Nonprofit Law Jargon Buster – What is a Charitable Class?

Charitable Class

Does your nonprofit serve a charitable class? It matters, because, to obtain and maintain IRS 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, non-profit corporations must serve a charitable class.

The requirement that a non-profit serves a charitable class is closely related to the requirement that it serves public as opposed to private interest, and that no inurement or excessive benefit is bestowed upon private individuals.

Thus, 501(c)(3) corporations should maintain a specific definition of the charitable class served in a manner consistent with IRS regulations. The IRS defines charitable purposes as those dedicated to the relief of the poor and distressed or of the underprivileged¦ or toward others showing the need for support or help. Thus, whether a non-profit is established for charitable purposes will be decided by those served by its activities, or its charitable class.

In short, a charitable class served by a non-profit must be sufficiently large and/or indefinite so that the benefits of its work cannot be traced to pre-identified persons. So, for example, the IRS would not certify the establishment of a non-profit to pay for the cancer treatments of Jane Obermeyer from Lilliput, Arizona.

Note, however, that any person or entity could create a GoFundMe or other campaign to raise funds for Jane’s treatments. But such fundraising cannot be the purpose of a non-profit, and donations made for Jane’s treatments will not be tax-deductible.

The key here is that the class of Jane is not indefinite. Note that the IRS would certify a corporation as tax-exempt if it were established to pay for the cancer treatments of residents of Lilliput, even if the only resident of Lilliput at the time of 501(c)(3) application were Jane Obermeyer.

This charitable class would be indefinite, as other individuals could be served as the need arises. However, to obtain and maintain exempt status, the IRS would have to believe that The Lilliput Cancer Support Center was not providing a seemingly indefinite charitable class and charitable purpose only as a veil to cover its real purpose of helping only Jane.

And thus, it is helpful for a non-profit to define a charitable class as not only indefinite but sufficiently large to show that many other unidentifiable persons can, and most likely will, benefit from the mission.

Thus, if Lilliput only had only 10-20 residents, the IRS may decide Lilliput residents with cancer are not a valid charitable class.  However, if Lilliput had several hundred or certainly if it has thousands of residents, it would be a charitable class, as there would be a strong chance that others would benefit from cancer treatment support.

Charitable Class as per IRS to Ensure Tax-Exempt Status

Thus, for a corporation to ensure IRS tax-exempt status, it should describe its charitable class as:

  • Indefinite (It will benefit persons from the public that are not yet identified.)
  • Sufficiently Large (The class of those who will/may benefit is large enough to show that there is a strong probability that persons from the public not yet identified will benefit from the mission.)

For example, it would be valid for a non-profit in Phoenix to provide housing assistance to low-income residents of the city. Those who are not low-income Phoenix residents would be excluded, but the class is indefinite and large enough to ensure service can be provided to more than a pre-identified set of persons.

Basically, a non-profit must show that its mission does and will benefit the public, as opposed to private individuals. An important part of this, as described in the post, is the proper definition of the class that receives support and services from the non-profit.

Also read: The Commensurate Test

Ellis Carter is a nonprofit lawyer with Caritas Law Group, P.C. licensed to practice in Washington and Arizona. Ellis advises nonprofit and socially responsible businesses on corporate, 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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