You may have heard about business leagues.
One very much in the news recently is the National Football League, which has been considering giving up its tax-exempt status.
In the tax world, exempt entities obtain their exempt status under Section 501(c). There is then a number, and that number is the “type” of exempt under discussion. For example, a classic charity like the March of Dimes would be a 501(c)(3). When we think of tax-exempts, we likely are thinking of (c)(3)’s, for which contributions are deductible to the donor and nontaxable to the recipient charity.
The (c)(3) is about as good as it gets.
A business league is a (c)(6). So is a trade association.
Right off the bat, payments to a (c)(6) are not deductible as contributions. They are, however, deductible as a business expense- which makes sense as they are business leagues. You and I probably could not deduct them, but then again you and I are not businesses.
There are some benefits. For example, a (c)(6) has virtually no limit on its lobbying authority, other than having to pro-rate the member dues between that portion which represents lobbying (and not deductible by anybody) and the balance (deductible as a business expense).
There are requirements to a (c)(6):
(1) There must be members.
a. The members must share a common business interest.
i. Members can be individuals or businesses.
ii. If membership is available to all, this requirement has not been met. This makes sense when you consider that the intent of the (c)(6) is to promote shared interests.
(2) Activities must be directed to improving business conditions in a line of business.
a. Think of it as semi-civic: to advance the general welfare by promoting a line of business rather than just the individual companies.
b. This pretty much means that membership must include competitors.
c. Sometimes it can be sketchy to judge. For example, the IRS denied exemption to an organization whose principal activity was publishing and distributing a directory of member names, addresses and phone numbers to businesses likely to require their services. The IRS felt this went too close to advertising and too far from the improvement of general business conditions.
(3) The primary activities must be geared to group and not individual interests.
a. The American Automobile Association, for example, had its application denied as it was primarily engaged in rendering services to members and not improving a line of business.
(4) The main purpose cannot be to run a for-profit business.
a. This requirement is standard in the not-for-profit world. You can run a coffee shop, but you cannot be Starbucks.
b. For example, a Board of Realtors normally segregates its MLS activities in another – and separate – company. The Board itself would be a (c)(6), but the MLS is safely tucked away in a for-profit entity – less it blow-up the (c)(6).
(5) Must be not-for-profit.
a. Meaning no dividends to shareholders or distributions rights if the entity ever liquidates.
b. BTW – and to clarify – a not-for-profit can show a profit. Hypothetically it could show a profit every year, although it is debatable whether it could rock the profit level of Apple or Facebook and keep its exemption. The idea here is that profits – if any – do not “belong” to shareholders or investors.
(6) There must be no private inurement or private benefit to key players or a restricted group of individuals.
a. Again, this requirement is standard in the not-for-profit world.
b. This issue has been levelled against the NFL. Roger Goodell (the NFL Commissioner) has been paid over $44 million a year for his services. It does not require a PhD in linguistics to ask at what point this compensation level becomes an “inurement” or “benefit” disallowed to a (c)(6).
There is litigation around (4) and (6). The courts have allowed some business activity and some benefit to the members, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. The courts refer to this as “incidental benefit.”
Which can lead to interesting follow-up issues. Take a case where the organization runs a business (within acceptable limits) and then uses the profit to subsidize something for its members. Can this amount to private inurement? The members are – after all - receiving something at a lower cost than nonmembers.
Let’s take a look at a recent application. I think you know enough now to anticipate how the IRS decided.
(1) The (c)(6) members are convenience stores and franchisees of “X.”
(2) Revenues will be exclusively from member fees.
(3) One-quarter of member fees will be remitted annually to the national franchisee (that is, the franchise above “X”)
(4) Member franchisees will elect the Board.
(5) The (c)(6) will educate and assist with franchise policies.
(6) The (c)(6) will facilitate resolution between members and executives of “X.”
How did it go?
The IRS bounced the application.
We could have stopped at (1). There is no “line of business” happening here. Members are limited to franchisees of “X.” Granted, “X” participates in an industry but “X” does not comprise an industry.
The organization tried to clean-up its application after being rejected but it was too little too late.
The organization was not promoting the industry as a whole. It rather was promoting the interest of the franchisee-owners.
Nothing wrong with that. You just cannot get a tax exemption for it.
About the author
Steven D. Hamilton is a career CPA, with extensive experience involving all aspects of tax practice, including sophisticated income tax planning and handling of tax controversy matters for closely-held businesses and high-income individuals.