What are Limits on Nonprofit Activities?

In addition to keeping corporate records, nonprofit corporations must follow some additional rules and abide by certain prohibitions in order to retain their tax-exempt status:

*  Nonprofit corporations cannot contribute money to political campaigns or participate in political campaigns. If they do, the IRS can revoke their nonprofit status, and can assess a special excise tax against the organization and its managers.

*  Nonprofit corporations can engage in only limited lobbying activities. Tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofits that influence legislation to any “substantial degree” face the loss of their nonprofit status. However, for tax-exempt nonprofits that want to participate in lobbying, the IRS simply sets a limit on the money they can spend on political activities.

*  Nonprofit corporations must not distribute profits to members, officers, or directors. A nonprofit corporation cannot be organized to financially benefit its members, officers, or directors. However, reasonable salaries and expense reimbursements are permitted.

*  Nonprofit corporations must pay taxes on income from “unrelated activities.” Sometimes, a nonprofit organization will earn income through activities that aren’t directly related to its nonprofit purpose; for example, the directors of an organization dedicated to preserving open space may collect a consulting fee for advising other nonprofits. The IRS requires nonprofits to pay corporate income taxes on such unrelated income over $1,000, whether or not the group uses that money to fund its tax-exempt activities.

* Nonprofit corporations cannot make substantial profits from unrelated activities. If a nonprofit spends too much time on unrelated activities, or if the unrelated activities generate “substantial” income, the group’s nonprofit status may be jeopardized. Nonprofit corporations that plan to engage in activities that aren’t related to their tax-exempt purpose should consult a lawyer or tax expert with experience in nonprofit law.

*  When a nonprofit corporation dissolves, its assets must be distributed to another tax-exempt group. Since tax-exempt organizations and their assets cannot be owned, they can never be sold. If the directors of a nonprofit decide to disband the organization, they must donate its assets to another nonprofit group. This also means that once property goes into a nonprofit corporation, it cannot later be distributed to a member or director.

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