Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Philanthropy Roundtable (represented by Morgan Lewis & Brockius) filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court in support of a challenge to an aspect of McCain-Feingold/Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that requires disclosure of certain large donors to 501(c)(3) nonprofits if the nonprofit engages in election-related speech. The brief argues that donors to 501(c)(3) organizations have an interest in anonymity for three principal reasons:
- Religious or moral reasons for not wanting to have one's charitable contributions made public
- Concerns about public abuse or even government retaliation, and
- Practical concerns about finding oneself placed on additional mailing lists
For more information about the case, see the FEC's litigation page. Among the plaintiff's arguments is that the government's interest in mandating disclosure of information on donors to 501(c)(3) organizations is less than to 501(c)(4) organizations, distinguishing Citizens United on that basis. Because this is a direct appeal from a three-judge district court panel under a special review provision, the usual certiorari procedures do not apply.
Hat tip Election Law Blog/Rick Hasen. Who else?
Thursday, January 5, 2017
Happy New Year nonprofit champions and scholars! It's time for the obligatory predictions-about-new-year post: What legal and policy issues will be among the hottest in the new year? With the caveat that I'm particularly bad at predicting the future (me, 2006: "texting will never catch on"), I'll throw out a few USA-specific possibilities:
- Changing government funding environment, with potential for sharp decreases in both federal and state funding of health and social services
- Even more diminished role for IRS in charity oversight, shifting power to state attorneys general
- Additional attempts by to withhold government funding from nonprofits based on ideological disagreements (e.g., Planned Parenthood, anti-BDS laws)
- Debate over the extent of funding houses of worship and religious programming (e.g., the upcoming Trinity Lutheran case in the Supreme Court)
- Increased state disclosure mandates for politically active nonprofits (e.g., New York)
What else? What do you think will be the biggest issues facing the nonprofit sector this year?
Tuesday, January 3, 2017
In the face of a massive 200-percent expansion of registered Colorado nonprofits over the past 11 years, and following a model active in 13 other states, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman says she wants $350,000 to fund a new charity oversight unit and that nonprofit infrastructure groups have given the proposal some support.
Read the full article here. The author closes with the prediction that other states may also consider forming or strengthening charitable enforcement units in 2017.
Sunday, January 1, 2017
A recent Chronicle of Philanthropy study reports that over 50 "hate groups" have been granted tax exemption as 501(c)(3) charitable organizations:
The federal government has granted tax-exempt status to more than 60 controversial nonprofits branded by critics as "hate groups," including anti-immigrant and anti-gay-rights organizations, white nationalists, and Holocaust deniers, according to a Chronicle of Philanthropy analysis.
The issue is a thorny one for the Internal Revenue Service, which must balance First Amendment rights against concerns that it is essentially granting government subsidies to groups holding views that millions of Americans may find abhorrent. Complicating matters, the IRS is already under fire from critics who say the agency has discriminated against conservative political organizations.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has compiled a list of nearly 900 so-called hate groups, most of them on the far right (although the roster also includes radical Islamists, black separatists, and other fringe groups) and many with deceptively innocuous-sounding names. The Chronicle analysis found that 55 of those organizations are registered as charities and eight are 501(c)(4) "social welfare" groups, which also enjoy tax exemptions.
Many groups on the list vehemently dispute the "hate" designation and say the Southern Poverty Law Center — known as SPLC and itself a tax-exempt organization — is a left-wing attack group.
For commentary on this issue, see Philip Hackney (LSU), "White Nationalists Groups are Charitable? Apparently so According to IRS"(The Surly Subgroup), and Eugene Volokh (UCLA), "No, the IRS may not deny tax exemptions on the grounds that a group is a supposed ‘hate group’" (The Washington Post op-ed).
Franklin: Philanthrocapitalism: Exacerbating the Antidemocratic, Paternalistic, and Amateuristic Nature of Philanthropy
Eric Franklin (UNLV) posted Philanthrocapitalism: Exacerbating the Antidemocratic, Paternalistic, and Amateuristic Nature of Philanthropy to SSRN. The article's abstract is:
The recent announcement by Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan to pledge Facebook stock worth $45 billion to various philanthropic efforts was met with more skepticism than praise. Most of the criticism concerned the couple’s decision to organize the CZI as a for-profit limited liability company (LLC), rather than the more traditional tax-exempt private foundation. Despite the tax benefits of private foundations, Zuckerberg and Chan were attracted to the fact that LLCs may freely engage in political activity, fund any type of entity, and participate in policy debates.
This begs the question: why should we care how Zuckerberg and Chan engage in charitable activity? The Facebook stock is, after all, their property, and the general public does not generally have any say in how the wealthy dispose of their property. This Article argues that the criticisms are warranted. The reason the public does (and should) care, is that the decision presents troubling questions about the role of philanthropy in our society and the consequences of philanthropists using for-profit vehicles to engage in charitable work.
For more than a century, sociologists have criticized philanthropy as antidemocratic, paternalistic, and amateuristic. However, the regulatory mechanisms governing private foundations ensure that the entities actually engage in publicly-blessed charitable activity, require numerous disclosures to increase accountability, and restrict certain political and lobbying activities. Although these mechanisms do not eliminate the negatives of philanthropy, they do limit their negative effect. As such, there is a convincing argument that philanthropy is worth these costs. The hope is that the mechanisms regulating private foundations result in a palatable balance between philanthropy’s negative and positive aspects.
However, the recent trend of conducting charity through for-profit vehicles throws that balance off. The regulatory bulwarks designed to encourage the positive aspects of philanthropy do not exist in the for-profit realm. As such, philanthropy conducted through for-profit vehicles encourages entities to engage in matters of public concern free from meaningful regulation and limitations.
This Article discusses each of the traditional critiques of philanthropy and explores how they are exacerbated when philanthropic efforts are conducted through a for-profit vehicles, such as LLCs.
Ellen P. Aprill (Loyola - Los Angeles) published Charitable Class, Disaster Relief, and First Responders in Tax Notes, vol. 153, no. 7 (2016). The article's abstract is:
The notion of charitable class bedevils tax law. The IRS has issued no precedential guidance regarding its scope or application. After the 9/11 terrorist attack, Congress enacted special provisions applicable only to victims of that disaster. In response to statements in the legislative history of those provisions, the IRS has changed several of its positions regarding the doctrine of charitable class, changes announced only in a publication on disaster relief. Nonetheless, disaster relief continues to raise difficult issues involving charitable class for Congress as well as the IRS. In the 15 years since 9/11, Congress has enacted special legislation to permit a small group of California firefighters and two New York police offers to be treated as satisfying the charitable class requirements.
This article reviews the use of charitable class in tax law, including its relationship to trust law, with particular attention on establishing new charitable purposes and classes. It then discusses disaster relief, both in the case of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. This discussion includes consideration of the roles that crowdfunding and exemption based on lessening the burden of government play in addressing disasters. The next section of the article examines the special legislation that Congress has enacted for two small groups of first responders. The piece concludes by recommending that the IRS both undertake a study of charitable class in general and issue precedential guidance regarding charitable class in the context of disaster relief. It also urges Congress to consider holding hearings and enacting special legislation for first responders.
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Eric Franklin (UNLV) has posted A More Charitable Charity: Administrative Necessity Provides an Opportunity to Promote Altruism in Charities on SSRN with the following abstract:
The law of charities governs an absurdly wide-ranging field of organizations. A small group of antiquated statutes purport to govern a diversity of entities that range from hospitals worth millions of dollars to purely volunteer-run organizations that provide free childcare. Given the expansive nature of the law of charities, perhaps it is understandable that the law lacks a coherent guiding principle. This alone would not be problematic if not for the fact that most tax-exempt organizations do not comport with the general public’s idea of charity. An intuitive definition of charity relies upon a lack of self-regard. In other words, charity requires some level of altruism. But many charities pay lavish salaries and some are major players in the crass commercialism of the private market; such activities are far from any reasonable definition of altruism. Thus, to the extent that we expect charitable organizations to exhibit some level of altruism, the concept of charity has been stretched to a level that is almost unrecognizable.
In addition to diluting the concept of charity, the over-inclusive nature of tax-exempt law resulted in an unreasonable administrative burden for the IRS. Entities vying for charitable status flooded the agency with tax-exempt applications, crippling the IRS and resulting in an unacceptable backlog. To address this, the IRS created a streamlined application to make the application process more efficient. But critics claim that the streamlined process lacks anything resembling rigor and provides precious little data for evaluation.
Somewhat surprisingly, and certainly unintentionally, the IRS’s solution to its administrative burden provides an opportunity to address the law allowing charities to act in a less-than-altruistic manner. The IRS’s desperate attempt to curtail its administrative burden presents the occasion to create a new family of charities — one that does not strain any traditional definition of “charity.” This Article argues that, in exchange for the use of this streamlined process, charities should agree to forgo salaried employees and commercial activity. Such charities will, in a very real sense, be forced to operate in a more altruistic manner. Thus, these charities will be, in a sense, more charitable.
--Eric C. Chaffee
Friday, December 16, 2016
A new development in the NY bill (reported on yesterday) aimed at increasing transparency in 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations has emerged. Citizens Union of New York has filed suit in federal court challenging the new law, claiming the regulations impede on their right of free speech. The group argues the law “’chills’ speech by forcing donors to choose between ‘exercising speech . . . and subjecting themselves to burdensome obligations and public disclosures.’” The organization further believes the disclosure requirements will dissuade donations, directly impacting their operations. Will other non-profits in New York feel the same?
David A. Brennen
Thursday, December 15, 2016
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law Bill No. A. 10742/S. 8160 in an effort to increase transparency between donations coming from 501(c)(3) organizations going to 501(c)(4) organizations.
Some of the upcoming changes for 501(c)(4) organizations include a dramatically decreased amount (decreasing from $50,000 to $15,000) of funds spent on lobbying that triggers a source of funding report, and added more details to be included in said report.
Among other things, 501(c)(3) organizations now must fill out detailed reports for gifts to 501(c)(4) organizations that are greater than $2,500.
A detailed memo from the Lawyers Alliance for New York outlines the implications for non-profit organizations and exactly what the new regulations are.
David A. Brennen
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
The Justice Department is investigating South Beach Missions of Oregon for allegedly fraudulently registering corporations as religions, entitling said corporations to 501(c)(3) status. The Justice Department believes that South Beach Missions is intentionally duping the federal government, and showing people how to set up phony churches in order to protect their assets from taxes. The government claims the organization has registered 126 active corporations, and 343 inactive ones, leading to “substantial” harm to the tax payer left footing the bill.
Unsurprisingly, South Beach Missions claims they have done no wrong, and believe they are acting within their First Amendment rights. Ted Landry, president of South Beach Missions, firmly believes he is helping people practice their legitimate religion. Mr. Landry believes the government has no place in defining what is and what is not religion, stating “you’re the only one who gets to figure it out.” South Beach Missions insists that they do not give out legal advice, despite the fact they circulate a 12-page booklet on the legality of corporations and churches.
There are obvious public policy concerns with people being able to establish pseudo-religions in the name of tax breaks. Further, unsuspecting churches registered by South Beach may face a crippling tax liability down the road if the government finds their church is not exempt, even if they were honestly practicing their religion. As obvious as the need to abate tax fraud is, so is the need for the government to allow for the freedom of religion, and adhere to Constitutional principles. It will be interesting to see how this is resolved.
David A. Brennen
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
A recent Bloomberg article by Colleen Murphy outlines some major potential changes impacting charitable giving that could come soon after President Elect Trump takes office.
The author believes alterations of charitable giving deductions could take place in the near future. Although there is no concrete plan or proposal, the House Ways and Means Committee “will develop options to ensure the tax code continues to encourage donations, while simplifying compliance and record-keeping and making the tax benefit effective and efficient.” Clearly, altering the amount one can claim as a tax deduction can significantly impact overall giving to 501(c)(3) organizations.
Another potential change is a cap of itemized deductions individuals may claim. President Elect Trump has proposed a ceiling of $100,000 for individuals and $200,000 for couples looking to subtract itemized deductions from their total tax bill. An expert claims that such a rule could diminish large-scale donations, some of which are vital to the existence of many tax-exempt organizations.
A third plausible change coming in the near-term is the overall lowered tax rates promised by President Elect Trump. Mr. Trump aims to reduce the current seven-bracket system to a three-bracket system, leading to a reduced tax burden for working and middle-class Americans. Experts are split on how this may impact charitable donations. Some believe that the reduced rate will lessen the impact of itemized deductions, disincentivizing individuals from making contributions. Another school of thought believe the reduced rates could increase donations, incentivizing individuals to “load up on deductions and decrease their tax burden.”
Finally, the author believes that some existing rules could be revamped over the next few years. Hadar Susskind, senior vice president of government relations at the Council on Foundations in Washington, stated that potential changes could include “Creating charitable giving accounts, simplifying the excise tax on private foundations and allowing the rollover of individual retirement accounts to donor-advised funds.”
Time will tell what the new year, and new administration, have in store for the nonprofit tax world.
David A. Brennen
Sunday, December 11, 2016
Legislation has been pre-filed in South Carolina by State Senator Tom Davis in an attempt to double a tax credit program that helps fund disabled students’ private education. The Legislation also plans to offer an additional $25 million in tax credits for the donors whose money would allow poor children to go to private school.
Senator Davis introduced the legislation in response to a South Carolina Supreme Court case where it was declared the state was not doing enough for poor, rural students and their schools. Davis believes making private schools a realistic option for many students is a step in the right direction.
The proposal would offer more tax credits to those who donate to a nonprofit that “makes private school tuition grants to students with disabilities or those who live in poverty.” These credits would allow the donor to reduce their state taxes by up to 60 percent.
South Carolina currently offers up to $10 million in tax credits for donations helping disabled students. The expansion would expand that offering to $25 million, and grant another $25 million specifically for impoverished students.
Whatever program the state ultimately adopts, hopefully it provides students with the quality education they both require and deserve.
David A. Brennen
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Several well-established nonprofit organizations in Michigan found their longstanding holiday fundraising drives put on ice by the Michigan Attorney General. Media reports several planned fundraisers—such as fire fighters’ “fill the boot” drive for Muscular Dystrophy Association, or the Old Newsboys annual fundraiser—have already been shut down based on the Michigan Attorney General’s aggressive (and potentially unconstitutional) interpretation of a traffic law, while other organizations are worried about the potential consequences.
In a formal opinion, AG Schuette concluded that a state statute prohibiting the disruption of traffic prohibited solicitation of donations in or near roadways. In car-dependent Michigan, this is potentially a big deal that could make it harder for many nonprofits to reach their audiences using methods they have used for decades.
Friday, November 18, 2016
TaxProf Blog: Pomona College May Have Violated 501(c)(3) Tax Status To Fund Anti-Trump Student Protesters
TaxProf Blog reports on this possibility at http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2016/11/pomona-college-may-have-violated-501c3-tax-status-to-fund-anti-trump-student-protesters.html.
For the University's response to this allegation, see http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2016/11/pomona-president-denies-wrongdoing-as-irs-complaint-filed-against-college-for-funding-anti-trump-stu.html.
My initial take is since the rally in question happened after the election, the University has a good argument that at that point Mr. Trump was no longer a candidate but instead President elect and so the activities they funded were not political campaign intervention. I realize that Mr. Trump may not technically be President elect until the votes of the electors are officially counted by Congress, but despite some calls for the electors chosen by the voters to abandon him that is not a realistic possibility. So while one can certainly criticize the University for appearing to take sides with respect to the newly elected President, its reported activities almost certainly did not cross the legal line provided by Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).
The Federal Trade Commission & National Association of State Charities Officials announced earlier this week "Give & Take: Consumers, Contributions, and Charity", a conference exploring consumer protection issues and charitable solicitations will take place in Washington DC on March 21, 2017. Comments, research, original papers and participation are sought with submission deadline of February 17, 2017. Topics sought include: How Are Donor Solicitations Evolving in the Digital Age? What Do Donors Expect When They Contribute? What Information About Charities Do Donors Find Helpful? Discovering and Reporting Possible Deceptive Charitable Solicitations: When do Donors Act? How are Consumer Purchasing Choices Influenced by Promises of Charitable Support or Social Benefit? What are Best Practices in Terms of Charitable Solicitations, Information and Accuracy?
For more information, see https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/events-calendar/2017/03/give-take-consumers-contributions-charity?utm_source=govdelivery.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
Given the uncertainty regarding the plans of both President-elect Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, I feel a bit like a sportswriter trying to rank college football teams before the season begins when I try to predict what the results of the 2016 election will be for the federal tax laws governing tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. With that caveat, here are my initial thoughts.
With respect to guidance from Treasury and the IRS, most of what appears in the most recent update of the 2016-2017 Priority Guidance Plan that is relevant to tax-exempt organizations (see especially pages 9-10 and, for section 170 guidance, page 14) appears non-controversial and so likely to eventually see the light of day. The one major exception is proposed regulations under section 501(c) relating to political campaign intervention, which project the Republican-controlled Congress has repeatedly suspended and likely will continue to block until the new administration gets around to killing it altogether. Another possible exception are the final regulations under section 7611 relating to church tax inquiries and examinations, although my guess is that Congress will instead simply focus on modifying or repealing the section 501(c)(3) prohibition on political campaign intervention, consistent with the campaign promises by then candidate Trump.
Speaking of Congress, university endowments likely will see continued congressional scrutiny especially in light of President-elect Trump's mentions of the issue during his campaign. Whether such scrutiny results in actual legislation remains to be seen, however. What should perhaps be of greater concern to all charitable nonprofit organizations is the possibility that the detailed tax reform plan developed by now-retired Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp may be looked to for inspiration, especially when seeking revenue-generating provisions that could help offset tax cuts elsewhere. For a detailed overview of the many proposed changes relevant to tax-exempt organizations, see the Joint Committee on Taxation Technical Explanation of those provisions. Also relevant of course are proposed changes to the charitable contribution deduction, which are concentrated in section 1403 of the draft legislation. And of course there will also likely be effects on charitable giving from any general reduction of marginal tax rates or other broad changes, such as modification or repeal of the estate & gift tax.
For consideration of likely ramifications of the election results for nonprofits beyond just changes to federal tax law provisions, here are some early predictions from others: Devin Thorpe, Forbes Contributor (collecting thoughts from various nonprofit leaders); National Council of Nonprofits; Mark Hrywna at The NonProfit Times.
Last month Princeton University announced that just days before trial was scheduled to begin it had settled the property tax exemption lawsuit brought by several local residents. As detailed in the announcement, Princeton committed to both pay millions of dollars to Princeton homeownersover six years through a tax credit and to also make over $1 million in contributions over three years to a local nonprofit to help economically disadvantaged residents obtain housing. The total cost to Princeton will be over $18 million.
While the settlement resolves Princeton's property tax exposure for recent years, it leaves open the possibility of suits challenging the university's property tax exemption at some point in the future. It also of course does not resolve the lawsuits currently pending against 35 nonprofit hospitals brought by local officials and challenging the hospitals' exemptions from property taxes, although at least two of those hospitals have already settled the claims against them. Legislation to try to resolve those suits has apparently stalled in the New Jresey Legislature.
Last month the Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari to either the NCAA or the plaintiffs in O'Bannon v. NCAA. That decision left in place the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that found an antitrust injury to the plaintiffs from the NCAA's rules but rejected the portion of the district court's remedy that would have allowed student-athletes to receive cash payments that went beyond their full cost of attendance. Since the NCAA had already dropped its prohibition on members schools giving scholarships to student-athletes up to the full cost of attendance, the effect of the now final Ninth Circuit decision is to leave the current situation unchanged. That said, some commentators believe that the finding of an antitrust injury leaves the NCAA vulnerable to future antitrust challenges (see this ESPN story about the decision).
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
As has been documented in this space many times, state attorneys general continue to play a pivotal role in ensuring that charitable nonprofit organizations continue to fulfill the promise of their charitable label.
For example, earlier this fall The Fresno Bee reported that the California Attorney General denied a request from Saint Agnes Medical Center to reduce the amount of charity care it provides and instead ordered the nonprofit hospital to pay $2.1 million to other community nonprofit organizations that provide direct health-care services. The request was an attempt by the hospital to reduce the $7 million in charity care it is required to provide annually pursuant to a three-year old agreement with the AG's office. The hospital only provided $4.9 million in charity care in 2015, however. To make up the deficit, the AG ordered the hospital to pay $2.1 million to other tax-exempt entities that provide direct health care services in the hospital's service area by no later than October 31, 2016. While the hospital reportedly was considering its options for challenging the AG order, there are no news stories or other public reports indicating that it did so before the October 31st deadline.
And just last week, the New York Attorney General announced a settlement with the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation and two of its officers to end that purported charity's operations. The founder and president of the nonprofit, who is himself a veteran and an attorney with the U.S. Department of Vetranss Affairs, admitted that 90% of donations were paid to fundraisers, that contributors were deceived about the use of funds raised, and that he used nonprofit funds for personal expenses. In addition to the organization dissolving, he and another officer agreed to be permanently banned nationwide from handing charitable assets. CNN originally reported problems at the organization last May.
For readers who were not able to attend last month's National Association of Attorneys General/National Association of State Charitable Officials Conference, the conference materials are available here. Here was the conference's agenda:
Non-Traditional Models of Philanthropy
- Richard Feiner, Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, Weill Cornell Medicine
Donor Advised Funds, Endowments and Donor Restrictions
- David Shevlin, Partner, Simpson Thatcher
Corporate Governance - Top Ten Issues
- Michael Peregrine, Partner, McDermott, Will and Emery LLP
Board Education: Top 10 Ways to Get Investigated and How Board Education Can Help Prevent It
- Vernetta Walker, Vice President for Programs and Chief Governance Officer, BoardSource
- James Joseph, Partner, Arnold & Porter LLP
- Janet Kleinfelter, Deputy Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General of Tennessee
New Tools for the Nonprofit Sector
- James Sheehan, Chief of Charities Bureau, Office of the Attorney General of New York
- Amanda Broun, Vice President of Programs and Practice, Independent Sector
- Meghan Biss, Senior Technical Advisor to the Director, Exempt Organizations, IRS
- Miguel A. Barbosa, Co-Founder & CEO, citizenaudit.org
CyberSecurity/Data Privacy Issues
- Paul Luehr, Managing Director and Chief Policy Officer, Stroz Friedberg
- Abigail Stempsen, Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General of Nebraska
- Alissa Gardenswartz, Deputy Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General of Colorado
Multistate Litigation: Cancer Fund of America
- Tracy Thorleifson, Attorney, Federal Trade Commission
- Michael Foerster, Senior Deputy Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General of Pennsylvania
NAAG Charities Committee: Meet the Attorneys General
- Cindy Lott, Program Director, Nonprofit Management Program, Columbia University School of Professional Studies