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Ticket to Ride: A Prerequisite Tax Guide for Association CEOs

By: Jeffrey S. Tenenbaum Esq. , Venable LLP
Source: Executive Update
Published: June 2000

For association execs to effectively perform their duties, they must first be equipped with a basic understanding of how the federal tax laws relate to their associations. This informative, plain-language overview provides a basic overview of those laws and may even help execs develop the foresight to identify potential tax issues before they escalate.


Since the adoption of the federal income tax laws in 1913, an entire body of complex tax law unique to trade and professional associations has evolved. And if history is any guide, it will only continue to expand in complexity. Before these complexities can be fully considered, a review of the basics is necessary.

The Difference Between Nonprofit and Tax-Exempt Status
IRS terms used to describe trade and professional associations often create much confusion. Associations are generally organized and operated as both nonprofit and tax-exempt entities. While nonprofit status refers to incorporation status under state law, tax-exempt status refers to federal income tax exemption under the Internal Revenue Code (the "Code").

Assumption: As nonprofit, tax-exempt entities, associations may not earn profits (realize more income than expenditures) and they need not pay any taxes.

Reality: Even though they are nonprofit organizations, associations are permitted to generate greater income than expenses and still retain their nonprofit status.

As nonprofit organizations, associations are barred from distributing their net earnings to individuals who control the organizations (other than as compensation for services actually rendered at prevailing market rates). Similarly, they are barred from accumulating equity appreciation for a private person’s benefit. Nonprofit organizations have chosen to undertake programs that benefit members and the public rather than private individuals. The resulting earnings, therefore, must be dedicated to furthering the purposes for which they were organized. Nonprofit organizations have no shareholders and pay no dividends — all earnings are "reinvested" in the organization in furtherance of its nonprofit purposes.

Most associations are also tax-exempt entities. Because the requirements for federal income tax exemption are more stringent than those for nonprofit corporation status, there are some associations classified as nonprofit corporations that do not qualify for exemption from federal income tax. However, these organizations are rare. Most nonprofit organizations qualify for federal income tax exemption under one of 25 subsections of Section 501(c) of the Code. Most associations are tax-exempt under Sections 501(c)(6) or 501(c)(3), and a smaller number under Sections 501(c)(4) or (c)(5). Association political action committees are tax-exempt under Section 527. In addition, many 501(c)(6) associations form related educational or charitable foundations exempt under Section 501(c)(3).

What Is Tax Exemption?
Tax exemption does not mean that an association is exempt from all taxes. Tax-exempt status exempts an association from paying corporate federal income tax on income generated from activities that are substantially related to the purposes for which the entity was organized. Associations that meet the requirements for federal tax exemption can generally rely on that status to exempt their income from state corporate income tax. For example, revenue derived from programs and activities such as educational conferences and seminars that are an important component in furthering an association’s tax-exempt purposes (as defined in its governing documents and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) filings) is exempt from federal (and likely state) income tax. The organization will, however, owe corporate federal income tax on income unrelated to its tax-exempt purposes, called unrelated business income (UBI). UBI is income generated from routine business activities not substantially related to the association’s tax-exempt purposes.

However, most tax-exempt associations are still subject to a wide variety of other taxes, including federal payroll (Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment) taxes, state and local unemployment taxes, real estate taxes, personal property taxes, sales and use taxes, franchise taxes, and taxes on lobbying activities, among others. Charitable organizations (but generally not associations) in many jurisdictions are provided exemptions for certain state and local taxes.

Qualifying for Section 501(c)(6) Tax Exemption
Virtually two-thirds of all trade and professional associations are exempt from federal income tax under Section 501(c)(6) of the Code (a discussion of 501(c)(3) tax exemption is beyond the scope of this article). An association must meet certain basic tests to qualify for exemption under Section 501(c)(6):

  • It must be an association of persons having some common business interest, and its purpose must be to promote this common business interest (this should be reflected in the organization’s governing documents).

  • It must not be organized for profit (i.e., it should be incorporated as a nonprofit corporation, not as a stock corporation).

  • It must be a membership organization and have a meaningful extent of membership support.

  • No part of its net earnings may inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual (see discussion below).

  • Its activities must be directed toward improving business conditions of one or more lines of business, as distinguished from performing particular services for individual persons or entities. ("Particular services" has been defined to include any "activity that serves as a convenience or economy to members in the operation of their business, rather than to promote or improve the industry represented by the association. The determination is a quantitative one — whether or not the particular service is only incidental or minor compared to the principal purpose or benefits of an activity. Denial or revocation of tax-exempt status only occurs when it is concluded that the primary purpose of the organization is the performance of particular services.)

  • Its purpose must not be to engage in a regular business of a kind ordinarily carried on for profit, even if the business is operated on a cooperative basis or produces only sufficient income to be self-sustaining.

  • It must be primarily engaged in activities or functions constituting the basis for its exemption.

Once an association’s tax exemption has been recognized by the IRS, generally the three most significant ongoing threats to the 501(c)(6) status are:

  • Too much unrelated business income (that amount that would cause the IRS or a court to conclude that the primary purpose of the association was unrelated to its tax-exempt purposes).

  • The provision of too many particular services for individuals (an amount that would allow the IRS or a court to infer that such services were the primary purpose of the association).

  • Inurement of benefit of the association’s net earnings to any "private shareholder or individual."

The term "private shareholder or individual" is defined as person having a personal or private interest in the activities of the organization." Inurement of benefit involves more than just activities unrelated to the association’s tax-exempt purposes, and more than the mere performance of particular services for individuals. Proscribed inurement of benefit has three core elements:

  • Distribution of the benefit of the organization’s earnings. The source of the funds is irrelevant; it is the distribution of the funds that matters.

  • Such distribution of the benefit or earnings must be to a person having a personal and private interest in the association’s activities.

  • The inurement must be more than merely incidental to the association’s tax-exempt purposes. As all legitimate activities of 501(c)(6) associations provide some indirect benefit to their members, the IRS has recognized that benefit to individuals considered merely incidental to an activity which furthers a 501(c)(6) association’s tax-exempt purposes will not result in proscribed inurement of benefit.

Leveling the Playing Field: Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT)
Although associations are granted a general exemption from federal income tax for income from activities substantially related to the purposes for which the association was granted tax-exempt status, they nevertheless are potentially taxable for income derived from unrelated business activities. The Code defines an unrelated trade or business as "any trade or business the conduct of which is not substantially related (aside from the need of such organization for income . . .) to the exercise or performance by such organization of its . . . purpose or function constituting the basis for its exemption."

The tax on unrelated business income first appeared in the Code in 1950. Congress’ principal purpose in enacting the unrelated business income tax (UBIT) was to provide a level competitive playing field for tax-paying businesses — so that tax-exempt associations could not use their privileged tax status to unfairly compete with tax-paying businesses in activities unrelated to their purposes. But instead of prohibiting tax-exempt associations from engaging in any business activities at all (and denying or revoking tax exemption because of such activities), it chose to specifically permit a certain degree of business activity by tax-exempt associations, but to tax it like any other for-profit business. Thus, such business activities are permissible, so long as the activities are not a "substantial part of its activities."

The imposition of the unrelated business income tax is generally at the federal corporate income tax rates. Deductions are permitted for expenses that are "directly connected" with the unrelated trade or business being conducted. If an association regularly conducts two or more unrelated business activities, its unrelated business taxable income (UBTI) is the total of gross income from all such activities less the total allowable deductions attributable to such activities.

Identifying Unrelated Business Income: Three-prong UBIT Test
It is important to note that not all business income is subject to taxation or to limitations — only "unrelated business income" as defined in the Code. Unrelated business income will only exist if three conditions are satisfied. If any one of the three is not present, then income from the activity will not be taxable. The income must be:

  1. from a trade or business;
  2. regularly carried on; and
  3. not substantially related to the purposes for which the association was granted tax exemption.

UBIT Exclusions
Even if all three conditions of the UBIT test are satisfied, there are numerous statutory exclusions (i) from the definition of an unrelated trade or business, and (ii) in the computation of UBTI, which can exempt otherwise taxable income from UBIT. Though many exclusions are potentially applicable to trade associations, many are not. The most relevant exclusions include:

  • Volunteer labor exception
  • Qualified corporate sponsorship payments
  • Qualified convention or trade show income
  • Dividends, interest, and annuities
  • Royalties
  • Rents from real property (non-debt-financed)
  • Certain capital gains

Spinning Off Unrelated Activities: Taxable Subsidiaries
If the gross revenue, net income, or staff time devoted to unrelated business activities become "substantial" in relation to the tax-exempt functions of an association (thereby jeopardizing its tax-exempt status), the association can "spin off" one or more of the unrelated activities into a separate but affiliated entity, commonly referred to as a "taxable" or "for-profit" subsidiary. The stock of a taxable subsidiary can be wholly owned by the association. The taxable subsidiary will owe corporate income tax on its net income, but can remit the after-tax profits to the parent association as tax-free dividends.

UBIT Filing and Payment Requirements
In computing UBTI, a deduction of $1,000 is permitted. If an association has gross UBTI of $1,000 or more during its fiscal year, it must file a completed IRS Form 990-T to report such income and pay any tax due. The Form 990-T is due at the same time as the Form 990; however, if an association expects its annual UBIT (after certain adjustments) to be $500 or more, then it must make estimated tax payments throughout the year. Unlike the Form 990, the Form 990-T is not subject to public disclosure.

The Pros and Cons of Affiliated Entities
One of the most useful planning tools available to associations is the use of related entities to carry on activities. Whether it is to preserve tax exemption, generate revenue, limit legal liability, reduce unrelated business taxable income, engage in otherwise prohibited activities, or for other legal, financial, fund-raising, management, or political reasons, associations frequently establish taxable subsidiaries; related educational, research, or charitable foundations; lobbying affiliates; group insurance trusts; political action committees; regional, state, and local chapters; coalitions; and other affiliated entities. Properly used, such affiliated entities can reap enormous benefits for the parent association. However, the legal terrain in which they operate is fraught with traps and pitfalls.

If an association is not prepared to do the detailed recordkeeping, cost allocation, and other administrative functions necessary to maintain separate governance structures and the requisite financial, management, and operational separation, then it should not establish an affiliated entity. It is burdensome to hold separate board meetings, maintain separate financial records, time sheets, and bank accounts, allocate joint program expenses and overhead, observe strict financial separation, and use separate letterhead, among other requirements. At the same time, however, there are significant benefits and opportunities to be derived from the creative use of affiliated entities.

Benefits of Related Foundations
Associations exempt from federal income tax under Section 501(c)(3) can make use of certain additional advantages available exclusively to 501(c)(3) associations. For instance, only 501(c)(3) organizations are eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions; (501(c)(6) organizations can receive dues or other payments that will be deductible to the payor only if they serve a business purpose of the payor); to receive many government grants; to qualify for nonprofit (reduced-rate) postal permits; for many state and local sales and use, real estate, and other tax exemptions; to issue tax-exempt bonds; to receive grants from private foundations without such foundations having to exercise "expenditure responsibility;" to receive tax-deductible gifts of property; to commence a deferred giving program; and to maintain a charitable bequest program.

Consequently, certain trade and professional associations, where possible, seek federal tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3). Other associations, themselves tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(6), frequently establish related educational, research, or charitable foundations under Section 501(c)(3) to take advantage of one or more of the benefits of 501(c)(3) tax exemption.

Now that you’re equipped to take the never-ending ride on the road to IRS compliance, you should have a solid understanding of what is needed for your association to closely follow not only the guidelines described above, but also the many other strict guidelines for both tax exempt and nonprofit status that exist. Keeping in mind that compliance will only continue to expand in complexity, it is essential to maintain your association’s favored status under federal and state tax codes and state corporation laws. If you recognize potential problems within your organization, you are strongly encouraged to seek the advice of your association’s tax advisor.

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