Working for a cause
Practices and clients alike looking to drive a social cause won’t necessarily be out of pocket – in fact, it could be a smart business decision.
Starting a not-for-profit (NFP) organisation often stems from a desire to make an impact in a community on an issue that an individual or group of people believe is not adequately addressed by the government or existing NFPs.
Many business owners with charitable ambitions don’t consider starting their own NFP because of the potential financial drain on them or the practice – but this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. In fact, there are various bottom-line benefits for those that take the leap.
For example, and most commonly, there can be significant tax concessions with setting up an NFP, says NFPAS consulting chief financial officer Ellie Paterson.
“The benefits for setting up an NFP or a charity in accounting terms are the tax concessional treatments that are available for those entities,” Ms Paterson said.
“Under certain circumstances there are exemptions from income tax, there are GST concessional treatments, and concessional treatments for the same business test (SBT).
“Other than the tax field, benefits would be potential access to grant funding and even on a broader scale than that, there’d be marketing benefits or reputational branding benefits.”
In short, done well, and with the right considerations in mind, an NFP can be an effective way for you or for your clients to put the pedal to the metal in driving social change.
Setting up shop
The first step for anyone considering establishing an NFP is to see if there is another similar one already in operation – a simple step that is often skated over. With approximately 600,000 NFPs in Australia, and 54,000 charities registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), this might be a tricky ask.
“Don’t start up a new competitor unless you have to [and] starting up your own association should be a last resort only,” says Lovett Philanthropy director Tabitha Lovett.
“First, research and map the sector which matches your intended environment thoroughly and even if you do still conclude that there is a gap and a pressing need for the organisation you wish to establish, you’ll benefit from having undertaken that research to make your case.
“A formal organisation can, however, be a powerful way of getting your message across or structuring your activities.”
Once a decision is made, it is important to choose the right legal structure to minimise potential legal difficulties further down the track.
According to Ms Paterson, the most common legal structures are an incorporated association or a company limited by guarantee.
“We will have a detailed conversation with the client to understand what it is they are trying to achieve, and the difference that they are trying to make in the world, and then we can make recommendations to them as to what legal structure is best suited to them,” said Ms Paterson.
“The constitution is the first step in that, and that’s obviously a critical stage to get the foundation of the organisation correct from day one, to get the charitable purposes very clear and succinct and to exactly capture what it is the people are trying to do in most charitable purposes.
“There’s also some technical aspects of the constitution that we need to get right at the start that will then make later steps in the process easier and that’s when we come to the point of registering them as a charity or with deductible gift recipient status, and that’s when the constitution and particular clauses are looked at very closely.”
“Once that has been established, a legal entity can be set up with ASIC and be registered with the tax office for their ABN, tax file number, and for GST. PAYG can also set up at this stage if appropriate and the organisation can begin operation.
“At that point, they have NFP status simply by the nature of the organisation that they are,” said Ms Paterson.
“If they want to go the further step and be registered as a charity then it’s the next step to put in the application with the ACNC — in most instances we can combine an application for deductible gift recipient status which means they are able to issue tax deductible donation receipts and also look at state requirements for a fundraising licence or charity licence.
“It is quite a detailed process. It’s not to say that people can’t do that themselves but it takes a fair amount of time and research to begin to fully understand what each step involves.”
However, accountants should be wary of the limitations of the advice they can offer to a potential client, with certain elements, such as the changing of an entity’s constitution, requiring the attention of an NFP lawyer.
“An accountant can help you with that self-assessment by looking up rulings or basically going through their processes to identify what criteria you come under and give advice,” said HLB Mann Judd partner Mariana von-Lucken.
“Most of the time an organisation is already set up and it’s about changing the constitution and updating it and that’s where a lawyer comes in — and also because they know how to formulate those applications properly.
“The category is limited in terms of what sits within income tax exemption that isn’t a charity, and it’s not very wide,” she added.
“So, certainly accountants can assist with identifying if you do sit within the income tax exemption even though you are not a charity. We can also identify if you would fit under a charity, but because of the fact that you would likely have to do some changes to your constitution or make sure your ducks are in order, then you would use an NFP lawyer.”
Funding the cause
While the aim of an NFP may be to benefit a charitable purpose, the organisation still needs to function as a regular business, and there are various ways to ensure it doesn’t become a drain.
“There are government grants and there are also private grants, they can seek donations from the general public and obviously that’s where their deductible gift recipient status is almost essential,” said Ms Paterson.
“There are emerging trends like crowdfunding, and there are the more old-fashioned but still good fundraisers like putting on a ball or luncheon, or running a trading table, sausage sizzle.
“There’s corporate sponsorships, and corporate partnerships and they are coming more to the fore as there are more companies out there with a social conscience and wanting to be seen as a good corporate citizen and there’s this whole growing world of social enterprise so there’s many funding streams and funding opportunities.”
Adding to that, Ms Paterson said there is a common misconception with the way NFPs are run.
“I know there are often criticisms about charities paying admin costs but charities are no different from any other business in that they need to run the business to actually make money and make a difference,” she said.
“I think it would be very difficult to run a successful charity long term purely on a volunteer basis and even then, you still need infrastructure around you to operate.
“In that sense, I think charities do need to understand that they are still a business and whilst the desire is to funnel as much funds as possible into their charitable purpose, they still need to actually operate.”
Likewise, Ms von-Lucken believes an NFP has to ensure it is running an efficient business and maintaining cash flow as a for-profit business does.
“You look at what your income is and your expenses and you want to be able to get a profit so you can use it to put it back into the business so it’s having that cash flow and it’s not waiting for the next grant or donation to come in,” Ms von-Lucken said.
However, NFPs should be cautious in their approach to operations and ensure that they are still working towards the charitable purpose and not drifting into the commercial space. Even though intentions might be good in this respect, this approach can jeopardise the available concessions.
“NFPs and charities need to be careful that their charitable purpose is their main purpose and any funds raised are going to that charitable purpose,” Ms Paterson said.
“If they are starting to stray into commercial operations or commercial enterprises, they can actually lose some of their tax concessions and can actually start to become liable for income tax.”
Similarly, Ms von-Lucken believes that NFPs who find themselves straying from their original purpose may consider winding down.
“There are organisations out there where the purpose is no longer relevant so all they’ve done is just accumulate money and now they’ve just got investments because at the time they had a purpose, they made a profit and they invested it, and kept investing it, but it’s not benefiting the community and I’m not sure if there’s a purpose there anymore,” she added.
While a regular business’ success may be measured by its bottom line, defining success in an NFP may not be as straightforward.
Ms Lovett says having a large positive bottom line may instead be an indicator that the organisation is not carrying out the activities it should to fulfil its purpose.
Instead of looking at its profits, Ms Lovett believes an NFP can examine three types of data in reviewing and presenting their success.
Firstly, an NFP should look at their inputs — the way resources were used to conduct an activity. This should cover both financial and non-financial resources such as volunteer time and equipment.
Next, an NFP can measure its outputs in the activities conducted, such as the number of classes held, the number of students enrolled or graduated, or the number of members enrolled.
Lastly, to better track the results and outcomes of the activities, the NFP can measure how much better off the organisation’s clients, or community is as a whole, as a result of the organisation’s activities.
While setting up an NFP may seem daunting, Ms Lovett believes business owners can succeed if they do their research and employ the right advice from the get-go to ensure their NFP ultimately succeeds.
“If that is the path you wish to follow, just make sure you get good advice early on in the process and set up the entity for success,” said Ms Lovett.