At The Non-Profit Bar

I don't know when the wheel was invented, but I'm pretty sure it was a long time ago. The wheel was a good idea at the time and still is, but we should stop trying to reinvent it.

As Congress considers proposals to clean up the mess in the non-profit sector, it seems fixated on one that looks a lot like a wheel. Specifically, both the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation have proposed to clean up non-profits by requiring charities to submit to IRS reviews of their exempt status every five years. A charity would have to demonstrate that it continues to deserve its tax exemption by filing information with the agency, such as its articles of incorporation; financial statements; bylaws; salaries of top-ranking executives; and a detailed narrative of prior, current and contemplated activities. The government would make this information available to the public and failure to file would allow the IRS to revoke the charity's tax-exempt status.

Still, a case can be made for a one-time five-year review for new charities. It would be reasonable, for example, to recognize a startup organization as tax-exempt on a provisional basis with the requirement that five years later it show the IRS it's still operating as a charity. This "training wheels" rule for new organizations would keep them focused and would be a reasonable means of IRS oversight.

Beyond that, however, a repeating five-year review for all charities--including well-established hospitals, universities and museums--amounts to regulatory overkill that rewards lawyers and accountants while stealing scarce program dollars from charitable purposes to accomplish a dubious public benefit. Congress should not be reinventing wheels. And the IRS shouldn't be forced into spinning them.


Bruce D. Collins

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