RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Accepting Donated Items At Appraisal Value - 10/26/2022
Our museum has an item on long-term loan that is potentially pretty valuable--a 200-yr old documen...
Posted: Wednesday, October 26, 2022 Permalink


Our museum has an item on long-term loan that is potentially pretty valuable--a 200-yr old document.

We no longer wish to have this item in our custody unless it is gifted to us outright, and no longer on loan.

The gentleman who loaned it to us lives out of state and is considering donating the item to us, but is currently consulting with his attorneys to decide if he should gift the item to us (a non-profit museum) for tax deduction benefits or ask us to return it to sell the item elsewhere.

He is basing this decision on appraisals done by a company that has not seen the object in question in person for nearly 20 years (the length of time it has been on loan to us), and only has photographs to go by. These appraisals were paid for by the potential donor.

Our museum does not do appraisals, nor can we afford one of our own, so we have no way of knowing if the item is worth what he says it is. Is there any potential legal ramification to us if we decide to accept the item into our collection as a donation with the value he has listed (around $20,000)- i.e. in a situation like a tax audit?



This question had me on the edge of my seat until the very end.

          WHAT is this 200-year-old document?

          WHO is this mysterious lender?

          WHAT does the original loan agreement look like?

          WHO took the 20-year-old photos?

Sadly, it's possible I'll never know the answers to these questions since none of that information is required to answer the member's question.

Is there any potential legal ramification to us if we decide to accept the item into our collection as a donation with the value he has listed (around $20,000)- i.e. in a situation like a tax audit?

The answer is: maybe, but no big deal.


"No big deal"?

Yep.  Here's why:

For a donor to claim a federal income tax deduction based on the fair market value of a donated object, the donor must back up the claimed amount with a recent[1] appraisal.  But the form the donee must sign to acknowledge the gift expressly says:

This acknowledgment does not represent agreement with the claimed fair market value.

So, unless there are enough circumstances to suggest that things are fishy or outright fraudulent, a donee accepting a gift and signing a tax form to enable a donor to claim a deduction puts the risk of inaccuracy on the donor.

That said...

There are other reasons, aside from concerns from the IRS audit, that merit caution in a scenario like the one described by the member.

When a museum that relies solely on the representation of a donor as to the value of a donated object in their collection, the insurance coverage on that object, which should be based on the value of a collection, is based on third-party information. In a worst-case scenario, that could mean an insurance claim is based on what turns out to be inaccurate information. And of course, clear eyes and scrutiny are warranted when part of a donation's value is because of history and/or provenance.

Assessing value might also be part of a museum’s overall evaluation of whether an object fits within the institution's mission and collection management policy. So even if an independent appraisal isn't possible, having a policy of insisting on one for donations in excess of a certain value might be a good policy...and one that, for special circumstances, could be waived.[2]

As with any transaction, there absolutely could be "legal ramifications" for accepting a document[3] worth $20k+, but in and of themselves, those factors shouldn't pose an impediment to accepting such a gift.

Thanks for a great question.

For more information on gift acceptance, income tax deductions, and appraisals, visit the IRS at: https://www.irs.gov/instructions/i8283#en_US_202112_publink62730rd0e827


[1] The appraisal should be done within 6 months of the donation.

[2] Or a donor could be sought to cover the costs

[3] Art and a few other things require the appraisal to be attached.  For more on that, see the IRS guidance linked above.


Tags: Archives, Donations, Historical societies and museums, IRS, Taxes

Topic: Federal Tax Exemptions for Special District Libraries - 07/12/2022
Are special district libraries eligible for 501(c)(3) or other federal tax exemption? I work at...
Posted: Tuesday, July 12, 2022 Permalink


Are special district libraries eligible for 501(c)(3) or other federal tax exemption?

I work at a special district public library, and we are not currently a 501(c)(3). Everyone I've asked from co-workers to administration to board members says no, we aren't eligible, but no one can answer *why* we wouldn't be eligible. First, we pretty explicitly meet the exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3). Also, I have worked at different types of public libraries that have been 501(c)(3)'s. Based on my reading of the IRS's eligibility requirements and state education law, the important part as far as the IRS is concerned is the structure and authority of an organization's charter. The Board of Regents is responsible for chartering public libraries in the state, so why should it matter what type of library results from the charter? However, IANAL, so I may be misunderstanding or missing something important. That's where you come in!



In Greek mythology, the "chimera" is an intact, functioning animal boasting the features of other animals: the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent (or a dragon, depending on your source).

Libraries are legal chimeras.

In fact, not only are libraries legal chimeras, but depending on the "type" of library, they are each their own, special type of chimera.

For instance, a village public library/chimera would have: the head of a village, the body of a not-for-profit corporation with municipal fur, and the tail of an education corporation as chartered by the Regents.  An association public library, on the other hand, would have: the head of group of local library-loving people, a furless not-for-profit body...and more options for the shape of the tail.

Why all this chimera imagery?  Once we take the member's question out of the cold, harsh light of logic and throw it into the dappled sunlight of myth, it is easier to unpack the confusion underlying their question.[1]

Following our "hybrid mythical animal" analogy, a special district library has: the head of a three-headed dog[2], and, if the authorities determine that it has the power to tax, the tail of a scorpion, which could render it unable to be regarded as a 501(c)(3).

This "power to tax" part is at the heart of the question.

As set out on page 10 of the "2018 Library Trustee Handbook" posted at https://www.nysl.nysed.gov/libdev/trustees/handbook/handbook.pdf, the mythical creature that is a non-association public library (of any kind) can choose to register as a 501(c)(3):

"Public libraries (municipal, school district and special legislative district) are, by definition, a government entity under IRS code, and therefore tax exempt and not 501(c) (3) corporations. However, public libraries may receive a confirmation of tax exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service to use with grant makers and businesses."

But if a special district created by legislation has a scorpion's tail and can levy a tax, they might not even qualify for the "confirmation."

Why is that?  I'll let the IRS (mostly) do the talking[3]:

Examples of entities that may be considered "separately organized" [and thus able to qualify as a 501(c)(3)] include colleges and universities; hospital, housing, or development authorities; public library boards; water or park districts; public school athletic associations; charitable trusts; and organizations created by inter-governmental agreement.


Under Rev. Rul. 60-384, a government entity will not qualify for exemption if it has powers beyond the scope of section 501(c)(3). For example, where an instrumentality exercises substantial enforcement or regulatory powers in the public interest (such as health, welfare, or safety regulation), it will not qualify.

...[for example...]

Example (3): W is a public library board organized under a state statute authorizing it to determine the tax rate needed to support its operations within specific maximum and minimum rates. W does not impose or levy taxes, but submits the tax rate to the county auditor who certifies it to the county adjustment board. The library tax is collected in the same manner as other taxes by the county treasurer, who transmits to the library board its share of tax revenues. Since W does not itself have the power to levy taxes, but only to determine tax rates, it does not have a prohibited governmental power and may qualify for exemption under section 501(c)(3). Rev. Rul. 74-15, 1974-1 C.B. 126. [emphasis added]

On the flip side, the guidance quoted above confirms that once a "special district" has a substantial government power (like taxation), it does not qualify for exemption as a 501(c)(3).

Now, here's where I go out on a limb: most[4] special district libraries do not have the power to tax directly.  That said, there certainly are "districts" in New York that have the power to sting--I mean, to tax--or other powers the IRS has determined disqualifies the entity from qualifying as a 501(c)(3), so a library should assess this issue before deciding what it qualifies for.[5] But generally,[6] special district public libraries rely on municipalities and school districts (and perhaps other taxing authorities) to collect their annual levy...and per IRS guidance, that means they can qualify as a 501(c)(3), just like the Handbook says.

What is the magical formula by which a library can assess what type of chimera it is for tax purposes?  As of this writing[7], the IRS posts that at:


And since this ATL is all about the IRS, we'll give them the last word (taken from the link above):

As a special service to government entities, IRS will issue a “governmental information letter” free of charge. This letter describes government entity exemption from Federal income tax and cites applicable Internal Revenue Code sections pertaining to deductible contributions and income exclusion.  Most organizations and individuals will accept the governmental information letter as the substantiation they need.  

Government entities can request a governmental information letter by calling 877-829-5500.

So, you can call Charon[8]--uh, the IRS--and ask them to ferry you across into 501(c)(3)land, for free. 

Good luck crossing over the Styx...I mean, conferring with the IRS on your tax-exempt status!

[1] I am not saying the member is confused.  In fact, the question shows they are quite lucid; it's the legal picture that is muddy.

[2] Since it is usually comprised of a combination of other districts and/or municipalities.

[3] The full document is here: https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-tege/eotopice90.pdf.  If you think I am off the rails with this "chimera" stuff, wait until you see how they distinguish an "entity" from an "instrumentality"!

[4] All?? I want to say all.  But I have learned to avoid absolutes in libraryworld.

[5] The IRS guidance cited states "There are three generally acknowledged sovereign powers: the power to tax, the power of eminent domain, and the police power. An entity is a "political subdivision" only if it has a substantial sovereign power. It need not have all three sovereign powers, but possessing only an insubstantial amount of any or all of the sovereign powers is insufficient."

[6] And by generally, I mean, "insofar as I know" because if there is one thing I have learned about libraries, it is to NEVER assume an absolute.

[7] July 6, 2022.

[8] Why yes...I have been re-reading "D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths" with my 8-year-old.


Tags: 501c3, IRS, Taxes

Topic: 501c3 Rules for Meeting Room Use - 11/6/2019
I need clarification about the IRS regulations on 501c3 organizations. A local political group ask...
Posted: Wednesday, November 6, 2019 Permalink


I need clarification about the IRS regulations on 501c3 organizations. A local political group asked to use our meeting room space for a 'meet the candidates' event, a library trustee thinks this is not compliant with the "The Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations" https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/the-restriction-of-political-campaign-intervention-by-section-501c3-tax-exempt-organizations

I think our meeting room policy is very out of date and restricting access to the room based on content of the meeting violates 1st amendment rights, as outlined by ALA: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/meetingrooms

No staff are involved in this event, we have not helped plan it and it was made clear on all the publicity the political group put out that the library is only the venue, we are not hosting, this is not a library program.

Thank you!


This answer comes with many disclaimers, because the legal parameters of room access and rental at chartered libraries in New York is variable territory.  In other words: the answer can depend on the library’s “type” (set by its charter), its fundamental rules (found in the bylaws), its IRS status (the “501 (c)(3) mentioned by the member”), its day-to-day rules (controlled by policies), its lease (not all libraries own the space they occupy), and any deed restrictions (although deed restrictions on the basis of speech would bring concerns).

That’s right: education law, not-for-profit corporation law, tax law, real property law…this question has it all!

That being said, the member’s question centers on federal tax law; specifically, the library’s 501(c)(3) status, which not only makes the library tax-exempt, but allows it to receive tax-deductible donations.  This status is an important fund-raising asset, and its many conditions (including not engaging in politics) cannot be taken lightly.

Here is what IRS Publication 557, the go-to for creating a tax-exempt entity, has to say about political activity:

If any of the activities (whether or not substantial) of your [501(c)(3)] organization consist of participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, your organization won't qualify for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3). Such participation or intervention includes the publishing or distributing of statements. Whether your organization is participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each case. Certain voter education activities or public forums conducted in a nonpartisan manner may not be prohibited political activity under section 501(c) (3), while other so-called voter education activities may be prohibited. [emphasis added]

Like many guides from taxing agencies, this one is superficially helpful (I put that part in bold), but upon examination, employs a disclaim that gives very little concrete guidance (I underlined that part).  So, what’s a library with a spare room to do? 

As alluded to in both the member’s question and my opening paragraph, this question doesn’t turn solely on the IRS.  Any 501(c)(3) library that rents or allows free use of space should have a robust “Facility Use Policy”[1] that considers not only IRS regulations, but safety, equal access, and operational priorities (requiring users to clean up after their meeting, to not be noisy, to respect the space).  For a library in a municipally-owned building, care must be taken to ensure use fees are applied in a way that does not violation the NYS Constitution.  And for a library that rents, the Facility Use Policy must harmonize with the lease.

But the member’s question is about 501(c)(3).  So, having established that this consideration is but one of many when giving access to or renting space, here are the three things to consider when a 501(c)(3) rents or gives access to space:

1)  Rental income needs to be a very small percentage of the library’s revenue. 

Section 501(c)(3) requires that income from renting space can’t outweigh donations and other sources of income related to the library’s tax-exempt purpose.  This is something to discuss with the library’s accountant; while rental income isn’t barred, it can bring funding ration and tax consequences that warrant the attention of a professional.

2) The use of the space can’t “inure” to the benefit of any one company or individual.

Section 501(c)(3) also requires that a qualifying organization’s resources can’t directly benefit any one person or entity more than the general public.  For example, free use of the spare room by a person conducting a stained-glass workshop with an admission fee (even a nominal one), can be considered an “inurement.” [2]

3)  As raised by the member’s trustee, the use of the space cannot violate the bar on lobbying (influencing legislation) and political activity (supporting a particular candidate for office).

And as reviewed, Section 501(c)(3) bars political activity (as further defined in the excerpt from 557, above).

“Ask the Lawyer,” has had some fairly large answers, but I don’t have space to address every occurrence that could run afoul of the bar on “political activity.” But what about renting space, on the same terms as to any other entity, to an event like the one described by the member?

Here is what the IRS has to say:[3]

Can a section 501(c)(3) organization conduct business activities with a candidate for public office?

A business activity such as selling or renting of mailing lists, the leasing of office space or the acceptance of paid political advertising may constitute prohibited political campaign activity. Some factors to consider in determining whether an organization is engaged in prohibited political activity campaign include:

a. Whether the good, service or facility is available to candidates in the same election on an equal basis,

b. Whether the good, service or facility is available only to candidates and not to the general public,

c. Whether the fees charged to candidates are at the organization’s customary and usual rates, and

 d. Whether the activity is an ongoing activity of the organization or whether it is conducted only for a particular candidate.

When developing a Facility Use Policy, if a library is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, and wishes to be able to rent space to (among others) political organizations for event, the above-listed factors should be built right into the policy.

Here is some sample language (some of it will sound familiar):

As a 501(c)(3) organization, the NAME library does not participate or intervene, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each case. Therefore, the use of space in our facility by political organizations or for partisan political events is only available on the same rental terms as for the general public, and is subject to a rental fee that is charged equally to any political group or other individual or group.   NOTE: Certain voter education activities or public forums conducted in a nonpartisan manner may qualify for a fee waiver, just as do other free and open events conducted by a charitable entity for the benefit of the public.

So, what about the member’s scenario?   In the absence of a spot-on facility use policy, I suggest the following process:

  1. Using the appropriate tax guidance, the library needs to decide if this particular “Meet the Candidates” event complies with 501(c)(3); in particular, is to be a “public forum conducted in a nonpartisan manner?”  Or is it skewed to benefit one candidate over the other? 
  1. Is the sponsoring organization a charitable entity, or is there any risk that the terms for using the room would be an “inurement?”  Will donations be solicited?  Is money charged to enter?
  1. If the answer to either shows a risk of violating 501(c)(3), then the library needs to consider if it wants to follow the formula to “do business” with a candidate for public office.  This would mean charging for the use as you would any other use.

If the library’s past practices make following those three steps too blurry, it is best to take a pass on this precise event, and take the time to develop an up-to-date and thorough Facility Use Policy that considers the types of uses the library will allow, and how and when it will charge for them. There are many good models out there to draw inspiration from, but before the board passes such a policy, it would be good to have it reviewed by a lawyer (who has ready the charter, bylaws, other policies, lease, deed, and any other relevant documents).

The member’s library is fortunate to have leadership that is thinking about both the first amendment and safeguarding the organization’s tax status.  Good work.  No matter what the final decision, awareness and commitment to these values serves your community.


[1] The member has stated their policy might not be suited to addressing this situation.  We’ll tackle that in a bit.

[2] If this just caused a stab of panic because your library let’s an instructor host a “Yoga for Seniors” class for a minimum fee to the instructor, don’t worry, this event can happen…you just have to do it right.


Tags: IRS, , Library Programming and Events, Meeting Room Policy, Policy, Taxes, Templates

The WNYLRC's "Ask the Lawyer" service is available to members of the Western New York Library Resources Council. It is not legal representation of individual members.