heart in pages of book

Welcome to the newest post in the 25 Days of Giving series. Have questions or a topic  related to charitable giving you want covered as a part of the series? Contact us!

You want your favorite charity to be wildly successful. Whether you’re working for the nonprofit as staff, serving on the board of directors, or assisting as a donor or volunteer, you want your nonprofit to have every chance to reach its goals and objectives. 

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) strongly encourages nonprofits to adopt specific governance policies to limit potential abuse, protect against vulnerabilities, and prevent activities that would go beyond permitted nonprofit activities. The IRS also audits nonprofits, just as it audits companies and individuals, and having these policies in place can only help you should you be audited. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, having solid policies and procedures in place will provide foundation for soliciting, accepting, and facilitating charitable donations. 

Each nonprofit is unique, and accordingly policies and procedures needed will vary for each. For instance, a non-operating private foundation will likely need a different set of documents than a public charity. However, most nonprofits will want, at the very least, to consider having the following policies in place. 

Articles of Incorporation

Articles of incorporation are necessary to even form a nonprofit corporation; the document is filed with the state and accompanied by a filing fee. This policy can be known by other monikers as “certificate of incorporation,” “articles of organization,” or “charter document.” Think of this as the constitution of the organization. While it can be fairly short, there are some necessary elements in the articles that are required for federal tax-exempt status. Those elements include a statement of purpose, legal address, emphasis on not-for-profit activities, duration, names and address of director(s), and a dissolution clause, among others. You may want to check out the IRS’ sample charter.

Board Roles and Responsibilities

Nonprofit board members are generally tasked with two major responsibilities of support and governance. A board’s rules and responsibilities document should outline the requirements and responsibilities of board members. Some examples of basic components include fundraising participation, determining the organization’s mission and direction, selecting and regularly evaluating the nonprofit director/CEO, and protection of public interest. A policy regarding board roles and responsibilities should encourage nothing short of ethical and legal integrity within board members.

boardroom chairs

Bylaws

If you’ve ever been part of any board or committee, you’ve definitely heard reference to the bylaws and received a copy upon joining the organization. Nonprofit bylaws serve as the internal operating methods and rules that specify things like the election process of directors, employee roles within the nonprofit, and operational manners of meetings. Specific language in the bylaws is not required by federal tax law, but some states may require nonprofits to have written bylaws to be considered tax exempt. This document can most often be used to resolve uncertainty between board members and takes the guesswork out of operations.

Code of Ethics

Just as it sounds, a code of ethics document puts in place a set of guiding principles for behavior, decisions making, and activities of those involved in the nonprofit, including board members, employees, and volunteers. While principles innate to your organization such as honesty, equity, integrity, and transparency may be understood by all involved, this formal adoption allows those involved to make a formal commitment to ethical actions and decisions. Sometimes this document is known as a “statement of values,” or “code of conduct.” Many organizations post their code on their website to demonstrate accountability and transparency.

Compensation Policy

Competitive compensation is just as important for employees of nonprofits as it is for for-profit employees. Having a set policy in place that objectively establishes salary ranges for positions, updated job descriptions, relevant salary administration, and performance management is used to establish equality and equity in compensation practices. A statement of compensation philosophy and strategy which explains to current and potential employees and board members how compensation supports the organization’s mission can be included in the compensation policy.

Confidentiality

A nonprofit’s board members have a duty of confidentiality due to their fiduciary obligation to the organization. This duty is there regardless of any written policy or not, but it’s certainly a best practice to clarify and explain why and how confidentiality is important to the specific organization. A confidentiality policy can include elements such as the following:

  • definitions of what matters are considered confidential
  • determination to whom the policy applies
  • statement that board members do not make any public statements to the press without authorization
  • a process by which confidential material may be authorized for disclosure

secret mouth

Conflict of Interest

This is arguably one of the more essential policies a nonprofit board should adopt. A conflict of interest policy should do two important things:

  • require board members with a conflict (or a potential conflict) to disclose it, and
  • exclude individual board members from voting on matters in which there is a conflict.

Note the IRS Form 990 asks whether the nonprofit has such a policy as well as how the organization manages and determines board members who have a conflict of interest. This policy is all too important as conflicts of interest that are not successfully and ethically managed can result in “intermediate sanctions” against both the organization and the individual with the conflicts.

Document Retention

A document retention policy doesn’t mean that EVERY piece of paper and digital report should be kept for a specific duration. But, consider if a document is unknowingly tossed by a nonprofit employee and is later needed in a legal matter. That can cause irrevocable damage. So, ensure all board members, staffers, and volunteers are trained and have a copy of the document retention policy, which should clarify what types of documents should be retained, how they should be filed, and for what duration. This policy should also outline proper deletion/destruction techniques.

Employee Handbook

An employee handbook is another one of the more common nonprofit documents. A quality handbook should clearly communicate employment policies and enforce at-will provisions to all employees. Employment laws are complicated and complex. An employee handbook written/reviewed by a licensed attorney is a good legal step toward avoiding employment disputes. (Yes, just as you need a lawyer to write your estate plan, you’ll need a lawyer to craft/review your employee handbook.) Review your employee handbook regularly, as an out-of-date or poorly written handbook can leave the organization open to employment ambiguity and conflicts.

Financial Policies and Procedures

This document specifically addresses guidelines for making financial decisions, reporting financial status of the organization, managing funds, and developing financial goals. The financial management policies and procedures should also outline the budgeting process, investments reporting, what accounts may be maintained by the nonprofit, and when scheduled auditing will take place.

Endowment

This resolution concerns funds (and the interest from these funds) that are kept long term. It  generally aids the organization’s overall operations. An endowment policy should consider the purpose of the endowment, how the endowment will benefit the mission of the nonprofit, management practices of the endowment, disbursement policies, and investment strategy. (This blog post from GuideStar offers five steps to starting an endowment.)

Gift Acceptance

Gift acceptance is yet another policy the IRS considers to be a best practice for any tax-exempt nonprofit, and the gift acceptance policy can help set acceptance policies for both donors and the board/staffers. There is no federal legal requirement, but this policy does allow you to check “Yes” on Form 990. If well-written and applied across the organization, the policy can help the organization to kindly reject a non-cash gift that can carry extraneous liabilities and obligations the organization is not readily able to manage.

Outstretched hand

Investments

One way a Board of Directors can fulfill their fiduciary responsibility to the organization is through investing assets to further the nonprofit’s goals. But, before investment vehicles are invested in, the organization should have an investment policy in place to define who is accountable for the investment decisions. The policy should also offer guidance on activities of growing/protecting the investments, earning interest, and maintaining access to cash if necessary. Many organizations hire a professional financial advisor or investment manager to implement investments and offer advice. This person’s role can be accounted for in the investment policy.

Whistleblower

Nonprofits, along with all corporations, are prohibited from retaliating against employees who call out, draw attention to, or “blow the whistle” against employer practices. A whistleblower policy should set a process for complaints to be addressed and include protection for whistleblowers. Ultimately this policy can help insulate your organization from the risk of state and federal law violation and encourage sound, swift responses of investigation and solutions to complaints. Don’t just take it from me, the IRS also considers this an incredibly helpful policy:

“A whistleblower policy encourages staff and volunteers to come forward with credible information on illegal practices or violations of adopted policies of the organization, specifies that the organization will protect the individual from retaliation, and identifies those staff or board members or outside parties to whom such information can be reported. (Instructions to Form 990)

Policies = Powerful

While these documents may sound like a lot of work, the time and energy you place into ensuring your nonprofit is set up for success will pay off in the long run by saving you legal and IRS fees, internal conflict, violations, and compliance issues. Plus, you can enlist a qualified nonprofit attorney to do the leg work for you! 

You may say, “My organization already has a great set of policies in place!” Which is great. But, you should continuously update them as needed/wanted. A policy from 2002 may have been perfect at the time, but could be in dire need of updates.

I’d advise making policies the main subject of a board meeting to review what policies have been adopted, which policies need revisions, and which policies you’re missing altogether. If you’re not sure where to start, or how policies should be drafted, read, or enacted, I would be happy to offer you a free one-hour consultation. You can also take me up on my 10 for 990 policy special.

I’m here to assist in drafting or revising your set of nonprofit policies, so don’t hesitate to contact me via email or phone (515-371-6077). We’ll schedule your free one-hour consultation and make a plan to set your organization up for success!

(Note this article is provided for general information only and not intended as legal advice for your specific nonprofit organization. Again, please contact me to discuss your organization’s unique needs.)

Candles and christmas tree for charity auction

Thanks for reading the 25 Days of Giving series! Share with friends, family, & colleagues. Knowledge is indeed a “gift” when it comes to encouraging and maximizing smart charitable giving

Headed to a holiday party this season? If it’s to celebrate/fundraise for your favorite charity, you might experience an auction (silent or otherwise). Charity auctions can be great fun and it feels like you’re giving back while also gaining a great gift to tuck under the Christmas tree!

Sometimes charity auction participants mistakenly believe their successful bids are completely deductible. However, since the individual receives the auction property, there is usually no federal income tax charitable deduction. But, if the bid can be shown to be in excess of the fair market value of the item, the amount in excess can be deducted as a charitable contribution.

The charity may make a “good faith estimate” of the fair value of the auction item before bidding commences.

Noel at charity auction

Let’s look at a few easy examples:

Example 1. A $50 gift certificate to a retail store is purchased at charity auction for $40. No deduction.

Example 2. A different $50 gift certificate to the spa is purchased at the charity auction for $70. This generates a $20 charitable deduction.

Example 3. You bid on and win a fruit basket for $30 at an auction supporting a local high school basketball program. The equivalent fruit basket at a local grocery store would cost $15, so you may receive a $15 tax deduction.

Unsure if your actions at a charity auction mean a charitable deduction? It’s always a good idea to get a second opinion. Also, if you’re a nonprofit leader planning on hosting a charity auction it’s advantageous to be briefed on all the tax and legal rules surrounding the event in case donors ask. I’m always happy to help and offer a free one-hour consultation. Reach me by phone at 515-371-6077 or by email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com.

Girl hanging ornaments on tree

Happy 25 Days of Giving Series! If you’ve been reading along throughout December so far, thank you. If you’ve happened upon the GoFisch blog just now, welcome. I hope to see you back here often.

Celebrating the holidays with children, be it family or friends’ children, can be a wonderful opportunity to “see” the magic and delight of the season through their experiences. The season of giving is also an opportune time to teach and reinforce the importance of a different kind of giving beyond the wish lists for Santa and filled stockings. Consider these few tips when teaching the future generation of philanthropists about why charitable giving is important, and how to practice charity during December…and all year round.

Think Tradition

holiday themed cupcakes

Just like decorating cookies, trimming the tree, singing carols, or any other one of your family traditions, charitable giving can be made into an annual family affair. Incorporate this in a way that works for you and your family. One idea is instead of the traditional advent calendar in which children would usually get a small toy or candy each day give some loose change or “gift” a charitable activity you can do together. For the money, the child can collect and then then at the end of the advent period have then donate their money to a cause they care about.

Talk About It Together

Similarly to how I counsel my estate planning clients on the importance of speaking with family members about decisions for their estate, it’s important to actually talk about charitable giving as a family. Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy conducted a study and found that children whose parents talk with them about donating are 20% more likely to give to charity than kids who do not have those conversations with their parents.

snowmen figurines

Visit local charitable organizations together. (Or, if that’s not accessible at least go online to the charities’ websites.) Introduce your child to what the charity does and why it’s important. Organizations whose missions align with your child’s interests are a good place to start. For instance, the kid who loves animals may be interested to know that the local animal rescue helps animals when they get lost or hurt.

Practice What You Preach: Volunteer Time

Charitable giving doesn’t just have to be monetary. When possible set up volunteer activities you can do together. However, volunteer opportunities for children can be limited, so don’t be afraid to get creative. If your kiddo loves riding her bike around the park, plan a day where you pick up trash around the park. If your son loves to help you plant flowers, see if he can help out at the community garden. Of course, youth organizations like scouting programs (for example), can be a great opportunity for your child to put charitable work into action. Kids, just like most of us, will better be able to “see” the impact of charitable giving when they experience it firsthand. (Note: volunteer time is not tax deductible, but out-of-pocket expenses associated with volunteer work are!)

child in front of stocking

Shared Generosity

From your year-end giving charitable dollars, set aside a portion specifically for the kids to decide how to allocate. Have them brainstorm on with you and provide them with any suggestions/charities to match the causes they care about. You could also try out a matching program. Explain to them that every dollar they save throughout the year and want to donate to charity, you’ll match. If you need a colorful visual explain with Monopoly money.

 How do you involve your entire family with charitable giving? I would love to hear your ideas. Remember, this doesn’t have to be your own children. If you’re a teacher or simply an involved aunt/uncle or grandparent you can still instill in children the important philosophy of why giving can be the best gift of all.
Questions about your own year-end charitable giving? Contact me by email or phone (515-371-6077) at any time. 
woman holding ornament

Thanks for the reading the 25 Days of Giving series. Each day through December 25, I’m covering different aspects of charitable giving for both donors and nonprofit leaders. Have a topic you want covered or question you want answered regarding charitable giving? Contact me.

I’ve covered the term quid pro quo in a previous legal word-of-the-day blog post and much of that applies to understanding quid pro quo donations. In short, quid pro quo (now you know Latin!) translates to “something for something” and means an exchange of goods or services, where one transfer is contingent upon the other. In the case of nonprofit organizations, sometimes a good or service is offered in exchange for a donation. When the donor makes a charitable donation more than $75 and the nonprofit offers a good or service in exchange for said donation, the tax-exempt charity must provide a written statement to the donor disclosing the following:

  • Statement of the good(s) or service(s) received in exchange for donation
  • A fair market value (FMV) of the good(s) or service(s) received.
  • Information for the donor that only a portion of the total contribution (the portion that exceeds the FMV) is eligible for a federal income tax charitable contribution deduction.

What Nonprofits Need to Know

merry christmas event menu

As a nonprofit organization offering a quid pro quo donation situation, there’s a penalty for not making the required disclosure of contributions great than $75. The penalty is $10 per contribution up to $5,000 per fundraising mailer or event. If your nonprofit fails to disclose, but can prove the failure was due to a reasonable cause, the penalty may be avoided.

Offering a good or service as an incentive for a donation can be a great way to spark donor interest, but you’ll definitely want to determine the FMV and have a reasonable method, applied in good faith, for doing so. This can be easier said than done for goods and services that are not generally or commercially available. If that’s the case it’s recommended to estimate the FMV off of similar/comparable products and services that are available. Let’s consider a couple examples:

Example 1. For a contribution of $20,000 a history museum allows a donor to hold a private event in a ballroom of the museum. The museum doesn’t typically rent out this room, so how can a FMV be determined if there’s no standard rate? Looking at other similarly sized and quality ballrooms in the surrounding, general area cost $3,000 a night to rent. So, even though the museum’s ballroom has unique artifacts, a good faith estimate of the FMV of the museum’s ballroom is $3,000. The donor would then have a charitable contribution deduction total of $17,000.

Example 2. Your charity offers a one-hour golf lesson with a golf pro at the local country club to anyone who donates $500 or more. Usually the golf pro can be hired for a one-hour lesson for $100. An estimate made in good faith of the lessons’s FMV is $100.

Example 3. What if the service offered is unique, but is typically free? A state park foundation fundraiser advertises that a donation of $200 or more entitles you a spot on one of four different guided nature hikes with a volunteer park ranger. Typically the foundation doesn’t offer guided hikes to the general public, but hiking in the state parks is otherwise free. So, the FMV made in good faith for the hike is $0 and the charitable contribution eligible for deductions would be the full amount.

The only time you wouldn’t need to disclose the quid pro quo donation is when the good(s) or service(s) are of insubstantial value. The IRS also says disclosure is not required when the donor makes a payment of $75 or less (per year) and the exchange is only membership benefits that equate to, “Any rights or privileges (other than the right to purchase tickets for college athletic events) that the taxpayer can exercise often during the membership period, such as free or discounted admissions or parking or preferred access to goods or services.” The contribution can also stay undisclosed if the good/service is, “Admission to events that are open only to members and the cost per person of which is within the limits for low-cost.”

Basics of What Donors Need to Know

woman in winter with scarf

As a donor, if you’re making a contribution to an organization and receive something in exchange, know that it’s almost like you’re paying for the good/service you receive, but then can deduct the rest of the contribution.

Let’s say you make a charitable contribution of $100 to a 501(c)(3) organization that helps mistreated farm animals. To celebrate their anniversary, the organization is offering donors that gift $80 or more a large coffee table book filled with stories, poems, and photographs of the animals the organization has helped over the years. The book’s fair market value is $30. This FMV is based on the price if you were to buy it outright from the organization’s online shop. In this situation you as a donor would need to receive a written disclosure detailing your contribution amount ($100), FMV of the good (the book) received ($30), and the portion that is considered a tax-deductible charitable contribution amount ($70).

Even though the tax-deductible charitable contribution amount is $70 (less than the $75 threshold), the total donation was $100, so the charity is still required to provide a written disclosure.

Whether you’re a donor or a nonprofit leader, I’m here to help promote and maximize charitable giving in Iowa. Questions about written disclosure compliance or FMV calculation? Don’t hesitate to contact me.

We’re now well into the 25 Days of Giving Series and it’s my intent to provide different aspects and strategies of charitable giving. Given that it’s the season of joy, sharing, and love it’s a great time to be thinking about smart giving (the kind that doesn’t involve gift wrappings, stockings, or bows). Read on to learn how the charitable remainder trust could be a valuable giving tool. 

Charitable Remainder Trust, defined

A charitable remainder trust (CRT) is a split interest trust that pays out income to one or more non-charitable beneficiaries for life (or lives) or a term of years not to exceed twenty. The selected payout rate may not be less than 5%, and no more than 50%, of fair market value (FMV) of assets originally placed in trust. At the end of the trust term, the remaining trust assets (the remainder interest) is distributed to charity selected by the donor; the actuarial value of the charity’s remainder interest must be at least 10% at the time of the trust’s creation.

Benefits of a CRT

  1. Note that a useful attribute of a CRT is flexibility. Although Donor’s transfer of property to the trust is irrevocable, a CRT provides for Donor the right to change charitable beneficiaries.
  2. Note also the tax benefits of a CRT. Donor may receive a federal income tax charitable deduction for the value of the remainder interest in the year of the transfer, Donor may transfer assets without recognition of capital gain tax, and there is no estate tax on the property passing to Charity.

Two forms: CRAT and CRUT

CRTs take one of two forms: a charitable remainder annuity trust (CRAT) or a charitable remainder unitrust (CRUT). There are important differences:

A CRAT pays an annuity to the income beneficiary at a selected payout rate that is a percentage of the assets valued at the time of the trust creation. Additional contributions to the trust are not permitted.

A CRUT pays a percentage of the annual value of the trust assets, a unitrust amount, to the income beneficiary. Additional contributions to the trust are permitted.

Variations of CRUTs

Several variations of the CRUT are permitted under the Internal Revenue Code:

  1. A Net-Income CRUT (NICRUT) permits the trustee to distribute an annual payment that is the lesser of the specified percentage of value in that year, or the net income actually earned by the trust in that year.
  2. A NIMCRUT is a CRUT with a net-income limitation subject to a make-up provision. Like a NICRUT, the terms of a NIMCRUT direct the Trustee to pay the lesser of the specified percentage of the value of the trust assets in that year or the net income actually earned by the trust in that year. However, if the payout is less than the specified percentage is paid out in one or more years, the accumulated “income deficits” will be made up in a subsequent year from the excess income above what is the specified percentage of the value of the trust assets in that year.
  3. A Flip CRUT permits the trust to begin its existence as a NICRUT or NIMCRUT, then “flip” into a standard CRUT on the occurrence of a specific triggering event, as provided in the trust document. The flip option is attractive when Donor wishes to donate to the CRUT illiquid or hard-to-market assets, such as real estate or closely held stock.

 

butterfly on finger

​Knowing if the CRT is a best choice for your charitable giving can be difficult, so I advise speaking with your trusted professional advisors to evaluate your situation. This concept can be confusing, so don’t hesitate to reach out for more information and explore how a charitable remainder trust could be beneficial to you. Feel free to contact me at any time at Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or by phone at 515-371-6077.

#GivingTuesday world

The mission of Gordon Fischer Law Firm is to maximize charitable giving in Iowa. To that end we work with nonprofits on legal compliance and training for accepting gifts (especially complex ones) as well was the donors who want to give to their favorite organizations and causes. Small Business Saturday is great for the community and Cyber Monday is fun, but the post-Thanksgiving “day” we look forward to the most is #GivingTuesday.

Created by the Belfer Center for Innovation & Social Impact at the 92nd Street Y in New York, along with the United Nations Foundation, in 2012, #GivingTuesday is a celebration for support of philanthropy and giving. Social media has helped grow the event into a global occasion, connecting countries, organizations, and donors around the world.

#GivingTuesday marks the middle of the seasonal giving system—33% of charitable donations consumers occurs year-round. Whether you’re prepping your nonprofit’s activities, messaging, and events for #GivingTuesday or are a donor preparing to give (and encourage others to do the same) let’s take a look at some stats from last year (2017) that show the enormous impact #GivingTuesday has.

All year, not just on #GivingTuesday, GFLF is thrilled to work with nonprofit organizations on elements of operations including, but certainly not limited to;

  • Training of nonprofit boards and staff and educating on charitable giving tools and techniques;
  • Employment law guidance for nonprofits including advice about hiring and firing, and drafting of policies and procedures;
  • Handling compliance issues, like forming a 501(c)3 and Form 990 reporting; and
  • Working with nonprofit and donors on complex gifts.

If your nonprofit is interested in any such services, I offer a free consultation!

#GivingTuesday is a reminder that, against the backdrop of the “busy” of the holiday season, the spirit of giving is thriving. Want to talk charitable giving? Reach out anytime by email or phone (515-371-6077)

2018-giving-tuesday

After the onslaught of Black Friday advertising and Cyber Monday announcements filling up your inbox, Giving Tuesday (November 27 this year) feels like a breath of fresh (wintery) air from the shopping rush. The “holiday,” often known by its social media tag of #GivingTuesday, is all about celebrating generosity and philanthropy. Giving charitably to your favorite organizations feels great and allows you to make a difference in your community, state, and the world. But, you also want to make sure your gift is legally compliant and beneficial, particularly for those who are “bunching” their donations to claim the charitable deduction on federal income taxes

Before you donate on #GivingTuesday (or any other day) consider these legal tips:

Make Sure the Charity is Qualified

A charitable deduction can result in significant tax savings, but for that to occur, the donation must be made to a qualified 501(c)(3). While that may sound basic, some initiatives may look like nonprofits but actually operate as a business, not a tax-exempt organization. A little bit of research can go a long way here. First, read up about the organization in question online and don’t hesitate to call to speak to a representative. You can also use the IRS’ Exempt Organizations Select Check; limit the search to organizations eligible for tax-deductible charitable contributions.

(If your favorite organization is in need of assistance for obtaining tax-deductible status, don’t hesitate to reach out.)

#GivingTuesday What Will You Give?

Sufficient Documentation

Proper documentation is required in order to take the charitable contribution deduction for contributions of $250 or more. This means you need written acknowledgement that expresses the required info of the donee (charity), date of donation, and monetary amount. It’s your legal obligation as the donor to ask for the written acknowledgement, not the charity’s obligation to offer it.

Here’s a simple breakdown of what’s needed for specific types of giving-

  • Gifts of less than $250 per donee — you need a cancelled check or receipt
  • $250 or more per donee — you need a timely written acknowledgement from the donee
  • Total deductions for all property exceeds $500 — you need to file IRS Form 8283
  • Deductions exceeding $5,000 per item — you need a qualified appraisal completed by a qualified appraiser

Need more info? I go into detail about appraisers in this blog post.

Restrict in Writing

If you feel strongly about a specific program, region of operation, or use within the nonprofit, you’ll want to restrict the charitable donation. The restriction must be made in writing, at the same time as the donation is made.

Going Global

#GivingTuesday has expanded greatly since its founding in NYC to become a global event. You may hold a foreign-based charitable organization near and dear to you heart and, of course, you may give to that organization, however your donation won’t qualify for a charitable tax deduction

Background Research

I work with my estate planning clients on defining their goals for their future and assets. The same baseline advice applies to charitable giving—what are your goals? Do the organizations you are donating to support your giving goals? Look at materials published by  One way to gauge this is by reviewing the nonprofit’s annual information on its Form 990, “Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax.” This form is intended for the public and includes important financial info. The IRS publishes Form 990 and it’s easy to check out the details on Guidestar, a nonprofit database.


If you have any questions on how to give charitably and do so wisely, don’t hesitate to reach out. Maximizing charitable giving in Iowa is the mission of Gordon Fischer Law Firm and we want to help as many Iowans give confidently as we can!

compass over land

Forming a new nonprofit can involve a lot of organization and decision making. There are some essentials you need to put in place, including two important documents—articles of incorporation and bylaws. We recently discussed what these legal documents should entail on the blog. I would be remiss if I didn’t also explain a couple mistakes I run across when reviewing nonprofits’ articles and bylaws.

volunteers walking in field

DIY Internet-Sourced Documents

Some nonprofits pull their articles of incorporation and bylaws from the Internet. These may or may not have all the Iowa-specific info required. Also, there may be provisions that simply don’t apply. For example, if a “regular” nonprofit copies governing documents from a granting nonprofit, like a community foundation, there’s sure to be language that doesn’t fit.

Pulling articles of incorporation off the web may seem cheap and time-saving, upfront. But, if mistakes and oversights from the template render the document ineffective or lacking legal requirements, you’ll be way worse off than if you just enlisted a nonprofit attorney to draft your articles suited to your organization’s unique needs, goals, and mission.

Misplaced Provisions

This may go along with copying off the web. There are sometimes provisions in bylaws and articles that belong somewhere else—the governing documents aren’t the proper place for them. For example, I sometimes see employee rules in articles/bylaws. Generally speaking, employment provisions belong in an employee handbook or employee contract. The same goes for certain policies and procedures such as those on document retention and the whistleblower process. A nonprofit should definitely have these policies, but they don’t fit in the foundational documents.

arrow to the left

So, How Do I Go About Avoiding Mistakes in my Formational Documents?

Each organization is unique and it’s wise to enlist someone (like an attorney well-versed in nonprofit law!) to draft a quality, comprehensive set of documents personalized for your particular situation.

Questions? Want to learn more about turning your dream of an organization that makes a significant impact or positive change? Grab my complimentary Nonprofit Formation Guide and then contact GFLF for a free consult!

nonprofit leader at table

When forming a new nonprofit there are really two must-have documents you need to get the dream off the ground. Those two documents are articles of incorporation and bylaws. Of course, there are other important documents you will need, but it’s good to tackle first things first!

Recently on the blog we explored the state and federal requirements and best practices for articles of incorporation. Now, let’s learn about bylaws!

What Exactly Are Bylaws?

Undoubtedly you’ve at least heard of or read through a set bylaws. But, what does this document do? Effective bylaws should do the following:

  • serve as the internal operating rules of a nonprofit.
  • specify processes like the election process of directors and operation of meetings.
  • resolve any uncertainty between board members on issues of correct process.

Do Bylaws Need to be Filed or Adopted?

Unlike articles of incorporation, bylaws are not filed with any government entity like the Iowa Secretary of State. However, Iowa law does require that the initial bylaws of a nonprofit be adopted by its board of directors.

A nonprofit’s bylaws should address the high level governing decisions that founding board members deem non-negotiable for the organization’s success. Here are a few provisions that great bylaws often include:

  • Purpose for organization
  • Board structure
  • Official meeting requirements
  • Terms of board service for officers
  • Officer position descriptions
  • Procedure for officer/board member succession and removal
  • Provisions for membership (if any)
  • Voting rights

Another essential element that can be mistakenly forgotten is a paragraph for amending the bylaws in the future. Times change and the circumstances of how your organization can do the most good can shift. In such a case your board will want to rely on the procedure for amendments outlined in the bylaws to reflect the transition.

Regularly Review and Reference

Again, an organization’s bylaws are like an internal roadmap if there’s any question of structure or procedure. As fiduciaries of the organization, board members should re-read the bylaws at least annually for sustainable good governance. Of course, brand new board members should be provided with a copy as a part of their board orientation.

What About All the Other Documents I Need?

At this point you may be skeptical that you just need two documents–articles of incorporation and bylaws. What about all the other documents you’re certain you need to have? It’s a valid question and to obtain and maintain qualified tax-exempt status there’s certainly more “paperwork” to be done:

So, How Do I Go About Drafting Bylaws

There is much more to be said on bylaws as they can and should be tailored to your individual organization. It’s a wise investment to enlist a professional (like an attorney well-versed in nonprofit law!) to draft quality, comprehensive bylaws personalized for your nonprofit’s needs, mission, and goals.

Questions? Want to learn more about turning your dream of an organization that makes a significant impact or positive change? Grab my complimentary Nonprofit Formation Guide and then contact GFLF for a free consult!

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To get the ball rolling in forming a tax-exempt charitable organization there are just two main documents to put in place. Seriously, just two–articles of incorporation and bylaws. Let’s start with exploring the components of what should be in your nonprofit’s articles of incorporation. (We’ll dig into bylaws in another post!)

Articles of Incorporation

Think of articles of incorporation as the constitution of your nonprofit. While articles of incorporation can be fairly short, there are some necessary elements required under both Iowa and federal law to gain and retain that golden tax-exempt status.

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Legal Requirements in Iowa for a Nonprofit’s Articles of Incorporation

Under Iowa law, articles of incorporation for a nonprofit must contain the following:

A corporate name which satisfies two requirements.

First, the corporate name must be distinguishable from any other nonprofit or business authorized to do business in Iowa. In other words, the name must be different and unique from all other names – even if it’s different by just a single letter. For example, no one could incorporate using the name, “Gordon Fischer Law Firm.” But if there were another lawyer with my name, he could legally incorporate simply by naming his business, “Gordon R. Fischer Law Firm,” or “The Gordon Fischer Law Firm.”

The second requirement is that the name does not contain language stating or implying that the corporation is organized for an unlawful purpose. To take an extreme example, “The Nonprofit Association of Heroin Dealers” would not be a proper name (in addition to many other legal issues!).

The address of the corporation’s initial registered office and the name of its initial registered agent at that office.

The “registered agent” is a legal name for “contact person”–the person who will be mailed if there’s any sort of problem or issue with the corporation. The “initial registered office” is simply that person’s (the registered agent’s) physical address, like a home address. It cannot be a PO Box; it must be a street address.

Be certain that the registered agent is responsible and involved. There can be obvious, profoundly negative consequences if the Iowa Secretary of State, or a taxing and/or regulatory agency (like the IRS) were to mail to the registered agent, and the registered agent doesn’t see the mail, and/or doesn’t provide the mail to the organization.

The name and address of each incorporator.

The “incorporator” is a legal term meaning the founder(s); the person(s) responsible for starting the nonprofit.

Whether or not the nonprofit will have members.

Unlike a regular corporation, a nonprofit does not have stockholders. (Of course, this is because nonprofits do not issue stock.) Instead, nonprofit can choose to have “members.” A formal “membership” structure often grants members certain basic rights, such as the power to vote for directors and approve a sale or merger. Most nonprofits (especially smaller ones) do not have members, due to the additional paperwork and required formalities. Instead, most nonprofits instead rely on their board of directors. In any case, a nonprofit must formally declare in their articles whether or not it will have members.

Provisions not inconsistent with law regarding the distribution of assets on dissolution.

When a nonprofit dissolves (i.e., terminates), any remaining assets must be distributed to another nonprofit (or government entity for a public purpose). No individual or group can be unduly enriched when a nonprofit ends. And, if you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. Folks contribute to a nonprofit to support its tax-exempt purposes, they wouldn’t want their funds to end up supporting non-charitable purposes.

An incorporator must sign and file the articles of incorporation.

The articles of incorporation must be filed with the Iowa Secretary of State’s office (and the ISOS will check that all the requirements above are met before filing is allowed). Currently, the filing fee is $20.00.

Federal Legal Requirements for a Nonprofit’s Articles of Incorporation

Of course, like all organizations, a nonprofit is governed by both state and federal law. Simplifying a bit, the IRS has two major requirements for a nonprofit’s initial governing documents.

  1. The articles of incorporation must limit the nonprofit’s purposes to exempt purposes set forth in Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3). The exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3) are “charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals.” An explicit reference or citation to 501(c)(3) and one or more exempt purposes is sufficient to meet this requirement.
  2. In addition, an organization’s assets must be permanently dedicated to an exempt purpose. This means that if an organization dissolves, its assets must be distributed for an exempt purpose pursuant to 501(c)(3), or to the federal or state government or a local government entity, for a public purpose.

Amended and Restated Articles of Incorporation

No doubt some of you are thinking, hey, we already have articles of incorporation! Sure, we may need better articles, or improved articles, but we do have them.

In such cases, when a nonprofit wants to update or revise current articles, the organization files with the Iowa Secretary of State what is known as “amended and restated articles of incorporation.” These amended and restated articles completely supplant the earlier articles.

If filing amended and restated articles, Iowa law requires a statement in the document to the affect that all the amendments, changes, revisions, etc. are reflected in this new, single document. To meet this requirement, I use this statement:

“I [the incorporator] hereby certify that these Amended and Restated Articles of Incorporation consolidate all amendments into this single document.”

So, How Do I Go About Getting Articles of Incorporation

Each organization is unique and it’s smart to enlist someone (like an attorney well-versed in nonprofit law!) to draft a quality, comprehensive set of articles personalized for your nonprofit’s needs, mission, and goals.

Questions? Want to learn more about turning your dream of an organization that makes a significant impact or positive change? Grab my complimentary Nonprofit Formation Guide and then contact GFLF for a free consult!