RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

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

MEMBER QUESTION

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I think our meeting room policy is very out of date and restricting access to the room based on content of the meeting violates 1st amendment rights, as outlined by ALA: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!

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

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, Laws, Library Programming and Events, Meeting Room Policy, Policy, Taxes

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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.