Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Eduardo M. Penalver, Laura Spitz, Elizabeth Brundige and Lucia Domínguez Cisneros have posted U.S. Nonprofit Activity in Cuba: The Cuban Context on SSRN with the following abstract:
The thaw of U.S.-Cuba relations and the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba present an opportunity for nonprofit organizations based in the United States seeking to increase their engagement with Cuba. U.S. regulatory restrictions on nonprofit activity have decreased dramatically over the past two years. As a result, interest in undertaking projects in Cuba among U.S. nonprofits has increased significantly. Although the scope of potential opportunities is as yet unknown, this paper seeks to advance the conversation by answering the following questions: What is the current state of U.S. and non-U.S. nonprofit activity within Cuba? What are the Cuban legal and other constraints that affect nonprofit activity in the country? What recommendations might we offer for U.S. nonprofits that are interested in pursuing work in Cuba, in light of the constraints identified above? And finally, what legal, policy or other measures in Cuba might help address these constraints and facilitate increased nonprofit engagement?
--Eric C. Chaffee
Monday, August 22, 2016
Xue Tan, Yingda Lu and Yong Tan have posted Why Should I Donate? Examining the Effects of Reputation, Peer Influence, and Popularity on Charitable Giving Over Social Media Platforms on SSRN with the following abstract:
With the growing popularity of social media, social networking sites have become an important channel for online donor engagement and charitable fundraising. Many crowd-based donation platforms have integrated social functions to encourage donors to announce their donations in social media. Some social networking sites, like Facebook, initiate their own charitable campaigns by collaborating with nonprofit organizations. Despite the great theoretical and practical values, social media users’ motivations for charitable giving are underexplored. Using individual-level data from a microblogging platform where a donation service is embedded, we investigate how individual donation decisions are influenced by reputation incentive design, peer effects, and popularity effects. We find that despite the platform designer’s desire to improve fundraising performance, higher visibility of donors’ contributions may have negative impact on fundraising. Peer effects are found to be positive and, hence, provide a potential solution to the free-rider problem. Finally, it is observed that while most users crowd to popular projects, a group of users who exhibit leadership features crowd out from popular projects. Investing more fundraising effort on this crowding-out group may alleviate the rich-get-richer problem.
-- Eric C. Chaffee
Thursday, August 18, 2016
Yesterday's NonProfitTimes reported that the OneOrlando Fund has begun accepting claims from victims and families of victims of the June 12 Pulse nightclub shooting that left 49 dead and dozens more injured. According to fund administrator, Kenneth Feinberg, the entirety of the fund -- estimated at $23 million -- will be disbursed. According to the OneOrlando website, to be eligible, claims must be postmarked by September 12. Claim forms can be found on the site.
Vaughn E. James
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
In 2003, four men came together to form Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit 501(c) organization that offers a variety of programs, services and events for wounded veterans of the military actions following September 11, 2001. The organization's website boasts that this charity and veteran service organization "provides free programs and services focused on the physical, mental, and long-term financial well-being of this generation of injured veterans, their families and caregivers." The charity urges its supporters to donate to its causes, assuring them that their tax deductible donations enable the organization to "help thousands of injured warriors returning home from the current conflicts and to provide assistance to their families." The website goes on to state that "[a]s the number of wounded [veterans] steadily increases, it is easy to see how the needs of these brave individuals also increase."
In March, CBS News reported that while Americans were donating hundreds of millions of dollars each year to the charity, Wounded Warrior Project was spending 40 to 50 percent of these donations on overhead, including extravagant parties. By comparison, CBS News reported, other veterans charities have overhead costs of only 10 to 15 percent.
Shortly afterwards, the organization's Board of Directors fired Chief Executive Officer, Steven Nardizzi, and Chief Operating Officer, Al Giordano.
Yesterday's NonProfitTimes reported on the next step for the organization: a restructuring plan, According to the Times, details of the restructuring plan are expected to be announced next month. But some details can already be gleaned from the organization's recently-released IRS Form 990 and consolidated financial statements for the fiscal year ended September 30, 2015. In notes to the consolidated financial statements, the organization states:
Negative media stories in January 2016 regarding the Organization prompted inquiries and requests for documents from Senator Grassley on behalf of the Committee on the Judiciary and from other parties. The Organization responded to these inquiries and requests, and management does not believe they will have a material adverse effect on the organization’s financial position, results of operations or cash flows.
The Organization is in the process of evaluating programs and services to ensure that they are delivered with even greater efficiency, as well as assessing its organizational structure to ensure that it maximizes all resources available. Management anticipates that certain roles will be eliminated as a result of this assessment and details of the restructuring will be announced in September 2016. Management does not believe the restructuring will have a material adverse impact on the accompanying consolidated financial statements.
The Times also reports that in recent weeks, new CEO Michael Linnington, has made reference during interviews to anticipated pay and staff cuts.
September will soon be here; we shall discover then just what Wounded Warriors Project will do to recover its image, stature and standing.
Vaughn E. James
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
An op-ed in last Saturday's New York Times caught my eye and has me thinking deeply. In To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?, Frank Bruni discusses "the persistent vogue among secondary-school students for so-called service that's sometimes about little more than a faraway adventure and a few lines or paragraphs on their applications to selective colleges."
Bruni is here discussing the growing trend among American college applicants to claim on their college applications for admission that they have done volunteer work or gone on mission trips to Central America and Africa when in reality all they have done is spent as little as a week -- if all that -- "helping to repair some village's crumbling school or library, [only] to return to their comfortable homes and quite possibly write a college-application essay about how transformed they are."
Bruni argues that this troubling trend "turns developing-world hardship into a prose-ready opportunity for growth, empathy into an extracurricular activity." Moreover, Bruni contends that this trend
reflects a broader gaming of the admissions process that concerns [him] just as much, because of its potential to create strange habits and values in the students who go through it, telling them that success is a matter of superficial packaging and checking off the right boxes at the right time.
Like Bruni, I am appalled at this growing trend among students. I am equally appalled at the trend among church-going people who come to me asking for my help in funding their mission trips to Central and South America, Africa and the Caribbean. I question them closely about these trips. Thus far, in answer to my question, "Where will you live during your stay?", every budding missionary has responded, "In a hotel." My check book has remained closed to these wonderful missionaries.
Vaughn E. James
Friday, August 12, 2016
Oonagh Breen (Dublin) has posted European Non-Profit Oversight: The Case for Regulating from the Outside In, 91 Chicago-Kent Law Review (forthcoming 2016). Here is the abstract:
When it comes to the regulation of non-profits, the European Commission experiences many of the same pressures and constraints faced by national charity regulators. It suffers, however, from an added disadvantage in that, arguably, it lacks jurisdictional competence to regulate non-profits qua non-profits. This article explores the consequences of the Commission’s unsuccessful attempt to secure the passage of its proposal for a European Foundation Statute (‘EFS’). Notwithstanding the European Council’s inability to muster the necessary Member State unanimity required to pass the proposal and its subsequent demise, the Commission is still dogged by the problems it identified as giving rise to the need for the EFS in the first instance. Against this background, Part I reviews the rationale for the EFS proposal, the political concerns that left it vulnerable to veto and the structural challenges faced by the Commission in legislating for non-profits at a European level. The argument is advanced that extant a purely functional approach, European regulation of nonprofits from ‘the inside out’ is difficult in the absence of a valid treaty basis.
Part II proceeds to examine recent NGO attempts to influence the Financial Action Task Force (‘FATF’) reform process (supported by the European Commission) and to demand a fairer process under FATF Recommendation 8 for dealing with NGOs. The European Commission’s role in assisting NGOs to bring pressure on the FATF to be more accountable and transparent in its dealings presents an interesting vignette of one regulator laying siege to another for the greater good of better non-profit oversight. Arguably, the Commission’s attempts at ‘regulating from the outside in’ has led to it demanding a higher level of transparency of the FATF than it has been willing to provide to NGOs itself in the past, while simultaneously enhancing Commission-NGO relations. The article concludes that it is now timely for the European Commission to be alert to the possibilities of regulating from the outside in on occasions when it may not be so possible to regulate from the inside out.
Johnny Rex Buckles (Houston) has posted The Sexual Integrity of Religious Schools and Tax Exemption on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Many private universities and other schools adhere to religiously grounded codes of conduct that embrace heterosexual monogamy as the sole moral context for sexual relationships. The federal income tax exemption of these schools has been questioned following the recent Supreme Court opinion of Obergefell v. Hodges. In Obergefell, the Supreme Court held that the right to marry is a fundamental constitutional right that same-sex couples may exercise. The relevance of this decision to the federal tax status of private religious schools arises from another Supreme Court decision, Bob Jones University v. United States. The Court in Bob Jones held that two schools with racially discriminatory policies as to students were not entitled to exemption from federal income tax because the policies violate established public policy. The issue now is whether the sexual conduct policies of private religious schools violate the established public policy of the United States following Obergefell. After reviewing Bob Jones and surveying the application of the public policy doctrine by the IRS and the courts, this article argues that, regardless of the factual context of a controversy in which the IRS seeks to invoke Bob Jones to deny or revoke federal income tax exemption, the public policy doctrine should be narrowly construed. Applying a suggested framework for limiting the public policy doctrine coherently, this Article argues that schools maintaining sexual conduct policies that prohibit sexual activity inconsistent with their religiously informed, traditional view of marriage remain tax-exempt after Obergefell. Apart from the proposed framework, this Article further explains why Obergefell’s analytical approach, language and tone are inconsistent with applying Bob Jones to the disadvantage of religious schools that maintain sexual conduct policies.
Brian Galle (Georgetown) has posted Corporate Compliance without Enforcement?: Private Foundations and the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
I examine the determinants of nonprofit corporate compliance with law using a large panel of over one million firm-years. Despite the almost total absence of any credible enforcement threat, I find widespread compliance. I exploit rolling state adoption of the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Acts, which lifted some existing limits on firm spending, but which applied to some but not all firms within each state. This allows the use of triple-difference estimates that control for changes in local norms and economic conditions. Interacting the triple-difference factors with other predictors of compliance, I find no correlation between compliance and enforcement intensity, but some evidence that compliance is correlated with firm culture and reliance on accountants. I argue that my findings are among the first to discover compliance in the absence of a meaningful formal deterrence mechanism. Further, my findings have important implications for the governance of charitable organizations.
Górski: The Case for Research on Regulatory Neutrality Toward Various Shades of Social Entrepreneurship
Jędrzej Górski (The Chinese University of Hong Kong) has posted The Case for Research on Regulatory Neutrality Toward Various Shades of Social Entrepreneurship on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This working paper discusses the case for research on regulatory policy toward social entrepreneurship and specifically pertains to regulatory policy toward social ventures. The main theme of this working paper is the regulatory neutrality toward various shades of social entrepreneurship and its secondary subject is the convergence of policies toward THE private and public sectors. As such, this working paper touches upon company law, tax law and commercial aspects of the regulation of activities conducted by charities, NGOs, etc.
In recent decades, the charitable landscape worldwide has undergone a significant transformation first with respect to using business methods in support of social missions (social enterprises) and, second, with regard to combining social missions with make-money paradigm (social ventures). The austerity measures in the Western hemisphere, commercialisation/privatisation of state-owned enterprises in post-communist countries and an economic slowdown in Asian “tiger” nations all necessitated a rise of private charity self-supported by social entrepreneurship as a substitute for governmental action. Social ventures have been proliferating in this environment, yet have suffered from public-policies (fiscal environment, inflexibility of the design of business organisations) confined to not-for-profit social enterprises, and lawmakers everywhere have largely failed to address this problem.
The time is therefore ripe for revisiting representative policy models, and to defend the claim that efficient regulatory policies can be neutral toward various shades of social entrepreneurship and well integrate social ventures to the overall benefit of society. A dogma (that not-for-profit social enterprises can better substitute for governmental action than their for-profit counterparts because only the former can enjoy specific governmental supports and receive private donations) shall be dispelled by offering a number of flexible mechanism allowing rewarding private mission-driven business organisations according to the scope of their mission and regardless of their not-for-profit status.
Such research essentially demands perusal of policy and legislative documents produced roughly in the post-2005 period in a number of jurisdictions (mostly Anglo-Saxon like the UK, Vermont followed by other states, British Columbia, but also South Korea) where lawmakers took on the issue of social ventures but, all as one, adopted only fragmentary solutions which did not disenchant the for-profit or not-for profit binary mindset. Identified problems (definition of charity, limits of the scope of business operations of social enterprises, non-distribution constraint etc. on the side of not-for-profits and non-deductibility of mission-related expenses etc. by for-profits) need to be deconstructed one by one toward a complex system reflecting the entire spectrum of social entrepreneurs and based on the principle that the more mission the more governmental privileges, yet more supervision.
Such a complex system would include a number of novel solutions. The commonly accepted general profit-tax exemption for not-for-profits shall be discarded in favour of wider deductibility of charitable expenses combined with exemption of donations (including charitable price premiums in excess of market prices paid by donors for commercial goods or services). The non-distribution constraint (banning dividends or equity rights in dissolution) shall strictly reflect paid-in donations thereby balancing the interests of investors and donors. Finally, a simplistic supervision system requiring periodical reporting to public authorities shall be discarded in favour of a system balancing interests of public and private (donors) stakeholders in the fashion of corporate governance in public companies.
Such solutions could be universally applicable and could be used not only for private social entrepreneurship but also for preserving the social functions of gradually privatised state-owned enterprises.
Kellie McGiverin-Bohan, Kirsten Grønbjerg, Lauren Dula, and Rachel Miller (all affiliated with the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs) have published Local Officials' Support for PILOTs/SILOTs: Nonprofit Engagement, Economic Stress, and Politics, Public Administration Review (forthcoming 2016). Here is the abstract:
Nonprofit property tax exemption has become a major policy issue as the collapse of the housing market, the Great Recession, and property tax caps have threatened local tax collections. Consequently, many local governments have sought to obtain payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) from charities that are formally exempt from property taxes. Using a 2010 survey of local government officials in Indiana, this article examines whether support for PILOT policies is related to officials’ personal involvement with nonprofits, their views on government–nonprofit relationships, the type of position they hold, the level of economic distress in the county, local political conditions, and local nonprofit wealth. The findings support most of these hypotheses but also show that attitudes toward PILOTs appear to be shaped by somewhat different concerns than attitudes toward services in lieu of taxes (SILOTs).
The rhetoric of public purposes in charity law has created the mistaken impression that charity is public and fulfills public goals, when the reality is that charity is private and cannot be expected to solve the problems that governments can solve. The rhetoric arises from a combination of charity-law history and tax expenditure analysis. The reality follows the money and control of charitable organizations. On account of the mismatch of rhetoric and reality, the tax law of charity endorses an entitlement to pre-tax income and (ironically) creates a bias against taxation. This article reorients the project of defining public and private in the tax law by starting from a normative theory of government responsibility. It challenges the conventional economic justifications for the charitable deduction and exemption, arguing for a more philosophical approach that makes affirmative demands on government to distribute the returns to social cooperation. Under this approach, the appropriate role of private organizations is residual; they must achieve what governments cannot. The article concludes by arguing that current law’s tax benefits for charity are easily justified in this new understanding.
Special Issue on International Comparative Nonprofit Public Policy, Guest Editor: Michal Bar
From the Editors’ Desk, , , and
Managing Identity Conflicts in Organizations: A Case Study of One Welfare Nonprofit Organization, , , and
Volunteer Management: Responding to the Uniqueness of Volunteers, Sibylle Studer
Why So Many Measures of Nonprofit Financial Performance? Analyzing and Improving the Use of Financial Measures in Nonprofit Research, Christopher R. Prentice
and René Bekkers
Does Motivation Matter for Employer Choices? A Discrete-Choice Analysis of Medical Students’ Decisions Among Public, Nonprofit, and For-Profit Hospitals, and Julia Thaler
Donor Reaction to Salient Disclosures of Nonprofit Executive Pay: A Regression-Discontinuity Approach, and David I. Walker
Nascent Nonprofit Entrepreneurship: Exploring the Formative Stage of Emerging Nonprofit Organizations, Fredrik O. Andersson
Modern Portfolio Theory and Nonprofit Arts Organizations: Identifying the Efficient Frontier, , , and
Transparency in Reporting on Charities’ Efficiency: A Framework for Analysis, and Danielle McConville
Book Review: Volunteering in Australia by M. Oppenheimer and J. Warburton (Eds.), Richard Lynch
Book Review: Governing Cross-Sector Collaboration by J. Forrer, J. Kee, and E. Boyer, Stuart C. Mendel
Book Review: Mobilizing Communities: Asset Building as a Community Development Strategy by G. P. Green and A. Goetting (Eds.), Anne Namatsi Lutomia
Book Review: Giving to Help, Helping to Give: The Context and Politics of African Philanthropy by T. A. Aina, and B. Moyo (Eds.) and The Handbook of Civil Society in Africa by E. Obadare (Ed.), Mary Kay Gugerty
One of the odd side stories of this crazy election season was the decision by the IRS to deny the application of the Democratic National Convention host committee for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) even though it had earlier granted the application of the Republican National Convention host committee under the same section. (Coverage: Philadelphia Inquirer.) While according to the news stories the DNC quickly had a workaround available for those donors interested in a charitable contribution deduction, the disparity in treatment was notable, particularly since the denial was apparently based on some committee activities being too political under section 501(c)(3) even though the two host committees reportedly had very similar applications. Apparently the IRS forgot its statement 10 years ago to the Campaign Finance Institute that it would monitor future host committee applications for consistent treatment (see last sentence of last bullet point).
The IRS made that statement in the context of research by the Campaign Finance Institute into the financing of the political party conventions, which focused on the 2004 and 2008 conventions. That research led CFI in 2005 to call on the IRS to revisit the tax status of host committees under either section 501(c)(3) or section 501(c)(6) in light of the apparently pervasive political activity of those committees. Perhaps inadvertently, the IRS appears to have begun that reconsideration.
(Full disclosure: I am on the Board of Academic Advisors for the Campaign Finance Institute.)
This week would not be complete without an Olympics-related post. Just before the opening ceremonies, the Washington Post ran a story titled "Olympic executives cash in on a 'Movement" that keeps athletes poor." It draws a sharp contrast between the actual athletes, who absent a rare endorsement deal or a sport with a lucrative professional league are generally scrounging funds from family and friends to support their training, and the employees and "volunteer" board members of the numerous national and international sports federations and Olympic Committees who often make hundreds of thousands of dollars annually or enjoy generous perks such as first-class air travel. This not to say all athletes are uncompensated; the article details the complicated baseline pay and bonus systems in place for many US athletes, but the amounts available to athletes vary enormously depending on the sport and the potential for medalling.
Such disparities are also not unique to the Olympics. Many have pointed to the college sports system, particularly FBS football and Division 1 basketball programs, as exhibiting the same disparities between the (student) athletes, few of whom make it to the lucrative professional level, and coaches & administrators. Such disparities also exist even in youth sports, where, for example, the President & CEO of Little League Baseball Incorporated received compensation of close to $500,000 from all related entities according to the group's 2014 Form 990, although that amount seems relatively reasonable once it is acknowledged that he is responsible for running an almost $30 million a year organization (including over $8 million in broadcasting rights payments) that has over 400 employees and involves millions of children. And, as John Colombo (Illinois) has discussed in this space, both the college programs and the U.S. Olympic Committee continue to enjoy favorable tax treatment despite the increasing commerciality of their activities because of "analytical inertia" that has let the law of charities stagnant while the world moved on.
Thursday, August 11, 2016
The "Tea Party" application controversy continues to take a toll on the IRS, even as the Service implements the congressionally enacted notice requirement for section 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations. First, the IRS suffered setbacks in two of the cases pending against it that grew out of the controversy:
- In Freedom Path, Inc. v. Lerner, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas rejected the government's motion to dismiss a First Amendment claim against the IRS, finding that the plaintiff's concerns regarding future curtailment of speech was sufficient to establish injury and that the case still presented a live controversy despite changes in the Service's processing of applications. Coverage: Bloomberg BNA Daily Tax Report.
- In True the Vote, Inc. v. IRS and Linchpins of Liberty v. United States, decided together although argued separately, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the lower court's dismissal of actions for injunctive and declaratory relief as against the government, concluding that those claims were not moot. (The appellate court did, however, affirm the lower court's dismissal of Bivens actions and statutory claims against individual government officials and the Service.) Coverage: Wall Street Journal. For blog posts discussing the opinion, see The Surly Subgroup (Philip Hackney) and The Volokh Conspiracy (Eugene Volokh).
Second, many Republicans in the House of Representatives continue to call for the impeachment of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, not satisfied with his earlier censure by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on a party-line vote. (Coverage: The Hill; Politico; Roll Call.) Third, new documents relating to the controversy continue to trickle out from various sources, at a minimum providing an excuse to reassert claims against the Service and its (mostly now gone) officials. For example, see this Judicial Watch press release in the wake of it gaining access to approximately 300 pages of FBI documents relating to the FBI's investigation of the controversy.
And yet life still goes on, which in this instance means implementation of the new section 506 notice requirement for section 501(c)(4) organizations. That implementation has taken the form of Revenue Procedure 2016-41 and related final and temporary regulations (T.D. 9775). These documents detail how the notice requirement applies both to new section 501(c)(4) organizations formed after December 18, 2015 (the date of enactment for section 506) and to previously existing section 501(c)(4) organizations that had not yet either filed an application for recognition of exemption or an annual return. The required form is Form 8976, which can be submitted electronically here.
Since 9/11 the relationships between charities and government anti-terrorism agencies have been strained, with government officials wary that the cross-border movements of money and people that many charities facilitate were vulnerable to being used as vehicles for the support of terrorist activity. Charities have responded with efforts to both tighten controls over such movements and to educate government officials regarding how charities can and do minimize the risk of such diversions. Earlier this summer those efforts bore fruit with the decision by the global Financial Action Task Force to change its guidance regarding charities (known as Recommendation Eight) to clarify that they are not inherently at risk of terrorist abuse, as reported by Third Sector (UK). The revised Recommendation Eight now reads:
Countries should review the adequacy of laws and regulations that relate to non-profit organisations which the country has identified as being vulnerable to terrorist financing abuse. Countries should apply focused and proportionate measures, in line with the risk-based approach, to such non-profit organisations to protect them from terrorist financing abuse, including:
(a) by terrorist organisations posing as legitimate entities;
(b) by exploiting legitimate entities as conduits for terrorist financing, including for the purpose of escaping asset-freezing measures; and
(c) by concealing or obscuring the clandestine diversion of funds intended for legitimate purposes to terrorist organisations.
Unfortunately, just last week the news broke that Israel has charged the manager of World Vision's Gaza branch with infiltrating the charity on behalf of Hamas and diverting tens of millions of dollars to Hamas' military wing. (Coverage: NPR; NY Times; Washington Post/AP.) While Israeli officials emphasized that there was no evidence that World Vision was aware of the diversion, and World Vision is still reviewing the charges and the evidence supporting them and has expressed skepticism about the alleged amount at issue, the situation casts a cloud over the international work of the well-known charity.
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Election 2016: Nonprofit Spending to Date; and Clinton, Trump, and the Perils of Personal Philanthropy for Politicians
Lost a bit in the continual "he/she said what?!?" news stories is the continued steady spending by nonprofits to influence this year's elections. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that spending by outside groups (groups other than candidates or party committees) reported to the Federal Election Commission is already approaching $600 million and so is on pace to more than double the level of such spending in the 2011-12 cycle. While the overall amounts are still relatively modest compared to aggregate candidate and party spending, at least for federal offices, that spending is more significant than the proportion of total spending suggests for several reasons.
One reason is that unlike candidates and to some degree political parties, nonprofits can concentrate their spending on a relatively few, close races, sometimes even allowing them to spend more in those races than the candidates and parties. Another reason is a small portion of those reported funds - about $50 million to date - are from groups that do not disclose their donors and so the public cannot learn the original sources of those funds (this is the so-called "dark money"). A third reason is that this figures reflect only spending that groups are required by law to report to the FEC; there are many expenditures that relate to federal elections but are not reached by federal election law, as well as of course much spending aimed at state and local races (see the National Institute on Money in State Politics for data on the latter). It is therefore clear that absent some significant legal changes political spending by nonprofits is not going away anytime soon, although some states are enhancing state-level required disclosure of political spending. See, for example, the recent Delawareonline report on a federal appellate court decision upholding Delaware's expansive Elections Disclosure Act against constitutional challenge, the expansive New York lobbying bill awaiting the governor's signature (see TimesUnion article), and the recent paper by Linda Sugin (Fordham) titled "Politics, Disclosure, and State Law Solutions for 501(c)(4) Organizations," 91 Chicago-Kent Law Review (forthcoming 2016).
But lest nonprofit legal practitioners and scholars become bored with this "just more of the same political spending," this year's election has also given us a host of allegations of wrongdoing relating to the philanthropic activities of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. For those trying to keep score, here is a brief summary of where things stand (for previous recent coverage, see previous posts relating to charitable "gifts," possible private benefit, and possible support of the presidential campaign):
- Clinton Foundation: Alleged conflicts of interest while Clinton was Secretary of State (see this week's NY Times story for the latest); a (almost certainly routine) IRS referral of GOP lawmaker allegations of public corruption to an audit group (see this Politico story); and a possible FBI probe (according to The Hill). For a detailed consideration under federal tax law of the accusations raised by the GOP lawmaker, see the July and August blog posts by Philip Hackney (LSU) (spoiler alert: he concludes that even if the alleged facts are taken as true they simply do not rise to a level that could plausibly threaten the Foundation's tax-exempt status).
- Trump Donations & Foundation: Journalists have been hammering away at Trump's claims to have made substantial charitable contributions, none more assiduously than the now-banned-at-Trump-events Washington Post; see, for example, stories raising questions about general claims of giving millions to charity, whether Trump fulfilled pledges to donate the profits from various ventures, and an alleged $20 million gift to St Jude Children's Research Hospital. Of course boasting about phantom charitable contributions is generally not illegal. More troubling from a federal tax perspective are therefore the fact that the Trump Foundation made an admitted contribution to a political organization (a taxable expenditure under Internal Revenue Code section 4945 as well as a violation of section 501(c)(3)) and allegations that Trump may have personally benefitted from certain Foundation expenditures, such as the purchase of a signed Tim Tebow helmet (which, if true, would constitute prohibited self-dealing under section 4941).
It remains to be seen how these various allegations shake out, but they underline the fact that politicians and potential politicians who engage in personal philanthropy risk having those philanthropic activities haunt them on the campaign trail.
And one last question: what will happen to their respective foundations if either candidate is elected President? To date, neither campaign has said, although Bill Clinton has publicly acknowledged the issue.
The NY Times is running a series of articles on the influence donors, particularly large corporations, appear to have over research conducted by some prominent think tanks. As its front page articles on August 8th and August 9th detail, many researchers associated with think tanks are paid consultants or lobbyists for corporate clients, and many think tanks also receive contributions directly from corporations that have an interest in the research the think tank is conducting. Some of the think tanks identified have either admitted to lapses in oversight or adopted more stringent conflict of interest and disclosure policies, but it is not clear how widespread such admissions or changes are within the think tank community.
While in theory reaching research conclusions that are helpful to donors or clients could constitute providing prohibited private benefit on the part of the think tanks, which are generally tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3), the connections detailed in the articles seem too tenuous to support such a claim. This is especially true given both that proving a solid link between a donation and research results is difficult and that the think tanks identified generally engage in a broad range of research projects, only a small portion of which may be tainted by donor influence. Similarly, while some think tanks then arrange for meetings or conferences centering on their research and attended by government policy makers that might constitute lobbying for federal tax purposes, most such events likely fall outside of the technical definition of lobbying and the few that may not are almost certainly within the limited amount of lobbying permitted for tax-exempt charitable organizations such as think tanks.
Nevertheless, the stories are troubling because they throw into question the ability of government policymakers to rely on such research, as noted by Senator Elizabeth Warren in a video the NY Times posted with these stories. In its regular Room for the Debate feature, the NY Times therefore invited a number of commentators to suggest possible ways to address the concerns raised in its stories. Suggestions ranged from greater transparency about possible conflicts (including a certification process), better internal procedures to ensure unbiased research results, greater skepticism regarding those results on the part of journalists and others who report or rely on those results, and a diversification of funding sources (including ensuring various governmental funding sources) to support such research. I frankly am skeptical of transparency, certification, and internal procedure improvement if only because it may be too difficult for busy lawmakers, much less journalists and other members of the public, to shift through various disclosures or to determine what certification schemes or particular think tanks are reliable. I believe the diversification of funding sources idea has more promise, particularly if there are (nonpartisan) ways for government agencies to provide such funding conditioned on accurate, unbiased results. Bottom line, this strikes me as not a narrow federal tax issue but a larger issue about how to incentivize truth telling in public policy research.
Following up on David Brennan's previous blog post and thanks to a comment from a reader, I can now report that a conference committee of the Massachusetts legislature removed the provision in a pending economic development bill that would have kept property acquired by nonprofits on the property tax rolls for four years if the property had been taxable before the nonprofit's acquisition. The provision at issue in what was then Bill H.4483 read as follows:
SECTION 127. Chapter 59 of the General Laws is hereby amended by inserting after section 2D the following section:-
2E. Any charitable organization or educational institution otherwise exempt from the payment of property taxes pursuant to section 5 of chapter 59, or any nonprofit charitable corporation or public charity otherwise exempt from the payment of property taxes, that purchases real property that was subject to taxation under said chapter 59 at the time of the purchase, shall pay property taxes on the assessed value of said property for a period of 4 years after the purchase, the amount of said property taxes paid to be phased out as follows: in the first year, 100 per cent of the property tax; in the second year, 75 per cent of the property tax; in the third year, 50 per cent of the property tax; and in the fourth year, 25 per cent of the property tax.
In the final bill, renumbered as Bill H.4569 and currently pending before the governor, this section has been deleted.