Non-Profit Urban Myths Debunked

Nonprofit Urban Myths

There are several nonprofit urban myths that not only pervade the general public but also creep their way into the media and in non-profit governance and management. Below are a few such nonprofit urban myths followed by a debunking overview.

5 Non-Profit Urban Myths Debunked

Nonprofit Urban Myth #1: Non-Profits Cannot Run a Yearly Surplus

Although 501(c)(3) corporations cannot distribute surplus funds to board members or employees and do not have shareholders, owners, or partners as do various types of business entities, they can run a yearly surplus and will be healthier if they do so.

So, for example, suppose that non-profit X has expenses in one year of $1,000,000 and brings in revenue in that same year of $1,500,000. With the surplus of $500,000 non-profit X cannot distribute such money, as a surplus, to board members, employees, or any other persons (note that employees and board members can be paid reasonable compensation by the non-profit in that year).

With the $500,000 non-profit X can: 1) Carry the funds over to use as revenue for a future year’s budget on any allowable expense; 2) Hold the funds in savings as reserves; 3) Use it as seed funding for a board restricted endowment; 4) Set it aside for a future major expense, or 5) Invest the funds with the goal of procuring additional currently expendable revenue.

Nonprofit Urban Myth #2: Non-Profits Cannot Pay Employees Competitively

Although some non-profit corporations facilitate their mission entirely by relying upon volunteers, there is no regulatory bar to paying employees in order to attract and retain talented personnel for the sake of executing the mission. In fact, most nonprofits will not be able to sustain themselves without paid staff.

However, the IRS requires that employees be paid reasonably according to the amount that would ordinarily be paid for like services by like enterprises, whether taxable or tax-exempt, under like circumstances. Non-profit executive compensation is especially subject to regulatory and public relations scrutiny, and thus boards of directors should follow and document governance best practices in setting executive compensation.

See our post titled Setting Nonprofit Executive Compensation for a detailed outline of such best practices.

Nonprofit Urban Myth #3: Non-Profits Cannot Pay Board Members

Perhaps more pervasive than the nonprofit urban myth that employees cannot be paid, is the idea that non-profit board members cannot be paid for their services as board members.

First, non-profits can and many do enact board reimbursement policies for reasonable expenses incurred in the performance of board duties, such as travel to organization events, purchasing supplies for board business out of pocket, etc.

Second, although most non-profit board members serve as volunteers, board members can be paid as board members for their services.

However, there are several considerations that non-profits should consider before compensating directors/trustees as directors/trustees.

Also read: What is an Ex Officio Director

First, some states, such as California, restrict board member compensation.

Second, board compensation is a conflict of interest that must be managed. For example, if a board member is paid for services, there should be a strong conflict of interest policy in place that requires the board member to be recused from the discussion and vote on the compensation arrangement.

If all board members are being paid, recusal may not be possible. In such cases, the Board can rely on a reasoned opinion from an independent qualified compensation consultant. Finally, depending upon the law of the state of non-profit incorporation, a paid board member may have greater exposure to liability than a volunteer board member.

Nonprofit Urban Myth #4: CEO/Executive Directors Cannot Sit on a Non-Profit Board

Employees of a non-profit may sit on the board of directors/trustees, but the IRS recommends that a board not be dominated by employees as by their nature they are not independent since they have an employment relationship with the organization.

Any official board member has a right to vote on board proceedings and thus if a CEO or Executive Director does sit on the board of directors/trustees, it is important that the board has a strong conflict of interest policy in place such that the CEO/ED does not participate in decisions regarding his/her/their compensation or other decisions that may directly benefit him/her/they.

Nonprofit Urban Myth #5: Non-Profits Can’t Engage in Revenue Producing Business Transactions Such as Selling Goods or Services

In general, non-profits are free to sell goods or services for income to support their mission. However, if the business is regularly carried on and unrelated to the non-profit’s mission, it will generally be subject to unrelated business income tax (UBIT).

In short, income from the sale of goods or services that are closely related to the non-profit’s mission is not taxable, while business transactions unrelated to the mission are taxable. (See our post Can Nonprofits Earn Business Revenue?)

Ellis Carter is a nonprofit lawyer with Caritas Law Group, P.C. Ellis advises nonprofit and socially responsible businesses on corporate, tax, and fundraising regulations.  Ellis is licensed to practice in Washington and Arizona and advises nonprofits on federal tax and fundraising regulations nationwide. Ellis also advises donors with regard to major gifts. To schedule a consultation with Ellis, call 602-456-0071 or email us through our contact form.

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