandate that professional solicitors disclose, as part of their solicitation, the percentage of funds turned over to the nonprofit. The Court reasoned that this disclosure would necessarily change the content of the message, and the disclosure would have the anticipated and intended effect of making solicitation on behalf of certain causes less effective.
Although the criticisms have some weight as a policy matter, the California bill is arguably distinguishable from the law struck down in Riley in several respects. Most significantly, the California bill would require only a link to a website, and not the direct disclosure of any particular substantive statement or content in the course of solicitation. See Riley's footnote 11. This makes the compelled speech more akin to a mandate to disclose the phone number of a regulatory body or to display a license. See Dayton Area Visually Impaired Persons, Inc. v. Fisher, 70 F.3d 1474, 1485 (6th Cir. 1995) (upholding limited point-of solicitation disclosures). Such mandates are common in the commercial & professional speech realm, although their application to charitable solicitation is much less certain. (There are lots of unsettled issues in the regulation of charitable solicitation. In fact, we recently filed a successful First Amendment challenge to a set of local restrictions on charitable solicitation, including a licensing requirement.)
Riley and its related cases recognize a distrust of government restrictions sprung from a history of government (typically with the support of established nonprofits) creating barriers to charitable speech in order to burden disfavored causes. Yet the Supreme Court has also recognized the legitimate objective of providing accurate information to facilitate well-informed decisions by donors. Striking this balance is no easy matter, as Assemblymember Frazier is learning the hard way.
Thursday, May 12, 2016
For months now we have been bombarded with stories of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The press, politicians, legislators, residents of Flint, even Tax Law professors, have been expressing their opinions on who is to blame for the crisis. Some people have called for the Governor's resignation. The government -- federal and state -- eventually sprang into action by allocating funds to address the problems caused by the water crisis. Meanwhile, the people of Flint are waiting for the money to show up.
Yesterday's Christian Science Monitor brought some good news to the people of Flint: ten charitable organizations have pooled their resources to donate $125 million toward recovery efforts in Flint. Highlighting the fact that philanthropy has bested the government, the Monitor states:
Funds are about to flood into Flint, Mich. -- but they are not coming from the government.
The aid will support ongoing testing of lead levels as well as community groups, economic development, and other efforts to revive the largely black and low-income city. "This is the new normal, in terms of how philanthropy can really increase its impact and can be nimble while we wait for the state and federal government" to act, says La June Montgomery Tabron, CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, one of the participating grant makers.
The responses by the foundations give credence to what some observers see as a trend for philanthropy to step in when bureaucracy and partisanship bog down government's response in times of crisis. "It's great that we have charitable organizations that are willing to step up and try to help," said Charles Ballard, a Michigan State University economics professor. "But the only reason we're talking about this in the first place is that governments, most notably the state of Michigan, just dropped the ball in a huge way."
That's one man's opinion; what's yours?
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
Today's Philanthropy Digest is reporting that while the U.S. high school graduation rate rose to a record high 82.3 percent in 2014, the nation is not on track to reach the goal of achieving a 90 percent rate by 2020. That's according to an annual study from Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University's School of Education.
Conducted in partnership with America's Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education, the report from GradNation, 2016 Building a GradNation: Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates, found that while Iowa has achieved a 90 percent graduation rate and twenty other states are on track to do so by 2020, for the first time in four years the nation as a whole is not on track to meet the goal. According to the study, 2, 397 low-graduation-rate high schools -- defined under the Every Student Succeeds Act as those with at least a hundred students enrolled and an Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate of 67 percent or lower -- enrolled a total of 1.2 million students nationwide, even as the number of large low-graduation-rate schools with at least three hundred students was halved from 2,000 to 1,000 between 2002 and 2014. In forty-one states, low-income students accounted for more than 40 percent of those enrolled in low-performing schools -- including twelve states where they made up more than 75 percent of the student body. African Americans and Latinos made up more than 40 percent of enrollment in low-graduation rate schools in fifteen and nine states, respectively.
The Digest continues:
The study also found that low-graduation-rate schools account for 7 percent of all district schools (and 41 percent of all low-graduation-rate schools), 30 percent of charter schools (26 percent), 57 percent of alternative schools (28 percent), and 87 percent of virtual schools (7 percent). The report recommends that policy makers set clear definitions and give graduation rates the weight they deserve in ESSA; require all states to report extended-year graduation rates in addition to four-year grad rates; create evidence-based plans to improve low-graduation-rate high schools; and ensure that alternative and virtual schools are included in state accountability and improvement systems.
"As the report points out, raising the graduation rate to 90 percent would require graduating an additional 285,000 students," said America's Promise Alliance president and CEO John Gomperts. "Putting it that way makes the goal appear that much more attainable. But to graduate this additional number of students equitably, the nation will have to focus on getting significantly more low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, English-language learners, and homeless youth on track to earning a diploma. Persistence is key."
Needless to say, the government -- federal, state and local -- will have to allocate more tax dollars to education, to ensuring that the facilities and personnel are available to guide these students towards earning their graduation diplomas.
Thursday, April 28, 2016
Prince will no doubt have many legacies - musical and otherwise. One can only hope that his philanthropic legacy will be one of them.
During his lifetime, Price quietly supported any number of charitable organizations, mostly in the areas of education, urban renewal and the environment. I, for one, did not know that he was once named one of PETA's sexiest vegetarians. The general consensus appeared to be that he would have supported at death many of the charitable organizations and causes he supported during his lifetime.
Sadly, it appears that the tragedy of Prince's early death may now be compounded by the fact that he may have died intestate. According to news reports, his sister filed a petition for administration without a will. This is likely to cause difficulties because Prince had no direct heirs or ancestors, leaving a number of siblings and half-siblings. In addition, his estate is likely made up a significant amount of difficult to manage and difficult to value intellectual property assets, including unpublished music. Of course, this also means that to the extent Prince intended to benefit charitable causes through his estate, those charities may be out of luck if bulk of his assets pass through intestate succession.
I hope that Prince's estate does not devolve into another sad case study for estate and charitable planners everywhere.
Friday, April 22, 2016
A handful of professors have sued their professional society, claiming that the association’s boycott of Israel exceeds the organization’s mission under its charter. According to the Complaint, the American Studies Association’s constitution says:
The object of the association shall be the promotion of the study of American culture through the encouragement of research, teaching, publication, the strengthening of relations among persons and institutions in this country and abroad devoted to such studies, and the broadening of knowledge among the general public about American culture in all its diversity and complexity.
In 2013, the association adopted a resolution boycotting “Israeli academic institutions.” The plaintiffs are current or former association members who disagree with the boycott. In addition to a procedural complaint about the way the vote was held, the plaintiffs argue that the decision to boycott Israel exceeds the purposes of the organization under their charter since it does not further the scholarly objective of the association (breach of fiduciary duty and ultra vires action). (You may recall a similar dispute about this organization arose in 2014, when a professor challenged the organization's tax-exempt status--a challenge John Colombo predicted on this blog was going nowhere fast.)
h/t: Volokh Conspiracy via Jonathan Adler (@jadler1969)
From the perspective of nonprofit law, it will be interesting to see what level of judicial deference gets applied to the board’s decision: does Business Judgment Rule apply or is it a more searching review? And would plaintiffs' argument pass either of these standards?
My quick take is that this suit seems like a stretch. To begin, the boycott causes the association to NOT do something (i.e., decline to engage with one nation’s academics), and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a nonprofit successfully sued for not engaging in some programmatic activity or with some set of prospective clients, even if it is selective, arbitrary, or policy-driven. Also, food banks decline to buy from producers who don’t use environmentally-friendly methods; housing organizations decline to contract with organizations that don’t have certain personnel policies. It’s hard for me to imagine any of these purchasing decisions being successfully challenged in court on the grounds that they exceed the organization’s mission.
Second, judicial review without deference in this case would essentially ask a Court to override the judgment of a group of scholars on what types of activities further their scholarly mission, which I suspect most courts are ill-suited and reluctant to do. Moreover, judicial involvement here could set a precedent of second-guessing nonprofits when they wade into policy disputes or controversial areas, which would undercut the independence of the nonprofit sector. The mere fact that there is passionate disagreement on the issue suggests it is better to be hashed out by nonprofits within the confines of their organizations without courts getting involved. (I'm reminded of the Supreme Court's admonition in Boy Scouts v. Dale, when a lot of people (including me) couldn't understand how excluding gay scoutleaders furthered the organization's mission, yet the Supreme Court heavily deferred to the organization's judgment in the process of concluding that the organization had a constitutional exemption from state laws. If deference is warranted in a constitutional case, then surely it is warranted under usual corporation law principles.)
Finally, while there is often a compelling argument for keeping nonprofits close to their mission, the need for judicial involvement here is minimal. Exit is cheap and easy for association members who don’t like the direction of the organization. There’s no forced membership, as in a union or Home Owners Association. Nor are monitoring costs excessively high, as might be the case for a financial donor contributing to a social service charity. Nor is there a huge stockpile of donated money being held in trust for past donors and future beneficiaries. With the ample opportunities of voice (voting) and exit (quitting), the policy argument for courts treating this as a reviewable decision is relatively weak.
This case seems like a tough sell under the usual standards of nonprofit corporation law. I wouldn't have voted the way that the Association did, but a main reason we have the nonprofit sector is to let people freely associate themselves, without me or anyone else agreeing with their choices. I don't think the burden has been met that this association has departed enough from its charter to warrant judicial override.
Readers, what do you think? Does this case state a claim for ultra vires or breach of a fiduciary duty? Should courts review associations’ actions in cases like this?
Monday, April 11, 2016
Happy National Volunteer Week! We know that volunteering can do lots of good, but what about when volunteering goes bad? Volunteer law is one of my primary scholarly interests, and in honor of the millions of Americans who volunteer each year, below are just a few of the ways that law deals with volunteering disasters. (But don’t be deterred! Volunteers live longer, happier lives, and these problems probably won’t happen to you or your organization.)
Volunteer Liability: Who gets sued when a volunteer commits a tort? The Federal Volunteer Protection Act provides a low level of immunity—with lots of exceptions and caveats—to volunteers for simple negligence. (Ask yourself whether regulation of unpaid labor fits within Congress’s power under the commerce clause.) Some states also offer immunity of different flavors. Iowa immunizes volunteers for almost anything they do within the scope of their employment. Vermont immunizes volunteer librarians. (?!) Ohio just enacted a law immunizing volunteer architects. (Why architects? No idea. Underworked lobbyists, possibly.)
Fortunately, volunteers are rarely sued, and most suits involve intentional torts or accidents while driving (covered by insurance). (So, please don't sue me.)
Organizational liability: Organizations are liable for the acts of their agents under common law master-servant principles. This applies to employees and volunteers alike. But volunteers often interact with organizations in less formal ways than employees, and not always as simple to determine scope of “employment.” Notably, immunity for the volunteer does NOT immunize the organization, making charities the prime defendant when suit is brought. Which, again, is fortunately pretty rare, especially for your small, community-based charity.
Volunteer Discrimination: Employers can’t discriminate against employees on race, sex, religion, disability, and other protected characteristics. Sometimes, but not often, these laws also protect volunteers. (In fact, there is a circuit split about whether unpaid workers are covered under federal employee anti-discrimination laws.) Still, even if anti-discrimination isn’t the law, be nice to your volunteers. It’s the right thing to do.
Volunteers and Minimum Wage: One of the least settled areas of law involves application of minimum wage laws to volunteers. Cases are all over the place on this, and challenges involving unpaid interns and student-athletes add layers of confusion to the tests for charitable volunteers. Department of Labor has issued various informal “guidance” (read: no Chevron deference) on the topic of unpaid workers, but their positions are rejected by courts as often as they are upheld. Nevertheless, it would be pretty weird if your organization violated minimum wage laws by allowing someone to volunteer for your charity. (Not legal advice: just common sense.) One caveat is that a paid employee of your nonprofit can’t “volunteer” for your organization performing the same type of services as would normally be paid to perform. (Note that the linked regulation only applies to government, but Department of Labor applies same rationale to nonprofits).
Much, much more could be said, which is why this is a fun area in which to write (not to mention volunteering as a rewarding personal pastime). Happy National Volunteer Week everyone!
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
When does an alleged zoning violation justify automatic removal of a property's tax-exempt status? New York State Supreme Court --Appellate Division, Second Department, recently had the opportunity to review the issue.
In Community Assn., Inc. v. Town of Ramapo, 2016 NY Slip Op 01458, 2nd Dept 3-2-16, the Second Department, reversing the trial court, determined that an alleged violation, for which the property owner had never been cited, did not justify the automatic removal of the property's tax-exempt status. The property had been tax-exempt for years as low-income property. The court found that the alleged zoning violation -- that the property owner had more than two residential apartments -- was not incompatible with the tax-exempt use. Therefore, the court held, the alleged zoning violation could not justify automatic removal of the tax-exempt status. Said the court:
[E]ven assuming that a zoning violation had been sufficiently established, the defendants have failed to articulate why such a violation, under the particular circumstances presented, should result in loss of the plaintiff's tax exemption. Not all violations of law automatically result in the loss of a tax exemption ... . 'The concern of the taxing authority is not with the observance or non-observance by plaintiff of regulatory provisions relating to a specific building, but to the use to which the real property as an entity is or is intended to be devoted' ... . This is not a case in which the applicable zoning regulation is incompatible with the occupant's tax-exempt use ... . In such cases, the rationale for denying the tax exemption is simple and clear, as compliance with both the tax-exempt use and the zoning regulation is impossible. Here, by contrast, the tax-exempt use of providing residential housing to low-income tenants is consonant with the property's permitted use as a two-family dwelling. Under these circumstances, the defendants have failed to establish, prima facie, that the nature of the alleged violation (i.e., that the plaintiff had more than two residential apartments) can serve as a valid legal basis for denying the property tax exemption ...".
So to answer the question with which we started, When does a zoning violation justify automatic removal of a property's tax-exempt status? New York's Second Department is clear: When the applicable zoning regulation is incompatible with the property occupant's tax-exempt use.
Tuesday, March 8, 2016
The NonProfit Times is reporting that under a tax proposal put forth by Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, the charitable deduction would be exempt from a 28-percent deduction cap and the estate tax exclusion would return to 2009 levels.
According to the Times:
The tax benefit from specified deductions and exclusions would be limited to 28 percent. The cap would apply to all itemized deductions except charitable contributions but would reduce the value of deductions and exclusions for taxpayers in the 33 percent and higher tax brackets.
The proposals also would permanently reduce the tax threshold for estate taxes to $3.5 million ($7 million for married couples) with no adjustment for inflation, increase the top tax rate to 45 percent, and set the lifetime gift tax exemption at $1 million. In 2015, the basic exclusion for the estate tax is $5.45 million and Clinton’s plan would return it back to 2009 levels.
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
This weekend, Ohio joined the group of states that have “defunded” Planned Parenthood. Ohio’s bill follows the model used by other states, and bans certain funding to go to any organization or affiliate that performs or promotes elective abortions. (Before the bill, there was no government funding of elective abortions.) “Affiliate” means any organization that shares common ownership or control, has a franchise agreement, or shares a trademark or brand name. Under this bill, an independently incorporated organization that, for example, licenses the Planned Parenthood logo would be precluded from participating in funding, even if it does not perform or promote elective abortions. Ohio’s restrictions apply to several specific programs, including the Violence Against Women Act and the Breast and Cervical Cancer Mortality Prevention Act.
Against my better judgment, I’m wading into these treacherous waters because these bills pose interesting legal and theoretical issues about the ability of government condition the receipt of funding to nonprofits based on disagreement with the organizations’ ideology.
Monday, February 22, 2016
If you've ever been involved in helping a charity comply with the various state solicitation registration requirements, then somewhere between swearing and tearing your hair out I'm sure you thought, "There has to be a better way!" Shake your fist at the sky in despair no more! It is with unbounded joy that I share part of a note I received from Bob Carlson of the Missouri Attorney's General Office, who has been actively involved for some time with NAAG and NASCO's efforts to develop a simplified filing process. And lo...
The Multistate Registration Filing Portal, Inc. has released our Request for Information (RFI) regarding a Single Internet Registration Portal. ... The RFI has been posted at http://mrfpinc.org/rfi/. We welcome all comments and look forward to robust response to the RFI. We also invite you to share it with anyone you believe may be interested.
The MRFP will host a conference call on March 15, 2016 from 3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. EST to provide additional background information and answer questions from the public about the registration process. Dial-in: (800) 232-9745; PIN: 3232959. Charities, their registration services providers, and any other interested parties are welcome to participate. ...
The RFI will remain open until April 1, 2016.... Our one-page project summary is still available at http://mrfpinc.org/project-overview/
Seriously awesome work, Bob and everyone involved with this process. I am sure I speak for lots of folks when I say that we can't wait to see this become a reality!
Friday, February 19, 2016
The San Antonio City Council plans to privatize its Convention & Visitors Bureau by creating a new nonprofit to house the operations currently conducted by a governmental agency. The plan is that this restructuring will allow the CVB to increase its budget by leveraging additional funding sources from the private sector (including “corporate sponsors, memberships, partnerships and advertising dollars”), which would allow it to be more competitive in its spending relative to other Texas cities.
According to press reports, the Council has not yet finalized the structure of the governing board. Options include having representatives of the council and the mayor’s office sit on the board alongside representatives from the tourism and business community, and/or having board members voted upon by the city council. Although having publicly-appointed and publicly–affiliated board members running a nominal nonprofit is hardly unique to San Antonio, these public-private nonprofit hybrids don’t fit neatly into either public or nonprofit legal regimes. As a result, it is often unclear whether quasi-governmental organizations must comply with state public record laws, which vary from state to state. (See, for example, the Texas Supreme Court’s 2015 decision regarding the Greater Houston Partnership.)
Moreover, what are the specific fiduciary obligations of board members who are city council members, or who are appointed (and, in many cases, removable by) city councils or mayors? One easy answer might be that all nonprofit directors share identical fiduciary duties to the organization; however, expecting city councilmembers and their representatives to abandon their political perspectives may not be realistic, and arguably would run counter to the very purpose of structuring the board to include city councilmembers. One solution would be for the City to clarify these rules through the process of creating the organization.
PS I’m new to the blog, and thrilled to be joining such a great line-up. I’m in my second year of academia as an Assistant Professor at Cleveland State University, where I have the fortune of holding a joint appointment with the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and with the nonprofit management and public administration programs at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs. My research interests include legal issues of volunteering, questions of board governance, and Constitutional rights of nonprofits, with a particular attention to how legal rules change behavior of nonprofit actors. I also continue to practice law from time to time, advising nonprofits and litigating matters pro bono. I’m happy to be on the team.
Saturday, January 9, 2016
The first issue of 2016 of the National Council of Nonprofits’ Nonprofit Advocacy Matters previews legal and policy issues expected to take center stage in 2016. Key topics include the expanding efforts to impose PILOTs by local governments, challenges to state charity property tax exemptions, pressures created by state fiscal weakness, regulations threatening the independence of the nonprofit sector in various ways, and reform of government-nonprofit contracting and grant-making.
Friday, January 8, 2016
Don’t Let the Headlines Mislead You on the Reported Endorsement of Hillary Clinton by “Planned Parenthood”
Across the country this morning, millions awoke to news source headlines proclaiming that presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton is receiving the endorsement of “Planned Parenthood.” The prime exhibit is the headline for the story appearing in today’s New York Times. The print edition reads, “Planned Parenthood Gives First Primary Endorsement in Its 100 Years to Clinton,” and the online version of the Times story reads, “Planned Parenthood, in Its First Primary Endorsement, Backs Hillary Clinton.“ The story in the latter version opens with these words: “Planned Parenthood, which has become an ideological minefield in the 2016 presidential election, said Thursday that it would endorse Hillary Clinton — its first endorsement in a presidential primary in the nonprofit’s 100-year existence.” Stories in some other major news sources lead with similar language. See, for example, the stories published by ABC News and CNN.
Although its headline is also misleading, the story appearing in the Washington Post actually begins with what appears to be the accurate factual account: “The political arm of Planned Parenthood will endorse Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire on Sunday, a Clinton campaign official confirmed.” And therein lies the critical distinction. As the New York Times piece eventually reports, the endorsement is being “technically made through the nonprofit’s advocacy arm, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.”
“Technically made,” indeed. As exempt organization lawyers are well aware, the identity of the entity that supports or opposes a United States presidential candidate matters greatly. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc. – the health care service-provider at the center of recent controversies over whether it should receive federal funds in the wake of allegations that it has profited from transactions in fetal tissue – is a tax-exempt charitable organization described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. As such, to comply with the requirements for federal income tax exemption, Planned Parenthood must “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” Planned Parenthood’s political affiliate is not bound by the section 501(c)(3) limitations.
The reporting of the Clinton endorsement highlights the degree to which, in the minds of many, including journalists, these rules are just “technical” distinctions. But the distinctions are of enormous importance. Consider the pastor of a local church who wants to express a political voice on politics. The pastor is free to do so in appropriate contexts, without having his viewpoint attributed to the legal entity which is the church. Cecile Richards may do the same, individually or on behalf of a political action organization, without having her statements attributed to the charity.
Of course, the reporting of the Clinton endorsement raises the issue that the Planned Parenthood brand is now being used to influence a presidential election, reportedly the first time it has ever been so employed during the primary election stage. The manner in which major media outlets are reporting the endorsement tends to magnify the impact of this brand on the endorsement itself. But a similar point may be made whenever a prominent personality associated with a tax-exempt charity endorses or opposes a candidate. Such a person is free under current law to identify herself by reference to her position with the charity, as long as she is not speaking on behalf of the charity. In each case, a charity’s reputational capital has to some extent been appropriated, either by referring to the charity’s name, or by using a similar-sounding name.
Thursday, December 17, 2015
Every year in my Nonprofits class, in lieu of a standard exam, I give my students a project: take a hypothetical charitable client through the organizational stages of state law creation and preparation of the Form 1023. Typically, I give my students a client based on superheroes, comic books, movies, etc. I do this for a number of reasons - it provides a rich back drop of characters and info for those who wish to use it (but they need not); it engages some students that are often unengaged; it makes reading 20 Forms 1023 that much more bearable; and most importantly, it teaches students to think about clients as they are and to apply general principles of law to even the most outlandish situations. So maybe Charles Xavier isn't coming into your office to form a mutants' rights organizations any time soon, but the issues of politics, lobbying and advocacy remain the same. Clients are clients, the law is the law, and you just never know what will come through the office door.
I really wanted to do a church this year. With all the news around the Satanic Temple and abortion, the Indiana pot church, and the renewed focus on what is a bona fide religious belief brought to you courtesy of Hobby Lobby, I thought the timing was perfect. Trying to find a church was rather difficult, however, as you want something robust enough to be engaging as a teaching tool but you also have to tread pretty lightly around the topic. I toyed with Apocalypse and the Four Horsemen of X-Men fame, but thought it might be too obscure. The pot church was taken.
So, in honor of The Force Awakens, this year my class formed the First Church of the Jedi Knights in America. Many kudos to my colleague Atiba Ellis (go check him out at the Race and the Law Prof Blog) who appeared in class in full Jedi robe as Mace Windu, Jr., the organizer of the First Church, available for student interrogation. As with every project, it had fits and starts. For example, the class soon discovered that the West Virginia Constitution prohibits churches from organizing in corporate form. Who knew? Most shockingly, I had students who hadn't yet seen Star Wars... oh, the humanity!
Life imitates art. Some of you may know that there are actual Jedi Churches in the U.K. especially, so this particular fact pattern wasn't quite as far from reality as say, dealing with the corporate governance issues that arise when members of your board morph into evil lizards (I'm looking at you, Doc Connors!) in that after the final project was done, one of my students emailed me the following article from The Telegraph:
So who knows? Maybe one of my student really will represent Mace Windu, Jr. one day....
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
In honor of Star Wars Day 2015, I'm linking to this article from the Tax Foundation, which clarifies that but for taxes, we wouldn't have the entire Star Wars series, thus proving what I tell my students... tax is, indeed, everywhere....
Linking two things I love, cosplay and charities (I'm a really big nerd) ... may I introduce you to one of my favorite things, the 501st Legion, helping a charity event near you (who said all Stormtroopers are on the Dark Side!)
Now, get in costume, get in line, and may the Force be with you!
(and for the love of all that is the Light Side of the Force, no spoilers!)
Monday, December 14, 2015
There's been an awful lot of pearl clutching going on out there in the media about the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, now famously known to be organized as a Delaware Limited Liability Company (LLC - not limited liability corporation, media folks! And yes, it makes a difference.) The December 11th Chronicle on Philanthropy update, which I get in my email, had not one but TWO opinion pieces on it. Personally, I don't quite get all the drama, but I have three working theories, none of which are mutually exclusive. ( I do have to put one caveat out there - my comments are based on the structure as I understand it from media reports, which may or may not be reliable.)
- Tax Deduction? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Tax Deduction. So the first line of attack appears to be that it's all a big tax scam - they get the deduction but they give nothing to charity. As far as I can tell, however (and sort of confirmed in a non-technical way by Zuckerberg himself) is that the LLC is, not surprisingly, not a tax-exempt entity. As a result, the C-Zs won't get an income deduction for funding the LLC; an income tax charitable deduction might pass through to them if and when the LLC actually makes a contribution to a recognized, qualified charity. Which makes it no different than any other for-profit business out there that makes contributions to charity - albeit with way more fanfare and more decimal places at stake.
So maybe all of it is just a fundamental misunderstanding of the tax implications of the LLC? If the notion is that the tax-paying public has a right to certain expectation of a charitable endeavor as a condition of tax exemption, then that notion is misplaced here - at least with respect to the federal charitable income tax deduction and/or tax-exemption from the income tax. I've seen some speculation that there may be some estate and gift planning going on here - but there is a great deal of speculation on that and even so, what makes that any different than any other wealthy person out there? I've also seen reference to evading California income taxes - not sure on that one, but it seems unlikely from my rudimentary knowledge of the California income tax. Would love to hear from anyone from CA with thoughts on that issue.
One set of taxes the Initiative is most certainly dodging is the private foundation excise taxes, which generally were designed to make sure that assets for which a charitable income tax deduction is granted are used for those charitable purposes. It hardly seems surprising that the private foundation excise taxes don't apply to a for-profit entity, for which no charitable income tax deduction has been granted.
2. Let The Eat Charitable Cake. My second theory is a concern over philanthropic oligarchy - in the US, a concern that goes back (at least) to the creation of the first large private foundations during the Industrial Revolution era. If you've read the legislative history to the private foundation excise taxes, one of the repeated themes is an anti-trust type concern (not surprising, I suppose) - the ultra wealthy concentrating and controlling wealth not only in the business sector, but in charitable vehicles as well. I couldn't help but hear the echos of the Patman hearings and reports (which formed much of the basis for the passage of chapter 42) in the criticisms of C-Z. Some also cite to Zuckerberg's recent and widely-criticized foray into donor controlled philanthropic experimentation in the form of the Newark school system. In the Jacobin article linked at the beginning of this paragraph, the author notes, "People like Zuckerberg and Gates are unelected and unaccountable to anyone and face few, if any, repercussions for the negative consequences of their social experiments." In my mind, these concerns undergird the suggestions of Pablo Eisenberg in his editorial in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which suggests that the C-Z Initiative ought to make public reports, have an independent board, and champion issues of poverty. As Eisenberg states, "The overwhelming majority of superwealthy donors who have signed the giving pledge do not give much, if any, of their money to fight poverty or help marginalized citizens, the neediest nonprofits, or advocacy organizations. Despite what they often claim, tech billionaires are not giving money that disrupts the status quo."
I'm struggling with the question of why? If this is a private enterprise not subsidized by public funds through the charitable deduction, what standing do we have as a society to demand such things? If the entity is not itself charitable as a legal matter, then... so what? Which raises the final question...
3. Or Maybe, We Just Don't Know What Charity Is Any More...? Fundamentally, I really think this is about our fundamental notions of charity as a society. In the initial letter to his daughter announcing the pledge to the initiative, the C-Zs stated...
Friday, December 4, 2015
Just wanted to jump in today to link this post (Back Off the Chan Zuckerbergs and Their Limited Liability Company (NOT Corporation)) from my WVU colleague Josh Fershee, who blogs at our sister site, the Business Law Prof Blog. There is a lot of discussion (and misinformation) out there about the Chan Zuckerberg Charitable LLC structure, and I thought there were some interesting views over there from our business entity friends.
See you next week! Happy finals! EWW