What can religious organizations do and not do?

This is an interesting question. The separation of church and state in the United States values an atmosphere of “benign neutrality”, where there is no definition of “religion” and few parameters of its activity. Essentially, so long as it does not violate established public policy or commit illegal acts, religious activity is deemed acceptable. Although Section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code includes the “advancement of religion” as a charitable purpose, it does not define what that conduct really looks like.

We often use the term ‘religious organization’ to refer to various faith based organizations, like the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Jewish Federation, Lutheran Social Services and East End Community Ministry to name just a few. These faith based social service organizations so often are critical safety nets to alleviate poverty, hunger, delinquency and homelessness. Take a moment and just think of 2020 as an example where their services were incredibly important and visible as hundreds of cars snaked for hours around long lines run by Food Banks just to obtain needed food donations.

Although the term ‘religious organization’ refers as well to ‘churches’, a church is used to mean houses of worship – whether a church, synagogue, mosque or temple. These houses of worship are treated with special consideration, including automatic exempt status, respectful church audits, deductibility for charitable contributions and an overall “hands off approach” by government regulators.

Nonetheless, churches are prohibited from doing certain things: (1) they cannot intervene in political activity; (2) they cannot support or oppose a candidate for office; (3) they cannot engage in activities that are illegal or that violate public policy; and (4) they cannot engage in substantial lobbying activities. It should be noted that they can, however, engage in advocacy and education, hold public forums and debates, and publish voter guides. And, of course, individual clergy and members can speak in their own personal capacities on issues of concern.

The treatment of religion and religious institutions in the United States is one of the hallmarks of our society. Where other countries had state religions and provided charitable services through the ‘Church,’ Americans saw it differently and formed associations to best express their individual beliefs. That independence of thought and action remains with us today.


Are you planning to start a nonprofit?

Are you thinking of starting your own nonprofit?  What do you hope to achieve? How will you go about starting it?  What benefits do you anticipate?  What drawbacks might you expect?  If these questions seem unnecessary, you may be in for a big surprise.

Nonprofits are an important feature of American society.  From the earliest days of our history, Americans formed “associations” to accomplish purposes about which they cared deeply.  These associations express the American spirit.  Where other countries relied on State or Church to provide critical social services, Americans chose to address pressing social issues quickly, efficiently and independently.  But anyone considering starting a nonprofit today should recognize that it may not be an easy road.  It is essential to have clear goals and to understand the rules that apply.

  1. What do you hope to accomplish? Who will help you?  Does an existing organization already do this work?
  2. Where will you get the money for start up expenses? Can you afford to self-fund or do you have a source for seed money?  How much will it cost?
  3. Do you expect to make a salary?
  4. If you form a charity, do you know what “private benefit” and “private inurement” mean?
  5. Are you aware that a charity cannot engage in political activity or support/oppose a political candidate?
  6. And finally, do you know that a charity must keep its assets in the charitable sector even after the organization dissolves?

It’s probably more complicated than you might have initially thought.  Both the State Attorney General and the Internal Revenue Service have oversight over nonprofit organizations – and they cannot solicit contributions without registering with the State.  Also, be aware that a public charity must show that much of its revenues come from public sources, not from single donors.  And – one last thing:  should you be a nonprofit corporation or an unincorporated association or possibly even a charitable trust?  All of the above can be exempt from federal income tax if they qualify, thus providing an attractive opportunity for donors to give tax deductible contributions.

But don’t be discouraged by the above.  If you have a cause about which you are passionate, go ahead with your plans.  Take the time, though, to get professional help and educate yourself about the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of starting and running a nonprofit.  Don’t be discouraged.  If you really believe in your cause and are willing to do some hard work, proceed.  This can be a great adventure for an educated start-up entrepreneur.  It just takes careful planning and realistic goals.    


Where have all the social clubs gone?

When you think of social clubs, you ordinarily think of fraternities and sororities, golf clubs, swimming clubs, tennis clubs and so many more. But the category of social clubs extends to all kinds of organizations that reflect many different interests: hobby clubs, bridge clubs, dog clubs, campground associations, car clubs and flying clubs. The list can go on indefinitely. What binds them together, however, is that they are tax-exempt nonprofit organizations under Section 501 (c)(7) of the Internal Revenue Code. Being a (c)(7) social club is both a blessing and a curse. The good news is that its exemption enables the club to escape paying federal income tax; the downside is its restriction on allowable outside revenue, which for many clubs would otherwise constitute its lifeblood. In other words, the clubs cannot indiscriminately open their doors to nonmembers or the general public without jeopardizing their status. 

Given that restriction and the costs of doing business today, many social clubs have found it too difficult to continue. Think about the need to maintain expensive facilities, cope with shrinking membership, compete against commercial enterprises – and you can see why so many clubs are struggling. In addition, cultural changes have driven the demise of numerous social clubs. Our society today is more diverse – less gender focused or religiously segregated. People are both more and less connected because of technology and more families now depend on two incomes, thereby lessening the amount of discretionary free time. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the dramatic effect of the Pandemic on the social club. Whereas, these clubs traditionally offered opportunities for gathering, fellowship and camaraderie, today’s necessities mandate social distancing and limited gatherings.

So, what is a club to do? Some have declared bankruptcy, others have sole their assets and still others have shifted gears from being “clubs” to shared workspace venues. Still others are holding fast to emptying buildings and “houses” without students. The social club often represented longstanding institutions in their communities; and their demise is not only a loss to their membership but also to their larger communities. It will be interesting to see what new forms of “social clubs” evolve post-Pandemic. I would expect that they will have more flexible formats, more realistic acceptance of current norms and less dependence on bricks and mortar. As always, the nonprofit sector mirrors our society – its values and its problems- as a whole.