Thursday, January 27, 2011

Don’t get burned. File the 501(h) election!

With much of America gripped by below-freezing weather this winter, it’s nice to imagine being on a sunny beach, with white sand all around, gentle island breezes playing in your hair, and nothing for miles but a cloudless blue sky.

Did you bring your sunscreen?

Reality check – whether freezing or on a beach – you still want to protect your nonprofit from getting burned.

Filing the 501(h) election protects nonprofits from being burned.
By filing one simple form, IRS Form 5768, a charitable nonprofit can protect itself from penalties for engaging in "too much" lobbying. (Charitable nonprofits can lobby; read why lobbying is legal.) A charitable nonprofit can only spend an insubstantial amount of its activities on lobbying. But there is a hazy ill-defined line between what "activities" are considered "substantial" and which are "insubstantial." Here’s where the sunscreen comes in. By filing IRS Form 5768 (also referred to as "taking the 501(h) election") instead of being judged by the uncertain “substantial part” test that evaluates undefined "activities" -- your nonprofit will have the added protection of being evaluated with a more specific test called the “expenditure” test that offers a bright line based on how much money the nonprofit spends on its lobbying activities. If you don’t take the 501(h) election, it’s li! ke guessing how long to stay in the sun before you’ll get a sun burn.

Read all about the advantages of taking the 501(h) election on the National Council’s website. (Note: Private foundations, churches, and integrated auxiliaries of churches are not permitted to file the 501(h) election.)

It’s so simple and effective that some nonprofit practitioners have called it the "cheapest and best insurance on the planet." Indeed, we wonder why more nonprofits don’t use this easy process. Once a nonprofit files the 501(h) election by completing Form 5768, it simply reports annually how much money it spent during the year on lobbying activities on Form 990, Schedule C. As long as the nonprofit’s expenditures are within the acceptable (and generous limits) established by law, the nonprofit is protected. However, if it does not file Form 5768, not only is the reporting to the IRS more detailed, but the IRS will decide, based on uncertain criteria, whether the charitable nonprofit’s lobbying activities are “substantial” or not. Because the IRS has never defined how much is “too much,” the results of this analysis are uncertain. Why not file the! 501(h) election and be sure?

Start off the New Year by protecting your nonprofit with the 501(h) election – it’s easier than putting on sunscreen. (You only have to do it once!)