by Shuey Fogel
Israeli charities (amutot in Hebrew) rely on donations from overseas – no secret there. Many foreign-based charities choose to create an American based nonprofit, more commonly referred to as a “Friends of” organization so donations can be tax-deductible vis-a-vis the American Federal Government. (In a previous post, I spoke about IRS trends when a “Friends of Organization” is applying for tax-exempt status.)
However, it could be that establishing a “Friends of” organization is not in your charity’s best interest. The following are some considerations that elaborate on:
Why not to establish a U.S. registered “Friends of” Organization to help fundraise?
1. Fees and Costs
Setup Costs: Experts estimate the fees associated with opening and registering a nonprofit organization in the United States at $5,000. With a complicated request, this number could increase. The organization has to answer to itself and to its donors if this cost is worth it. (More on startup fees can be found on the Social Citizen, “Want to Start a Nonprofit – Think Again.”)
Ongoing Administrative Costs: An American charity requires a presence in America. The government and private donors will expect a local address to handle their needs. Office space, supplies, travel, and salary are just a few of the ongoing expenses that can be expected for an American-based charity to support its ongoing costs.
2. Double the Regulatory Headache
On both sides of the ocean, international charity has become more complex in the last decade. A nonprofit that wishes to operate in two countries must, therefore, also adhere to two separate sets of relevant regulations, on issues ranging from philanthropy, tax, and law (too name but a few). Operating in accordance with one country’s regulations can be trying, let alone two countries (which by the way, can sometimes contradict one another). This is not to say that it is impossible. But an organization needs to understand from the outset that additional paperwork, manpower, and money might be required to ensure that both organizations are operating as they should.
Charities that want to register abroad (in this case the United States) need to understand and appreciate that for all intents and purposes, they are creating a new, separate entity there. The attempt by an Israeli institution to control, force, or participate in the American “Friends of” organization is not looked upon favorably by the I.R.S. (to put it mildly). The US government has hinted – and sometimes stated outright – that no charity shall be subservient to the control of another party; including but not limited to, donors, foundations, and other charities (local or abroad). (For more, see my article on international charity.)
An Israeli charity might not by ready or willing to relinquish control over its fundraising efforts and branding to a separate entity – even one committed to helping raise funds. One only needs to examine the recent cases of American Friends of Magen David Adom and others to understand the potential clashes that can occur.
4. No Monopoly on Raising Money
Nowadays it is possible to issue US tax-deductible receipts to donors without actually being registered in America, namely through a Middleman Organization. Also known as Conduit Organizations, these charities’ by-laws allow them to give financial support to other worthy charities that forward similar goals. While the PEF is the most famous, many other 501(c)3 tax-exempt organizations offer similar services. Recently, some online donation portals have also joined the ranks. This is even assuming that all donors want a tax-deductible receipt, which not all donors do.
What should my organization do? Register as “Friends of” or not bother?
Only the organization – through its staff and board – can know the answer to this question; it shouldn’t hire a consulting firm or be pushed around by a big donor. Like everything else, it is about strategy and purpose.
However, there are some universal factors. The following are some considerations that might influence a decision:
- Cost – It takes a buck to make a buck. Do the setup and ongoing expenses outweigh the benefits?
- Volunteers – Does the organization have supporters living in the States that are willing (or unwilling) to take on the responsibilities for running a nonprofit?
- Board Members – The IRS, among others, has frowned upon overlapping board members between American organizations and the foreign charities they support (see same post on international charity mentioned above). Does the organization have the fresh faces to help found an independent American charity?
- Ongoing Fundraising Efforts – Will the organization be engaged in ongoing fundraising efforts in the United States throughout the year or just infrequent fundraising campaigns?
- Donor Relations – One of the main reasons for creating a “Friends of” organization is to communicate, recruit, and retain donors. Can the organization accomplish these goals from Israel? (Remember that for the same job, an Israeli’s salaried employee will cost less than an American’s salary.) Will an American living in America but employed by the Israeli charity suffice?
- Control – Never forget that an American charity (whether its actual called a “Friends of” or not) must be independent. Is the foreign-based charity willing and able to give up control to a group of supporters and like-minded individuals? (And yes, this consideration is so important that I mentioned it twice.)
I want to stress that I am not advocating one over the other – there is no objectively better option. However, I will say this: the instinctive, gut-reaction for an Israeli charity to automatically setup a “Friends of” organization, regardless of whether or not it fits into the strategy of the organization is, in my opinion, premature and incorrect. Simply put, money and time might be better spent elsewhere.
What’s your experience? Why not share a story that might help another organization out …
Disclaimer: This blog houses my personal opinions and is for informational purposes only – not advice. As charity laws can be quite complex, please refer all questions to qualified and licensed professionals. Read the full disclaimer.
Shuey Fogel is a nonprofit professional turned banking specialist. He is currently Director of Nonprofit Services for an Israeli bank. Shuey shares relevant conversations, articles, and experiences on his blog, nonprofitbanker.com.