An overlooked concept in the world of non-profit organization financial management that does not appear to have hit its full stride yet is that of fiscal sponsorship. In a prolonged and challenging economic downturn, it may be a good time to look at it more closely. Prompted by the increase in the number of non-profit organizations seeking IRS tax exempt status (e.g., following the widespread devastation of Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina), fiscal sponsorship refers to the use of existing, established organizations to achieve similar or overlapping missions rather than forming new organizations. Essentially, a ‘fiscal sponsor’ is a non-profit, tax exempt entity that acts as a financial sponsor for a project, committee or another organization that may not yet have received its tax exempt status with the IRS. In recent years, fiscal sponsorship has become more widely known in areas of human services, environmental causes and artistic endeavors.
Perhaps ideal for start-up organizations or those that want to accomplish time-limited charitable projects, the fiscal sponsorship of a larger, established organization can provide often costly administrative “overhead” functions such as office space, payroll, employee benefits, fundraising, publicity, legal counsel and training assistance. Some project developers may simply want to test their ideas out in their fields of interest before taking on the task of applying for tax exempt status with the IRS. There are many kinds of sponsorships; however, chief among them is grant-seeking sponsorship largely because foundations and government agencies [always] fund organizations and disallow making grants to individuals. In effect, the fiscal sponsor organization may receive grants and donations and even engage in other fundraising activities on behalf of the project, manage those funds according to their intended uses as well as document the progress of the project. Choosing a fiscal sponsor largely depends on the nature or purpose of the project or committee and how consistent it may be with the mission of the larger organization. In addition, choosing a fiscal sponsor also needs to take into account the reputation of the larger organization in the community, its own financial health as well as its relationship with its funding sources. In other words, how attractive will the proposed sponsor organization be to potential funding sources for the project in subsequent grant requests? Aside from the local community, many national organizations have sprung up expressly for the purpose of providing fiscal sponsorships; for example, Tides in San Francisco, and many directories are available online. Moreover, the opportunities for a social cause or project to attract more attention and increased funding is somewhat greater in a fiscal sponsorship through the “cross promotional” benefits of an association with the larger, established organization. According to Gregory Colvin – a leading tax law expert in fiscal sponsorship – additional models of sponsorship include direct project sponsorship, independent contractor support, group exemption and technical assistance. For more detailed information about each of these models of fiscal sponsorship, please see Mr. Colvin’s book, Fiscal Sponsorship: Six Ways To Do It Right (Study Center Press, 2006).
Like many management decisions, entering into a fiscal sponsorship relationship is not a casual decision and does not come without some potential pitfalls for both the non-profit and the proposed project. A fiscal sponsorship arrangement needs to be formalized in a written contractual agreement or memorandum of understanding between both parties, typically specifying who will be responsible to do what and when. A memorandum of understanding – which, it is recommended, be reviewed by a tax attorney first – clearly addresses the terms and conditions of the project management, including the scope of the project, timeframes and deadlines, employment issues if necessary and the authority of the project, to name a few. Perhaps one of the biggest concerns for an established non-profit organization is that it will assume all of the legal liabilities, tax requirements and regulatory compliance of the project in a fiscal sponsorship agreement. Conversely, on the side of the project or committee seeking fiscal sponsorship, there may be a perceived lack of independence in the project when it is administratively managed by others. Additionally, that established non-profit organization is not going to give away their administrative time for nothing. The sponsoring organization can and most likely will charge administrative fees, which in itself need not be a bust for the project because the administration fees can be built directly and transparently into the budgets of grant requests.
Clearly, the choice of a social cause or project to seek fiscal sponsorship from a larger, established non-profit organization is a highly individualized and case-specific one. While some organizations and projects may view this kind of relationship as cumbersome or intrusive, others may thrive on it or choose to continue indefinitely in a sponsorship mode. Still other projects may receive enough valuable insight and guidance to launch their own non-profit organizations.
Colvin, G. (January, 2013). Brushes With the Law. Fiscal Sponsorship.com. Retrieved on February 5, 2014, from http://fiscalsponsorship.com/.
Colvin, Gregory (2006). Fiscal Sponsorship: Six Ways To Do It Right. San Francisco: Study Center Press.
Guide to Fiscal Sponsorship. Foundation Center.org. Retrieved on February 5, 2014, from http://foundationcenter.org/getstarted/tutorials/fiscal/conclusion.html.
Fiscal Sponsors. Council of Nonprofits.org. Retrieved on February 5, 2014, from http://www.councilofnonprofits.org/resources/resources-topic/fundraising/fiscal-sponsors.