Is it Time to Form a For-profit Subsidiary?

for-profit subsidiary of nonprofitNonprofits engaging in social enterprise or other active business pursuits often worry that a growing stream of unrelated business income could threaten their tax-exempt status. This concern is related to the prohibition against tax-exempt organizations engaging in more than an “insubstantial” amount of activity unrelated to their tax-exempt purpose. Unfortunately the term “insubstantial” is undefined. Based on court cases, it appears that gross unrelated business income receipts of 5 % or less is always safe while over 20% is probably too much.

When unrelated business endeavors take off, the success of the business can threaten a 501(c)(3) organization’s tax-exempt status. To protect their tax-exempt status, many tax-exempt organizations with successful unrelated business ventures move their unrelated business activities into a taxable for-profit subsidiary.

A taxable subsidiary is essentially a separate for-profit entity that the charity owns and controls. As the owner, the tax-exempt parent is entitled to distributions from the for-profit subsidiary. If the subsidiary is not properly structured, the distributions of business income to the tax-exempt parent will retain their character as unrelated business income. However, if the taxable subsidiary is properly structured and operated, the distributions will be treated as exempt passive income to the tax-exempt parent.

To ensure that the distributions from the taxable parent are treated as exempt passive income, the IRS has developed a two-part test to determine whether a subsidiary should be treated as a separate taxable entity whose commercial activities will not be attributed to the parent corporation for tax purposes.

1.         Bona Fide Purpose.  The requirement is that the subsidiary must be organized for some bona fide purpose of its own and not be a mere sham or instrumentality of the parent.” This does not mean that the subsidiary has to have a profit motive; however, it must have a business purpose or activity.

2.         Instrumentality of Parent.  The second part of the test is the requirement that the tax-exempt parent not be so involved in, or in control of, the subsidiary’s day to day activities that the relationship between the parent and the subsidiary takes on the form of a principal-agent relationship or that the subsidiary becomes merely an instrumentality of the parent. This does not mean that the parent cannot control the subsidiary through ownership of stock or appointment of the board of directors.

In addition, the taxable subsidiary should be formed as a C-corporation or as an LLC that elects to be taxed as a C-corporation. Pass-through entities such as partnership, LLCs taxed as partnerships, or S-corporation will not block distributions from being treated as unrelated business income to the tax-exempt parent.

Also, while interest, rents, royalties and annuities are normally excluded from unrelated business income, a special tax rule provides that such income is to be taxed as unrelated business income if that income is received from a controlled subsidiary. Dividends are not subject to this rule. Therefore, the distributions from the taxable subsidiary to the tax-exempt parent should be made in the form of dividends.

Finally, as is the case with all related entities, to ensure the tax-exempt parent does not treat any subsidiaries it may create as instruments or alter egos of the tax-exempt parent, the tax-exempt parent should do the following:

1.                  The tax-exempt parent and its subsidiary should maintain separate books and records, bank accounts, meetings and minutes, stationery, and tax returns, and each of them should sign documents in their own corporate name.

2.                  The tax-exempt parent should maintain control of its subsidiaries through its power to appoint and remove the board of directors and the power to approve any amendments to the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws.

3.                  The tax-exempt parent should not directly manage the subsidiary’s daily affairs.

4.                  The board of directors of the tax-exempt parent and the subsidiary can overlap, but it is recommended that the subsidiary board include outside directors as well.

5.                  Net earnings from a for-profit subsidiary can be transferred to the tax-exempt parent as an after-tax dividend. Transactions between the tax-exempt parent and the subsidiary (for services, rental of space and equipment, loans, etc.) should be in writing and approved by both boards of directors.

When forming a for-profit subsidiary of a tax-exempt parent, the tax-exempt parent, as the sole or majority shareholder or member, should have the right to vote for the board of directors, the right to remove directors or managers without cause at any time, and the right to approve any amendments. The non-profit should make a reasonable contribution to the subsidiary’s capital. If investors are sought, capitalization of the subsidiary should comply with state and federal securities laws.

Ellis Carter is a nonprofit lawyer licensed to practice in Washington and Arizona. Ellis advises tax-exempt clients on federal tax matters nationwide. To find out more about our services or schedule an appointment, contact us as 602-456-0071 or


7 Responses to Is it Time to Form a For-profit Subsidiary?

  1. 1st – thanks for the great post. It was very helpful.

    I have a couple of questions, was wondering if you could help me out or direct me to a good source.

    I am a treasurer of an organization that is intending to launch a for profit subsidiary. My Background outside of this position has been in the large public corporation sector and I am struggling to find resources to help me figure out some of the stickier accounting questions.

    On Capitalization, How often can the not-for-profit infuse the for-profit with capital? Is this a one time oppty, or if the burn rate of the for profit is higher than anticipated, will there be oppty’s down the road?

    On transactions between the Non-profit and for-profit, (For profit offers a service that the non-profit would like to use) do you need to have (fair market value) FMV documentation? Even if the Non-Profit is paying higher than FMV?

    Likewise if the for-profit is using a mission-related service of the non-profit, do these transactions need FMV documentation? Even if the non-profit wants to offer lower than FMV rates? e.g. if FMV is $10, is it problematic for the non-profit to offer it for $8 to the for profit subisidiary?


  2. Hi Ellis,

    We formed corporation registered at the state level in Hawaii as a non-profit but did not apply for 501c3 status at the fed level because we have a 51% interest in each of three for-profit subsidiaries. The dividend income we receive from our subsidiaries accounts for 100% of our non-profit parent’s income.

    While the purpose of our parent non-profit meets the IRS requirements (qualifies our parent corp) for 501C3 status, we are under the impression that since the majority of our income is from our for-profit subs, we dont meet the 33% charitable contributions from the general public income test, and we would be deemed a private foundation by the IRS.

    My understanding is that when applying for 501C3 status, the IRS deems your entity as either a public charity or private foundation, and that private foundations are limited to 20% ownership in for-profit subsidiaries.

    Are we on the right track? If so, are there any other possible legal structures for our parent non-profit that would allow us to apply for 501C3 status?

  3. Ellis,

    I am on the board of a non-profit that does research and development and has an end product that is of no use to the organizations mission. The end product is however is marketable, could interested members buy the product from the organization through their own profit corps and sell this product or would it be easier to set up the auxillary subsidiary. They are concerned with conflicts of interest.

  4. It sounds like there are conflicts and the question is whether they are manageable. The challenge is to show that the members are not usurping a corporate opportunity and that the terms of the sale are fair and arms’s length. Not impossible, but challenging.

  5. Thank you for providing such great information. One of our donors is providing our nonprofit animal rescue with an opportunity to raise funds by selling merchandise through online auctions. We believe that these auctions will be so successful that they will become a substantial amount of unrelated business income. To avoid jeapordizing our tax exempt status, we are considering creating a taxable subsidiary or a totally independent business which will donate all proceeds to our nonprofit organization. The problem is that I am the President of the nonprofit and I would also most like be the person running the other business. Would this be a problem for the IRS? Is it safer to start a taxable subsidiary or an entirely independent business?