Nonprofit Radio: Halloween Edition

Halloween children

I’m discussing Scary Scenarios for nonprofits with host Tony Martignetti on Nonprofit Radio this Friday, October 31, at 10 am PT / 1 pm ET. We hope you’ll join us as we talk about employee lawsuits, IRS Audits, excess benefit transaction penalties, and more!

UPDATE: If you missed us live, you can listen to the taped podcast here or on iTunes.

nonprofit radio

Red Flag Story: see if you can spot the potential problems …

Sara was on her way to a nonprofit board meeting when she ran out of gas on a dimly lit road. She was still 10 miles away from her destination without a building in sight. And she forgot her phone at home. The meeting would be starting in an hour and there appeared no way for her to make it in time.


Steadying her breath, Sara assessed the situation. It would be foolish to walk. But there were no other cars on the road, and she really had to get to that meeting.


The board was going to vote on a proposed contract with Sara to provide management services, as an independent contractor, operating the nonprofit’s newly launched social enterprise program, a bar whose profits would be used to fund the nonprofit’s charitable programs. A few days earlier, the board appeared to be split on the decision. Those in favor of the deal cited Sara’s experience and social network. Those against the deal cited the conflict of interest because of Sara’s position as a board member. With the other board members divided 50:50 on approval of the contract, Sara’s would be the determining vote.


Sara’s proposal involved her working full-time as manager of the new bar. She would be paid $10,000 per month, which was comparable to her pay as manager of one of the swankiest hotel bars in the city. In return, she would offer her services and provide to the organization the hotel bar’s contact list, which the nonprofit could use to solicit business.


As the meeting time approached, Sara powered on her laptop hoping for a wifi signal. Surprisingly, she found one, allowing her to send an email to the board chair stating that she was voting in favor of the contract.


Shortly after the meeting was over, Sara was informed by reply email that the contract was approved with 4 votes in favor (including Sara’s) and 3 against, with 3 absentee directors not voting. The next day, Sara rewarded herself with a new car.

Read on for a list of the potential problems … (more…)


Nonprofit Crowdfunding Risks

crowd funding word cloud

The popularity of nonprofit crowdfunding is undeniable. Last year alone, it is estimated that $5 billion was raised through global crowdfunding with about 30 percent of that total going to social causes. While that figure pales in comparison to the approximately $300 billion raised by charities in the US over the same time period, the number of donation and reward-based crowdfunding has increased by more than 85 percent worldwide in 2012 over the previous year. And it is expected to continue to grow.

With all of the excitement around nonprofit crowdfunding, it is easy to overlook some of the potential risks to this fundraising model.

Charitable Solicitation Registration

Fundraising on popular crowdfunding platforms, such as Indiegogo and GoFundMe, allows nonprofits to broaden their support base. An organization can be operating in San Francisco, and receive funds from an individual in New York City as a result of its crowdfunding campaign. This type of fundraising allows an organization to gain national exposure with very little upfront capital. However, it also potentially exposes the organization to the jurisdiction of every state where it is deemed to engage in charitable solicitation based on its crowdfunding efforts.

Currently, thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have laws governing charitable solicitation. Each state has its own unique laws and regulations regarding what qualifies as solicitation as well as the when registration is required. For example, California law defines “solicitation for charitable purposes,” as any request, plea, entreaty, demand or invitation to give money or property in connection with an appeal for charitable purposes or in which the name of the nonprofit is used as an inducement for making a gift or in which any statement is made that the gift will be used for charitable purposes. Under New York law, “solicit” includes a direct or indirect request for a contribution, whether expressed or implied, through any medium. A strict reading of most state laws regarding charitable solicitations within a particular jurisdiction would likely require a nonprofit to register.

Most states require registration by an organization before making any charitable solicitation within the state. California, however, does not require registration until an organization receives funds or property for charitable purposes and then, it must register within 30 days of receiving the qualifying charitable assets.

The failure to register can result in both civil and criminal penalties and vary among the states. Potential penalties include state fines, requiring the nonprofit to return all solicited funds or ordering the nonprofit to cease soliciting donations within the state until registration is completed.

As you can see, there are distinctions to each state’s charitable solicitation laws. It could be quite burdensome for a small nonprofit to comply with the charitable solicitation laws of all of the applicable jurisdictions, but the penalties for failing to comply can be costly. In addition, the IRS now requires nonprofits to provide information about their state registrations on their Form 990, the annual reporting return that certain federally tax-exempt organizations must file with the IRS. If a nonprofit files an incomplete or inaccurate Form 990, the IRS can impose harsh financial penalties.

There has been some debate as to whether internet activity, such as fundraising on crowdfunding platforms, triggers state solicitation registration requirements. Some guidance is provided under the Charleston Principles, nonbinding principles drafted by the National Association of State Charity Officials (NASCO) in 2001.

Under the Charleston Principles, a nonprofit would be required to register for online charitable solicitations if the nonprofit solicits donations through an “interactive website”; and the nonprofit either: (i) “specifically targets persons” located in the subject state for solicitation; or (ii) receives contributions from the state on a “repeated and ongoing basis or a substantial basis” through its website.

Even if a nonprofit could argue that it did not solicit charitable funds within a state through its crowdfunding campaign, the follow up communication from the nonprofit to the donor, whether it be by email or letter (including the letter verifying the tax deductible donation) would be considered to target a resident of that state and would trigger the registration requirement.

Commercial Fundraisers

Under California law, a commercial fundraiser is a person or corporation paid by a nonprofit to raise money on the nonprofit’s behalf. The nonprofit pays the for-profit business either a flat fee or a percentage of the donations collected in the nonprofit’s name. A commercial fundraiser must register with the Attorney General’s Registry of Charitable Trust before soliciting charitable funds.

In my previous post, Crowdfunding Platforms & Commercial Fundraisers, I wrote that many of the well-known crowdfunding sites, such as Indiegogo and GoFundMe, do not appear to meet the California definition of a commercial fundraiser as they do not actively solicit funds on behalf of nonprofits, nor do they on their own, or through a compensated person, actually receive or controls the funds solicited by individuals or organizations for charitable purposes. However, with the large number of crowdfunding platforms in existence, a nonprofit may unwittingly campaign on a platform that falls within the definition of a regulated commercial fundraiser because it receives or controls the funds raised.

A commercial fundraiser typically has several of its own registration and reporting requirements. In addition, it may be required to enter into a written contract for each solicitation campaign, event, or service. A nonprofit may not be permitted to contract with any unregistered commercial fundraiser to solicit for charitable purposes and will be required to exercise oversight over the campaigns operated on its behalf. The Attorney General has the discretion to impose fines and other penalties, including civil and criminal actions, on nonprofits and unregistered commercial fundraisers who do not comply with the law.

Fraud and Misrepresentation

Nonprofits and commercial fundraisers are prohibited from misrepresenting the purpose of the charitable organization or the nature or purpose or beneficiary of a solicitation. Misrepresentation may be established by word, by conduct, or by failure to disclose a material fact. They are also prohibited from engaging in fraud or using any deceptive practice that creates a likelihood of confusion or misunderstanding.

The attorney general can file a lawsuit against a nonprofit or a commercial fundraiser who engage in misrepresentations or fraud while soliciting for charitable purposes. Earlier this year, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed the first consumer action lawsuit over a project by an individual who failed to deliver a promised horror-themed decks of cards to individuals who crowdfunded his project on Kickstarter. Although this lawsuit was not against a nonprofit or commercial fundraiser, it does show that state lawmakers are paying attention to crowdfunding activities and are willing to bring suit against defrauders.

Nonprofits also should be aware that unscrupulous individuals may engage in unauthorized or fraudulent crowdfunding campaigns using the nonprofit’s name. To avoid fraud and misrepresentations, organizations should provide clear guidelines for crowdfunding as part of their overall gift acceptance policy. They should also provide individual supporters with clear messaging guidelines and ensure that these guidelines are followed. Many of these sites, including Indiegogo, allow for a “Verified Nonprofit Campaign,” badge to be placed on the campaign page to certify to contributors that funds will go directly to a verified nonprofit. Again, not all crowdfunding platforms will offer such a service, and therefore, it is important for organizations to provide individual supporters with clear guidance for campaigning on their behalf.

Crowdfunding can be a wonderful tool and resource for nonprofits to raise funds, but nonprofit leaders should be aware of potential associated legal risks and be prepared to comply with the laws of several jurisdictions.

Resources [UPDATED 4/11/15]

Regulation of Charities by the California Attorney General

Solicitation and Collection of Funds for Charitable Purposes (State of New York)

State Charitable Solicitation Registration Requirements (Asiatico & Associates, PLLC)

Fundraising Registration – Does Your Nonprofit Need to Register? (Nolo)

A Moving Target: The regulation of online fundraising platforms – The Nonprofit Times (3/13/15)

Every Little Bit Counts: Crowdfunding for Nonprofits – The Law Project (1/21/15)


Michelle Baker is is a San Francisco-based attorney interested in social impact.


Fraud: Protecting Your Nonprofit


Following up on our earlier post on fraud in the nonprofit sector, here are some tips for preventing fraud and the diversion of charitable assets:

  1. Create a Strong Policy Against Fraud:  Organizations should create comprehensive and forceful policies that go beyond the words on paper. The policies should incorporate reporting mechanisms and real consequences for violations. The policy should also be tailored to the specific nonprofit, explained in detail to all employees when training, and revisited yearly for effectiveness. Additionally, the board of directors must ensure that fraud reports are taken seriously, and that outside legal counsel is brought in when appropriate.
  2. Implement a Culture of Honesty and Ethics:  In addition to an anti-fraud policy, organizations should prepare a code of conduct that incorporates a zero tolerance for unethical behavior by volunteers, employees, officers, and directors. This code should be trained, exhibited, and reinforced within every aspect of the organization, especially at the top in order to set the example.
  3. Encourage Whistleblowing:  Employees are unlikely to report theft or mismanagement if they believe that their jobs are in jeopardy. Implementing anti-retaliation protections and providing a fraud hotline for anonymous reporting may provide confidence to employees exposing abuse.
  4. Conduct Internal and External Audits:  Every effective policy requires oversight. The board of directors should establish an audit committee responsible for reviewing the organization’s financials, as well monitoring the anti-fraud policies. One suggestion for the audit committee is to conduct surprise or unplanned audits. In addition to supervision by the nonprofit’s management and board of directors, nonprofits may also engage in regular external audits by hiring a CPA or an attorney.
  5. Check Backgrounds:  Consider conducting background checks on new employees or volunteer leaders.  Pre-screening potential employees may be helpful in assessing whether the candidate has a criminal record, prior history of fraud, or heavy debts that may make fraudulent activity a bit more likely.
  6. Separate Cash Handling Duties:  Ensure that no single employee is responsible for handling cash, issuing checks, or reconciling financials.  Instead, require two signatures on checks and have at least two individuals count money and verify receipts.
  7. Prepare Responses:  Organizations should contemplate the consequences for and responses to fraudulent activities. This includes responding to small mistakes or grave deceptions, both privately within the organization and publicly to the community.

Stay turned for our next post on fraud, which will focus on what to do if your organization is victimized by fraud.


Traps for the Unwary: ABA Bar Leadership Institute 2014


I have the honor of presenting the workshop “Traps for the Unwary” at the American Bar Association Bar Leadership Institute in Chicago on March 13:

Leaders of bar associations need to be particularly attentive to risks related to the governance and operations of their organizations and how to identify and mitigate such risks. This program will explore some of the most common and noteworthy risks, including those related to board oversight, delegation of authority, conflicts of interest, contracts, employees, social media and fraud. Sound policies and plans and heightened attention to risk management will allow bar associations to better advance their missions, and bar leaders to better fulfill their roles.

Some issues I’ll address with bar association leaders:

  • How do you and your board establish the tone at the top?
  • Are you delegating responsibilities and authority with due care and oversight?
  • Do you have, implement and enforce policies regarding signing contracts and checks?
  • How do you mitigate risks of employee-related liability?
  • Are you aware of the risks of fraud and your organization’s weaknesses in preventing fraud?
  • Do your policies regarding social media use reflect thoughtfulness and care in utilizing this powerful and increasingly important vehicle?
  • Did you know you could have antitrust risks related to price-fixing or boycotting?
  • What’s UBIT and why is that important?
  • How much overlap can we have between our 501(c)(6) bar association and 501(c)(3) affiliated foundation?

My presentation materials are available online on the ABA website here.



Nonprofit Radio: Fraud!




I’ll be on Tony Martignetti Nonprofit Radio on Friday, March 7, 2014, talking with Tony about fraud and what nonprofits should do to prevent and possibly report fraud. Listen in live here or catch us on iTunes.

A nonprofit victimized by fraud can find itself doubly harmed by (1) the direct loss resulting from the fraud and (2) news reports that characterize the nonprofit as untrustworthy or its leaders as culpable. It should be no surprise that the media loves to expose and publish stories about fraudulent activities in trusted organizations. And unfortunately, those stories often infer that the sector as a whole is plagued by fraud and widespread diversions of charitable assets.

Take for example this headline from a Washington Post article that created public outrage: Inside the hidden world of thefts, scams and phantom purchases at the nation’s nonprofits (10/26/13). Among the provoking statements made in the article:

A Washington Post analysis of filings from 2008 to 2012 found that [the American Legacy Foundation] is one of more than 1,000 nonprofit organizations that checked the box indicating that they had discovered a “significant diversion” of assets, disclosing losses attributed to theft, investment fraud, embezzlement and other unauthorized uses of funds. …


The diversions drained hundreds of millions of dollars from institutions that are underwritten by public donations and government funds. Just 10 of the largest disclosures identified by The Post cited combined losses to nonprofit groups and their affiliates that potentially totaled more than a half-billion dollars. …


The Post found that nonprofits routinely omitted important details from their public filings, leaving the public to guess what had happened — even though federal disclosure instructions direct nonprofit groups to explain the circumstances. About half the organizations did not disclose the total amount lost. …


The findings are striking because organizations are required to report only diversions of more than $250,000 or those identified as having exceeded 5 percent of an organization’s annual gross receipts or total assets.

And here are some of the criticisms of the article:

In The Washington Post story, the reporters had access to more than a million tax forms nonprofits filed over four years. They found that 1,000 nonprofits checked yes in response to a question on those returns about whether their group had suffered a “diversion of assets.”


Using that tiny percentage, the article then gave the misimpression that the nonprofit world is rife with “financial skullduggery,” when in fact it was the approximately 1,000 nonprofits themselves that were the victims of scams by for-profit vendors, employee theft, and outside investment advisers.

Tim DelaneyNonprofits Must Respond Swiftly to Critical News Stories, The Chronicle of Philanthropy

[T]he lure [of the Washington Post’s headline] implies that the nonprofits are involved in and parties to these “thefts, scams and phantom purchases,” as opposed to victims of people inside or outside of the organizations who were quite intent on plundering charitable resources. It looks to the Nonprofit Quarterly that the diversions reported in the article are nonprofits that had been cheated by employees, vendors, and outside financial advisors, but not engaged in trying to cheat donors or the public. …


A common problem in the press is the lumping of all 501(c) organizations into a broad “nonprofit” category, as though the problems or issues the press might find are problems of public charities. The Washington Post list combines all kinds of groups, many of which are not 501(c)(3) public charities. A striking number of the groups in the Washington Post spreadsheet were labor unions (501(c)(5) organizations) and fraternal organizations (501(c)(10) organizations).

Rick CohenWashington Post Diversions Piece: What it Really Means, The Nonprofit Quarterly

Personally, I believe that charitable nonprofits are not plagued by fraud any worse than the for-profit sector. And the public’s higher trust in the nonprofit sector than in the public or for-profit sectors is well placed. But that is not to say at all that charities are excused from taking reasonable steps to prevent losses from fraud, properly report any diversions of assets, and/or obtain restitution.

In an opinion piece for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Pablo Eisenberg responded to the critics of the Washington Post piece by stating:

What the critics seem to have forgotten is that nonprofit boards and executive directors have responsibility for the activities of their organizations, including the actions of their employees and investment advisers. We should expect leaders at nonprofits nationwide to be tightening their oversight to assure no unscrupulous activity is occurring. Donors should be demanding nothing less: It is their money that has been diverted in most cases, and when it isn’t, it’ s their tax money that went first to nonprofits and then to con artists.

Stay tuned for tips about addressing the risks and occurrences of fraud after the show.


Alliance for Community Media National Conference (Part One)



I have the great pleasure of speaking with Syvia Strobel (ACM) and Deborah Vinsel (Thurston Community Television) at the 2013 Alliance for Community Media National Conference on Wednesday, May 29. Our session description follows:: 

Nuts and Bolts of Nonprofits and Their People

Nonprofit organizations provide critical services, but often do so with limited resources and little time to assess legal risks and obligations. Nonprofit executive must balance their day with managing a board of directors and overseeing staff and volunteers. This workshop will provide an overview of key issues in people management, board governance, UBIT and other timely nonprofit issues. Come hear from seasoned professionals on best practices and areas of risk for our organization.

This post includes resources I'll refer to during our session.

Key Issues in People Management

Independent Contractor vs. Employee: Don't Want to Get This Wrong

Organizations must recognize how to tell whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee. And it's not just a matter of how an organization chooses to classify the worker. There are federal and state laws that inform how a worker must be classified. See Independent Contractor (Self-Employed) or Employee? and IRS Publication 1779: Independent Contractor or Employee; and in California, Independent Contractor or Employee).

Too often I hear that an uninformed employer is hiring independent contractors instead of employees because it can't afford employees. Yet, the hired workers are working full-time, indefinitely, and exclusively for the employer; they are managed on what must be done and how to do it; and they work without negotiated written contracts. In other words, they are legally employees, and the employer may be fined for failing to withhold employment taxes, breaching wage and hour laws (e.g., minimum wage, overtime, breaks), and failing to implement and/or enforce anti-discrimination and retaliation laws that may apply only to employees. In addition, the employer may find themselves unprotected by what might be very expensive workers' compensation claims. See New Crackdown on Using Independent Contractors (and the Ten Consequences of Reclassifying Independent Contractors as Employees hyperlink within the article) by Robert W. Wood (Forbes).

Organizations that may have gotten the classification wrong in the past but want to correctly classify certain independent contractors as employees going forward may be eligible to do so through the IRS Voluntary Classification Settlement Program. Forbes provides a summary of the program in this article about the amnesty program available through June 30, 2013.


Exempt vs. Non-exempt Employee: Why is This Important?

Exempt employees are those exempt from overtime pay. Non-exempt employees must be paid overtime, subject to applicable federal and state laws. Again, it's not up to the employer to classify a particular employee as exempt or non-exempt simply based on what the employer wants. There are federal and state laws that inform how an employee must be classified. See Fact Sheet #17A: Exemption for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Computer & Outside Sales Employees Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

See also Classifying Employees Correctly (National Council of Nonprofits)


Volunteer, Intern or Employee?

At first blush, it might seem simple to distinguish between a volunteer and an employee. But such distinction gets much more difficult to make when an organization pays a "stipend" to the volunteer. If the stipend is compensation for services, the paid individual may not be a volunteer and, if the payment is for regularly rendered services, may be an employee. Improper classification can raise many of the same issues described above for improperly classifying an employee as an independent contractor.

It is possible that the payment of a stipend to a volunteer may not convert the volunteer to an employee if the stipend is considered a reimbursement of certain types of expenses, a de minimis fringe benefit, or a nominal fee for service. Note that a Wage and Hour Opinion Letter (FLSA2006-28) expressed that the Department of Labor will presume that a fee paid to a volunteer is nominal as long as the fee does not exceed twenty percent of what an organization would otherwise pay to hire a full-time employee for the same services. However, organizations paying stipends to volunteers should confer with an employment/tax attorney for counsel regarding these issues.

A person receiving payment from a nonprofit may also fall under the classification of intern. Interns are also not employees and not subject to minimum wage and overtime laws under the FLSA if they meet the 6-factor test. See Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act and Legalities of Nonprofit Internships (Blue Avocado), which discusses the practical difficulties of meeting factor 4 ("The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded"). A nonprofit may seek to recognize a person receiving a stipend as only an intern as opposed to a volunteer (or volunteer intern) when such person is working in a commercial (unrelated business) activity run by the nonprofit.


Additional Resources:

  • Nonprofit Interns (National Council of Nonprofits)
  • Volunteers and Interns (Law For Change)
  • Employee or Volunteer: What’s the Difference? (Nonprofit Risk Management Center) – includes a discussion of the issues created by having an employee also volunteer for his or her employer. Note that if the employee ever says he or she was coerced to volunteer (a possibly very significant risk if the employee is ever terminated or disgruntled), the organization may face serious legal troubles.

Also see Part Two and Part Three of this series of posts.


ADRP Keynote: What You Can Learn From Recent Nonprofit Scandals

Scandal 3
Everyone loves a good scandal. That's why they fill our newspapers, television programs, and popular websites. But scandals in the nonprofit sector result in diminished or discontinued services, laid off employees, penalties imposed on responsible persons, publicly embarassed board members, and the death of organizations. They also result in a loss of public trust and can lead to substantial changes in the law.

On April 2, 2013, I had the great pleasure of presenting as the keynote speaker for an Association of Donor Relations Professionals Regional Workshop. The topic:  What You Can Learn From Recent Nonprofit Scandals.

Here are 7 key points from my presentation:

  • Board composition and numbers matter; guard against founder's syndrome
  • Policies are important but must be understood, implemented and enforced
  • Public perception is critical – be careful of conflicts of interest and sweetheart transactions, even if they are not unlawful – be responsive 
  • Communications responding to crises that are only CYA pieces will not fool the public
  • Delegate, but only with due care and proper oversight (e.g., reporting)
  • Outside assistance can be invaluable (e.g., audits, legal opinions, investigations)
  • Donor relations professionals should review their organizations' key communications, including their websites and the Form 990

Here are 3 opinion articles for The Chronicle of Philanthopy we've written covering recent nonprofit scandals:

'Three Cups of Tea' Scandal Offers Lessons for Charities and Trustees

Avoiding Trouble: What Nonprofits Can Learn From Sex-Abuse Scandal

Basic Board Governance Failures Stand at the Center of the Penn State Debacle


Screwtape’s 10 Tips for Nonprofits That Want to Generate Business Revenues


  1. Start a business, any business. And act quickly! Get on the social enterprise bandwagon. You can’t rely just on fundraising anymore.
  2. Invest in pet projects of your key leaders and split the profits with them.
  3. Sell all kinds of merchandise with your name and logo if you can’t think of anything else. That always works.
  4. Come up with cool things to sell to millennials and focus all your marketing efforts on reaching them.
  5. Remember you’ll always have a competitive advantage in any business over a for-profit business because, as a nonprofit, you’re more trustworthy and you’re tax-exempt. UBIT? Nonsense. Nobody pays that.
  6. Go big or go home; invest whatever you can in the new business venture even if you have to deplete your reserves. You can’t win if you don’t play the game. But see #7 and #8 for places where you can save.
  7. Keep the staffing costs down by using your existing staff to run the new venture. No matter how busy they are, they’ll learn to manage. They always do.
  8. Keep professional fees low by using self-help books, volunteers, and, if you have to use professionals, the most inexpensive professionals you can find (they're all the same).
  9. Have your executive director make it his or her priority to get the new venture off the ground. Use revenues-based bonuses to get your E.D. motivated.
  10. Look for partnerships with any for-profits that will donate a part of its sales to your organization in exchange for some publicity. That's just free money.

Editor's Disclaimer: At the risk of offending Screwtape, always consider the source of any tips before relying on them.


Gift Acceptance Policies – NCPGC Program Presented by Barbara Rhomberg

             Gift Tax Lemon

On January 12, 2012, I attended the progam "Gift Acceptance Policies: Why, When, What, How, and Who" presented to the Northern California Planned Giving Council by exempt organizations attorney Barbara Rhomberg.  Using the example of the Trojan Horse, Barbara quickly convinced us that not all gifts are good ones and the time for a gift acceptance policy is before a charity accepts a problematic gift.  Here are some highlights of her talk [and some of my thoughts in bracketed text].

There are 5 factors a charity must consider before accepting a noncash gift:

  1. Costs of ownership.
  2. Costs associated with the sale.
  3. Staff/volunteer time required.
  4. Exposure to liability [and other harm].
  5. Marketability of the gifted asset and any cash flow associated with it.

In addition, a charity must assess the impact of any restrictions on the use or disposition of the asset (e.g., prohibitions against a sale, endowment-related issues); any strings and conditions (e.g., naming opportunities, payment of associated legal or appraisal costs); embarassing gifts (e.g., due to nature of donor's business); and tax shelters.

Gifts of real estate may be of great value to a charity.  But there may also be significant costs of ownership (e.g., maintenance, insurance, property taxes) and sale.  Additionally, there may be risks of environmental liability (particularly with undeveloped land or land with prior commercial use), title problems, prior mortgages/liens, and marketability.  [For fiscal sponsors, there must be consideration of what the sponsoring organization will do with real estate secured for a project if the project committee fails to raise sufficient funds and/or disbands.]

Planned gifts (e.g., charitable remainder trusts, charitable lead trusts, charitable gift annuities) will require special consideration.

A gift acceptance policy will help protect a charity from accepting a bad gift, expedite the acceptance of a good gift, facilitate the tactful decline of a gift, and evidence an appropriate level of governance [which will be reflected on its Form 990]. A good policy will answer the following questions among others:

  • What assets can be accepted?
  • Who will review the assets and how will they be reviewed?
  • How will restrictions, strings, and conditions be evaluated?
  • Who can accept the asset?

While charities will not want to be bound by rigid rules that fail to consider special circumstances that might make an exception in order, a good policy will identify who is authorized to make such exceptions (e.g., executive director, board committee, or board).  A good policy will also take into account the charity's unique set of facts and circumstances.  And a charity will benefit from the experience of working through development of its own gift acceptance policy that considers its own unique set of facts and circumstances.  Simply copying a template document may be do more harm than good though review of a few strong templates may be a great place to start.

Resources suggested by Ms. Rhomberg include:

Gift Acceptance Policies – Why, When, What, How, and Who – Barbara Rhomberg

Effective Gift Acceptance Policies and Procedures – David Wheeler Newman

Model Gift Acceptance Policy and Procedures - David Wheeler Newman

Understanding and Drafting Nonprofit Gift Acceptance Policies – Kathryn W. Miree

Great presentation, Barbara!


5 Social Media Myths

Pot of gold

Last year, a study conducted by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research (“US Charities’ Adoption of Social Media Study,” August 2010) reported that the largest nonprofits are outpacing for-profit companies and academia when it comes to social media use. Among its findings (based on the 200 largest U.S. charities) were that 97% of the charities are using some form of social media and more specifically, 93% have a Facebook profile, 87% have a Twitter presence, and 65% have a blog. While the nonprofit sector becomes increasingly present on social media applications each year, it still remains a challenge for many nonprofits to do so successfully. Although we cannot address all of the challenges to becoming a successful social media story, here, we debunk five social media myths for nonprofit organizations.
1. If you know social media, you can do our social media.

New users to social media may often seek the help of others who have a greater degree of expertise with these software applications. Generally not all social media experts are alike. An individual’s expertise on social media may be on very specific aspects such as programming, marketing, or social media law. An expert in one respect may not be the appropriate expert in all respects. For example, an expert in branding may not be the best person to task with developing the technical aspects of a website that promote the brand (e.g., widgets, feeds, linking multiple social media accounts); similarly, a technician who could accomplish those tasks may not be at all familiar with the organization’s mission or image and how to best communicate with its constituents. Organizations should reflect on the strengths of the social media experts they hire or task with managing the organization’s social media efforts and evaluate whether other skill sets are necessary. Some organizations may be fortunate enough to find a “Jack of all trades” but in many situations it may be necessary to have multiple people behind the social media curtain with discrete tasks that collectively create a powerful online social media presence for the organization.

Additionally, an individual’s ability to use social media personally does not necessarily equate to an ability to harness the power of social media for an organization. In other words, an individual who is successful in building his or her personal online reputation and network may not necessarily be the best ambassador to communicate with the public and manage communications on behalf of the organization. Individuals vary in the way they use social media – some are constantly locked into the Internet, posting every hour, while others may limit their posts to one per day; some attract new followers with strong personalities while others present a much more distant persona. An organization should discuss the mission, image, and online objective of the organization with those who are communicating on behalf of it – such as the tone of the messages, the level of humor and personality to be used, appropriate and inappropriate subject matter, the frequency of messages, and the organization’s intended audience.

2. Social media is as simple as it looks.

Looks can be deceiving. The user-friendly interface of many social media applications often does not reflect the complexity of social media such as various levels of privacy settings available, the capacity of its reach, or the implications of posting content. Implementation of social media simply should not occur without an appropriate level of social media education.

Additionally, while it may be easy to create an account and start posting, tweeting, blogging, and the like, the real leverage of various social media will likely not be realized without some strategy or sense of direction. As Beth Kanter explains in her article, “9 Ways Nonprofits Can Excel Using Social Media,” audiences expect a conversation with organizations through social media, not just messaging. Furthermore, as Victor d’Allant noted at the Haas School of Business Social Media for Good event earlier this year, “It’s not about the tools; it’s about the story you want to tell.” Failing to cultivate relationships through (avoidable) missteps such as inconsistent messaging, inefficient communications, and a lack of targeted audience can significantly detract from the many benefits that social media offers. Thus, organizations should not rush to have an online presence simply because it can be done without first thinking about the objectives and goals of the organization in using social media and which medium or combination of media will help it to achieve the best value and impact. The online presence of an organization should simply be an extension of its offline existence and both should be managed so as to help the other in accomplishing the mission of the organization. An organization’s thoughtful plan should be the driving force, not the excitement or ease by which an organization can suddenly appear online.

Furthermore, it is important to note that social media education is an ongoing process. Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and Tumblr are constantly being updated to provide new features and new ways of connecting and sharing. Accordingly, organizations must not only make efforts to stay updated on changes but also periodically re-evaluate whether they are using the best platform for their message.

3. We can’t measure ROI for social media.

While measuring the return on investments (ROI) for social media efforts is often a new and challenging task for many organizations, organizations should still take steps towards gauging ROI to ensure efficient and proper use of their budgets and staff and volunteer time.

The simple fact is social media is an investment whether in terms of time, energy, money, or otherwise. For example, a 2010 survey conducted by the Nonprofit Technology Network, Common Knowledge, and the Port, “Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark Report” reported that 84.9% of surveyed nonprofits committed at least 1/4 of a full-time staff member’s time to maintaining their commercial social network. Additionally, a 2010 Ventureneer survey, “Nonprofits and Social Media: It Ain’t Optional” reported that nonprofits highly successful at social media allocate at least 25 hours of staff time per week to social media (including the time for researching and writing in providing content for tweet, blogs, and Facebook). If such time is used efficiently and purposefully, it may be time well spent. If not, this can be a serious loss of resources to an organization.

Social media measurement will not be a one size fits all. As Ventureneer notes, it is important to remember expectations and measurements change with time, “your first forays into social media will not yield great results.… [Y]ou must prepare the field before you harvest.” Additionally, other circumstances such as budget and staff skill may also influence what analytical and measurement tools are available to the organization. Ventureneer provides three helpful, general tips for measuring social media:

(1) Focus on measuring what matters at this moment. Do you want to generate awareness, build community, drive traffic to your website, advocate about an issue, raise money or integrate social media into a cause marketing campaign with a partner organization? Measure only what you need to know to evaluate this effort.

(2) Focus on what can be counted in a practical and affordable manner.

(3) If you need help, get it. Metrics matter. Take a class, a webinar or hire a consultant to explain the details until you can do it yourself. Don’t guess. Don’t miss this opportunity to broaden your funding base, find out what appeals to your supporters, and expand your reach.

For more information on social media measurement, please view Beth Kanter’s articles, “The Real Housewives of Social Media: Measurement Tips” and “Spreadsheet Aerobics: Actionable Measurement for Social Media.”

4.    It won’t happen to us.

With the popularity of social media also came the fear about the ease and risk of regulatory violations with social media. For example, a 2010 Proofpoint, Inc. study, “Outbound Email Security and Data Loss Prevention in Today’s Enterprise,” surveyed 261 large U.S. companies during June and July of 2010. Among other findings, the study noted the survey group of these large U.S. companies reported that:

  • 20% have investigated a leak of information to a social network site in the past year;
  • 25% investigated a leak of confidential or private information to a blog or message board;
  • 17% investigated exposure of confidential, sensitive, or private info by a SMS or Twitter in the past year; and
  • More than half are highly concerned about information leakage by social media sites.

Nonprofits are not immune to similar social media problems and the vast majority will have few resources to handle such concerns. Furthermore, there is often a lack of guidance from regulatory bodies regarding the use of social media by nonprofits. For example, the IRS rarely addresses the Internet, let alone social media, in any formal guidance on how online communications will be viewed by the IRS with respect to its regulations (e.g., the implications of “Likes” on Facebook and re-tweets on Twitter of political candidates with respect to the IRS electioneering rules). Thus organizations should take care to put policies in place and have appropriate systems for monitoring what is being disseminated on behalf of, or related to, the organization, even if they don’t think any of the social media nightmares seen in the media will happen to them.

For more information on intellectual property risks with social media, please view our previous post, “Top Ten Legal Risks for Nonprofits.”

5.    The “delete” function actually deletes.

Although “deleting” a post may remove it from your screen, the “delete” button never truly deletes the information. Not only is the information stored on servers, there is also a good chance someone out there has seen the posted information no matter how quick one attempts to undo it. Even if nothing bad happens legally speaking, nonprofits cannot forget that the public eye is generally always watching and consequences can occur on a variety of levels such as reputation, inconsistent mission messaging, and time and costs incurred down the line to fix a neglected and seemingly minor error.

While there is some truth to the notion that social media is a trial-and-error experience, it is not mutually exclusive to the idea of taking appropriate recovery steps after-the-fact. Organizations should think at least generally about a recovery plan if an error occurs, especially one that is to the detriment of the organization. In fact, some organizations have been applauded for their excellent recovery efforts from such errors. A recent example is the American Red Cross “#gettingslizzerd” tweet in which an American Red Cross employee accidentally posted a tweet on the American Red Cross Twitter account that was intended for her personal account. The errant tweet stated: “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer… when we drink we do it right #gettingslizzerd.” The American Red Cross was commended by the public for acknowledging a “Twitter faux pas” had occurred and timely responding with a witty tweet on behalf of the organization: “We’ve deleted the rouge tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”  Thus, mistakes or social media “faux pas” are not an automatic death sentence for an organization’s social media efforts and may actually present an opportunity for recognition when handled well.

(More coverage on the American Red Cross “#gettingslizzerd” story, please read the Tactical Philanthropy article, “The Story Behind Red Cross’s Twitter Faux Pas” and the Nonprofit Quarterly article, “Tweet Freely: Your Social Media Policy and You”).