Nonprofit Law & Governance For Dummies
If you're forming a nonprofit, it's important to start from a well-informed base. These basic start-up guidelines can get your organization up and running smoothly, and being aware of current tax and finance standards can help your nonprofit avoid legal pitfalls.
The Basics of Forming a Nonprofit
To ensure the success of your nonprofit organization, you need to start with a solid foundation. Take a look at the following fundamentals checklist so your nonprofit is set up properly and legal issues are covered right from the beginning.
Clearly define your mission and its scope: Every nonprofit has a mission. Make sure your nonprofit's mission is clearly defined and concisely written. It should reflect the shared goals of everyone involved in establishing the organization.
Put together a business plan and system: The organization should identify the sources and uses of its funds. It should also figure out whether it can be viable in the long run.
Adopt a set of bylaws: Bylaws serve as the constitution of your organization. You might start by using standard forms, but do make sure that issues of major importance to your organization are clearly addressed.
Recruit a board: Nonprofit organizations are run by boards of directors or trustees. Recruiting the right board can mean the difference between success and failure of a nonprofit's mission.
Hold an organizational meeting and define duties and responsibilities: This step is important to do early on because it allows you to make sure that formalities are dealt with before the organization becomes engrossed in fulfilling its mission.
File for tax-exempt status with the IRS: Tax-exempt status is not automatic; it must be awarded by the IRS. Your organization must file the necessary paperwork and qualify under the law for exempt status.
Register with your state: State requirements vary, but most require you to follow a certain registration process so that the states can track which nonprofits exist within their borders. Most states also require a separate registration process if funds will be solicited within their borders.
Get staff and volunteers in place: If your organization has day-to-day operations to perform, it's important to figure out who will do the actual work. More importantly, you have to figure out who will supervise operations and be held accountable.
Tax Traps for Nonprofits
Don't assume that since the federal government doesn't tax most nonprofit income that it doesn't require nonprofits to comply with tax-reporting requirements. Just like for-profit businesses, nonprofits need to report income, file tax returns, and file documentation to make certain their special status isn't being used to the benefit of private individuals or to further non-exempt purposes. Avoid these tax traps that many nonprofits stumble into:
Not filing required returns and reports: The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) carefully monitors the revenue, expenses, and activities of nonprofit organizations and requires them to file annual returns and reports to retain their tax-exempt status. Fines can be stiff for organizations that fail to comply.
Not filing complete or accurate returns: Not all duties in nonprofit organizations can be safely delegated to well-meaning volunteers. Tax forms are technical documents that require the attention of someone skilled in completing them.
Paying unreasonable compensation: Paying board members and executives more than what's justified by the market can result in a prompt loss of your organization's tax-exempt status and in penalties for all those involved.
Deviating from the tax-exempt mission: The IRS grants nonprofit organizations exempt status to carry out specific missions. So, if you engage in non-exempt activities, your organization's exempt status may be terminated.
Allowing the organization's property to be used personally by employees: Nonprofit assets must be used for nonprofit purposes (and only nonprofit purposes). For example, it isn't all right to decide that land for a youth camp program should instead be used as the site for a vacation home for board members.
Entering into transactions where a clear conflict of interest exists: Nonprofit funds should never be diverted to lucrative business transactions that benefit board members or executives (or their families). Nor should the organization's assets be used for other types of loans or perks.
Not filing state tax returns in all states in which the nonprofit does business: States can be picky about what occurs within their borders. So, they have their own reporting requirements that must be satisfied.
Engaging in activities that generate income from sources unrelated to the organization's mission: When nonprofits compete with private-sector businesses, they must pay taxes on the activities that generate the unrelated business income.
Ignoring or not responding to correspondence from the IRS: Volunteer staffing and overlapping duties can cause critical notices to fall through the cracks. Don't let this happen to your organization.