In recognition of the "public good"-oriented goals and objectives of nonprofit organizations, U.S. law grants these groups a number of special privileges. Of these, perhaps none is more valuable than the bestowal of tax-exempt status. Such status basically means that the organization's income and assets are not subject to federal taxes, and federal exemptions often (though not always) pave the way for state and local tax exemptions as well. For-profit enterprises, on the other hand, are subject to local, state, and federal taxation.
Writing in his book Quality Management in the Nonprofit World, Larry W. Kennedy explained that "the pursuit of profit for personal or individual gain is called private enterprise. Profits gained through private enterprise are taxable. Enterprise by tax-exempt organizations has as its goal for attaining profits the continued provision of services for the public good. Profits earned from public enterprise related to our tax-exempt mission are not taxable. Nonprofit organizations can engage in virtually any business enterprise in the fulfillment of their mission objectives and remain comfortably within the purposes of their tax-exempt status. Where the enterprise is unrelated to the stated mission, only that income that is generated by the unrelated enterprise is taxable. Gifts, contributions, and income generated by another enterprise related to the organization's mission statement would remain tax exempt." It should be noted, however, that complete exemption from federal taxation does not automatically mean that the organization avoids other kinds of taxation, such as state and/or local income taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes.
In addition, Bruce R. Hopkins noted in his Legal Guide to Starting and Managing a Nonprofit Organization that not all nonprofit organizations qualify as tax-exempt organizations: "Nearly every tax-exempt organization is a non-profit organization, but not all nonprofit organizations are eligible to be tax-exempt," he said. "The concept of a nonprofit organization is broader than that of a tax-exempt organization. Some types of non-profit organizations (such as mutual, self-help type entities) do not, as a matter of federal law, qualify for tax-exempt status." Ted Nicholas, author of The Complete Guide to Nonprofit Corporations, offered a similar assessment. He stated that "while the great bulk of nonprofit organizations are presumed to be tax-exempt in nature, there are exceptions to that premise." But he also went on to note that "the terms nonprofit and charitable are not interchangeable. A nonprofit organization is not necessarily charitably motivated, and, likewise, an organization that is truly charitable in nature may be a profitmaking enterprise. And both kinds of organizations may be entitled to tax-exempt status from the IRS. For example, a religious and apostolic association or corporation, even if it is organized for profit, and a teacher's retirement fund association, which is operated to produce profits for its beneficiaries, are both eligible for tax exemptions."
Until the end of the 19th century, all U.S. entities—whether they were private individuals or businesses—were exempt from taxation unless they were subject to a particular tax levy. The Tariff Act of 1894, however, changed that situation irrevocably. That legislation imposed a flat 2 percent tax rate on all U.S. corporations, but in recognition of the fundamentally different goals and objectives of for-profit businesses and charitable and educational groups, the bill exempted the latter organizations from the tax. "The important aspect of this legislation is that organizations involved in enterprise and whose profits would be used for altruistic purposes were specifically excluded from the requirement to share the profits of their work through taxation," wrote Kennedy. "The initial emphasis of tax exemption was to protect the enterprises of nonprofit organizations from taxation, and it has remained as the central function of tax-exempt law to this day."
In recent years, the United States has seen a dramatic increase in the number of tax-exempt organizations operating around the country. Indeed, the rise in the number of churches, nursing homes, hospitals, chambers of commerce, charitable organizations, and social service agencies in many communities has led some observers to voice concern about the tax-base stability of some areas. "In some cities and towns, a substantial portion of the entire lot of privately held real estate is owned by tax-exempt organizations," wrote Nicholas. "This means there isn't any revenue flowing into local tax coffers from this sector." This state of affairs has led some corporate and individual taxpayers to register complaints about the "free ride" that some exempt organizations enjoy. "Even the tax-exempt status of churches, protected from the very beginning of the tax code, has been questioned in recent years, particularly in reference to church investments in secular properties," Nicholas said.
Many people operate under a fundamental misconception about nonprofit organizations and revenue. As Kennedy stated, "the word 'nonprofit' may carry with it an inference about profit that causes some people to think profitability by a nonprofit organization is illegal. To the contrary, we are free to do anything a for-profit company might do as we pursue our goals, including making profits. The law is designed to provide all the benefits of a free-market system plus the special favor of tax incentives for individuals and corporations who want to contribute financially to our efforts. Not only can we operate enterprises profitably as tax-exempt organizations but we can also prosper through the patronage of others."
But there are significant stipulations in place concerning the distribution of those profits that must be met for an organization to claim tax-exempt status. These are delineated in Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code:
A wide variety of organizations are eligible for tax-exempt status because of their goals and activities. These include the following:
Nicholas pointed out that "some organizations such as churches, associations of churches, and auxiliary agencies of churches—mission societies and youth groups, for instance—are generally considered automatically tax-exempt. They are not required to request this status from the government taxing agencies. However, virtually all other kinds of organizations that fit legal definitions of eligibility for tax-exempt status due to their special benevolent purposes and goals cannot assume that status. They must ask the Internal Revenue Service to officially recognize their tax-exempt status."
To do so, organizations have to file an application for tax exemption with the IRS (nonprofit organizations may also have to make separate applications to state and local tax agencies if they wish to secure exemptions from taxes imposed by those jurisdictions). In most instances, this filing step is a mere formality; approval of tax exemption is almost always based on the IRS's ruling on the organization's exemption application (the primary legal basis for all tax exemptions is Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954). Organizations which have their exemption application approved, then, will often find that they are free from tax obligations at the local and state levels as well.
Experts note that while some nonprofit organizations are exempted from paying certain taxes, that does not mean that they have no filing obligations. "Despite the favoritisms the law frequently bestows on nonprofit organizations, the reporting requirements are not one of them, particularly when the organization is tax-exempt," said Hopkins. "The annual information return that most tax-exempt organizations have to file with the IRS is far more extensive than the tax returns most commercial businesses must file. Then, there may be several state annual reports (if the organization is doing business in more than one state) and the state annual charitable solicitation act reports (perhaps over 40 of them)." Given this reality, most nonprofit organizations choose to use the services of professional attorneys and accountants in compiling and delivering these reports.
United States law has long differentiated between the activities of tax-exempt organizations that are related to the performance of tax-exempt functions and those that are not. Income garnered from these latter activities is subject to taxation. For incorporated organizations, net revenue from unrelated activities is subject to federal corporate income tax law, while for organizations that are not incorporated, this revenue—commonly referred to as "unrelated business income"—is subject to the canon of federal tax law on individuals. "The objective of the unrelated business income tax is to prevent unfair competition between tax-exempt organizations and for-profit, commercial enterprises," explained Hopkins. "The rules are intended to place the unrelated business activities of an exempt organization on the same tax basis as those of a nonexempt business with which it competes…. An organization's tax exemption will bedenied or revoked if an inappropriate portion of its activities is not promoting one or more of its exempt purposes."
This area of tax law, noted Hopkins, has been one marked by upheaval and change in recent years. "As tax-exempt organizations struggle to generate additional income in these days of declining governmental support, proposed adverse tax reform, more sophisticated management, and greater pressure for more services, [tax-exempt organizations] are increasingly drawn to service-provider activities, some of which may be unrelated to their exempt purposes. The growth of service-provider activities, the increasing tendencies of the courts to find activities unrelated because they are 'commercial,' and the unrest over 'unfair competition' between tax-exempt organizations and for-profit entities—all of these are clear evidence that this aspect of the law of tax-exempt organizations is constantly evolving and will be reshaped." One emerging issue involves use of the Internet by nonprofit organizations. Some experts have expressed concern that linking to non-exempt sites, soliciting contributions online, or disseminating protected information could put an entity's exempt status at risk.
Anderson, Alice M., and Robert A. Wexler. "Making Use of the Internet—Issues for Tax-Exempt Organizations." Journal of Taxation. May 2000.
Hopkins, Bruce R. The Law of Tax-Exempt Organizations. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Hopkins, Bruce R. A Legal Guide to Starting and Managing a Nonprofit Organization. 2d ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993.
Jacobs, Jerald A., and Karen L. Cipriani. "Establishing an Affiliated Organization." Association Management. June 2000.
Kennedy, Larry W. Quality Management in the Nonprofit World: Combining Compassion and Performance to Meet Client Needs and Improve Finances. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.
Moses, Nancy. "The Nonprofit Motive." Wall Street Journal. March 17, 1997.
Nicholas, Ted. The Complete Guide to Nonprofit Corporations. Enterprise Dearborn, 1993.
Schlesinger, Sanford J. "Unrelated Business Income and the Charitable Organization." Estate Planning. May 2000.
Wright, Carolyn D. "IRS Request for Comments on EO Web Activity: Good Start." Tax Notes. October 23, 2000.