Advisory Committee Principles – Facilitating Legal Compliance

Here are the 6 draft principles falling within the category of "Facilitating Legal Compliance" developed by the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector’s Advisory Committee on Self-Regulation of the Charitable Sector:

  1. A charitable organization should be knowledgeable about and must comply with all applicable laws and regulations and international conventions.
  2. A charitable organization must have a governing body that is responsible for reviewing and approving the organization’s mission and strategic direction, annual budget and key financial transactions, compensation practices and policies, and fiscal and governance policies of the organization.
  3. A charitable organization must adopt and implement policies and procedures to ensure that all conflicts of interest, or the appearance thereof, within the organization and the board are avoided or appropriately managed through disclosure, recusal, or other means.
  4. A charitable organization must establish and implement policies and procedures that enable individuals to come forward with credible information on illegal practices or violations of organizational policies. This “whistleblower” policy must specify that the organization will not retaliate against individuals who make such reports.
  5. A charitable organization must establish and implement policies and procedures to protect and preserve the organization’s important documents and business records.
  6. A charitable organization must make information about its operations, including its board members, finances, programs and activities, and methods used to evaluate the outcomes of work, widely available to the public.

While the principles may appear obvious to some and imposing to others, they are sound, if not comprehensive, guidelines for compliance with applicable laws.  Of course, it’s easy to simply agree with the principles, but it may be more difficult to put them into practice.  Here are some quick tips:

  1. Have a nonprofit/exempt organizations attorney give a presentation to your board members and key staff members about legal compliance.  A good book will supplement such presentation, but it may be unrealistic to assume that all key persons will be reading and or understanding the relevant points.
  2. Develop schedules for the review and approval of mission, strategic direction, budgets, annual information returns (e.g., Form 990), executive compensation, etc.  Have board committees review your bylaws and other documents detailing the organization’s fiscal and governance policies, particularly if they have not been reviewed for legal compliance within the past few years or if the board doesn’t follow the policies contained therein. 
  3. If the organization doesn’t have a conflict of interest policy as either a stand-alone document or within the bylaws, the board should adopt one.  The Instructions for Form 1023 contain a sample policy.  Note that a transaction that involves a conflict of interest may be appropriate and beneficial to a public charity (e.g., below market rate services) if properly managed.
  4. A sample whistleblower policy is available at the National Council of Nonprofit Association’s (NCNA’s) website here.
  5. A sample document destruction policy is available at the NCNA’s website here.
  6. First, know the public disclosure requirements (e.g., whether you are required to make available your Form 990, 990-EZ or 990-PF and how to do so).  Second, make sure you have ready access to the documents that must be made available, particularly your Form 1023 (application for recognition of federal tax exemption under 501(c)(3)) if you haven’t seen that in a while.  Don’t forget that Form 1023 contains the bases for your tax-exempt status.  The IRS determination letter only confirms such status.  Third, consider open disclosures of information on your organization’s website to build supporter and public confidence.

You can view the Advisory Committee’s Draft Principles on Faciliting Legal Compliance here.