he Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (HR 1 ) is on its way to the White House for President Trump’s expected signature before the weekend. The bill is set to bring about widespread changes to the US tax code for both businesses and individual Americans. However, it also impacts tax-exempt organizations.
A legal audit is an overview of an organization’s non-financial compliance, governance and risk management issues. Organizations typically consider a legal audit when new management takes over and wants to ensure they are starting with a clean slate or the in the wake of a costly mistake.
In its 2012 workplan, the IRS announced it will be paying closer attention to self-declared 501(c)(4), (c)(5) and (c)(6) organizations. These groups include social welfare organizations; labor, agricultural and horticultural groups; as well as business leagues and chambers of commerce. Such organizations consider themselves to be tax-exempt because of the nature of their activities, but they have not filed for nor received a formal determination letter from the IRS. These groups are allowed to operate without an official IRS determination because, unlike the 27 month filing deadline for 501(c)(3) charities, they are not subject to a deadline for filing an application for exemption.
Each year, the IRS publishes a report detailing what its focus will be regarding nonprofit organizations and compliance during the year to come. The following are some of the highlights from the 2012 Exempt Organizations Work Plan.
Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code allows for tax exemption for organizations organized and operated to foster national or international amateur sports competition so long as no part of the net earnings inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual. A parent run booster club must be organized so that it benefits the entire class of athletes or participants and does not benefit certain individuals over others.
Even if you end up having to pay some tax on it, having more income is always a good thing. The primary challenge for tax-exempt organizations is ensuring its unrelated business income is maintained within a relatively “safe” range of its overall exempt activity. It is acceptable for a tax-exempt organization to operate an unrelated business so long as operating the unrelated business is not its primary purpose. Unfortunately, there is no crisp test for determining when this threshold has been crossed. In determining whether the unrelated business has morphed into the organization’s primary purpose, all of the circumstances must be considered including the size and extent of the organization’s exempt purpose activities.
Tax-exempt Organizations 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 percent 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.
The idea behind Code Section 502’s prohibition on exemption for Feeder Organizations is that one cannot convert a for-profit business into a charity simply by contributing all of the profits to charitable organizations. The policy rationale is that permitting businesses to operate on a tax-free basis just because they donate their proceeds to charity permits unfair competition in the marketplace.
The well-meaning have been advising exempt organizations to “operate like a business” for years. If the organization is a Section 501(c)(3) organization, operating too much like a business can cost it its tax-exempt status due to the “Commerciality Doctrine.” Practically, the issue of commerciality usually arises when a tax-exempt organization engages in any endeavor for which a clear for-profit counterpart exists in the marketplace. Typical examples include publishing, consulting and sales of arts and crafts. Today, the Commerciality Doctrine is a threat to the increasingly popular movement toward social enterprises. Those that choose to organize as Section 501(c)(3) organizations should only do so after a thorough review of the Commerciality Doctrine.