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.
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]
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.