Gifts to non-profits can come in many forms. Cash, securities, cryptocurrency, or tangible items such as art all require evaluation based on their unique pros and cons. While turning down a gift from a donor may seem counterintuitive, in some cases it can be the best decision. Some gifts may come with excessive restrictions, reputational consequences, or additional expenses. It is important to be able to judge whether a gift is truly just that, or if a “no, thank you” would better serve your organization. A Gift Acceptance Policy can help guide this decision.
A Gift Acceptance Policy defines characteristics and limitations of gifts and provides the framework to manage risk and decline donations that are not beneficial without damaging donor relations.
With the creation of a Gift Acceptance Policy, your organization will also have to decide who will be responsible for reviewing donations. Creating a separate committee dedicated to this process is a best practice. This may be a sub-committee of the Finance Committee, or an entirely new group that can assess gifts to ensure they are in line with your organization’s mission, and not burdensome. Within the policy, consider identifying which of your organization’s roles (i.e., President, General Counsel) comprise the committee, and when they are required to review gifts for heightened risk. Additionally, many organizations choose to make their Gift Acceptance Policy available on their website. Having an accessible policy will make the gifting process easier for both you and your donors.
Almost all gifts come with due diligence and reporting requirements. For donors to receive a tax deduction for a gift, they must have written documentation from the charitable organization. Your policy should indicate what person or department is responsible for acknowledging gifts and provide a timeline within which donors can expect to receive such acknowledgement. For contributions valued over $250, the charitable organization is required to substantiate the donation. For more information on these requirements see IRS publication 1771.
For non-cash contributions (other than publicly traded securities) worth $500 or more, charitable organizations are required to file form 8282. If the non-cash contribution exceeds $5,000 in value, the asset must be appraised by an appraiser who has met a list of qualifications as determined by the IRS including education and designation requirements. For more information, see IRS publication 561.
Cash is the easiest form of gift to accept and can immediately be put towards furthering your mission. Cash gifts can be made in several ways (e.g., check, credit card), some of which may require unique processes to accept the donation. For example, consider a giving campaign where supporters can provide a cash donation via text. New means of making cash donations through peer-to-peer payment systems, such as Zelle or Venmo, have made giving more accessible and are popular among younger generations.
Typically, gifts of cash are not subject to extensive review unless there are conditions that come with the gift that are inconsistent with your mission. You may choose to note in your Gift Acceptance Policy that gifts over a certain dollar amount require review to avoid conflicts of interest and ensure substantiation requirements are met.
Most gift acceptance policies state that gifts of stock, bonds, mutual funds, or other highly liquid, marketable securities, will be liquidated upon receipt unless otherwise instructed by the appropriate committee. It is a best practice to confirm with donors that the gifted securities are appreciated assets. If the assets have depreciated, it may benefit the donor to liquidate the assets and gift cash instead.
Gifts of private investments, such as stock of a closely held company, can be complicated to evaluate, and may take more time to liquidate than publicly traded stock, causing them to suffer from lack of liquidity. Your Gift Acceptance Policy should clearly state your organization’s process for determining marketability and value in these cases.
Gifts of real estate can be liquidated to generate cash or can be held. With real estate, your organization will be tasked with further considerations such as property upkeep and filing requirements. Expenses that arise from the gift of property may include appraisals and environmental site assessments. Your Gift Acceptance Policy should clarify which expenses your organization is willing to cover and which are the responsibility of the donor. Some organizations create separate entities dedicated solely to the acceptance of real estate assets for tax and liability purposes. Additionally, you may choose to add clauses that identify a minimum property value which will be considered for acceptance.
Some donations may be a solution to a donor’s problem rather than an asset to your organization. For example, a donor may want to contribute a timeshare. These gifts bring with them maintenance fees and suffer from lack of marketability.
Art and Other Tangibles
Art and other tangible items such as vehicles or coin collections can be retained or liquidated. Consider whether you have the capacity to oversee these types of gifts, which must be appraised, stored, and maintained, in some cases. These types of gifts may incur various carrying or liquidation expenses that make the gift burdensome. For instance, a gift of art will have to be insured. Finding a buyer interested in a unique asset may prove difficult if you prefer to liquidate the gift. If the buyer is in another state, your organization may incur expenses related to transport of the asset.
Your Gift Acceptance Policy can outline what forms of tangible gifts your organization will accept and what expenses you are willing to incur and cover.
Cryptocurrency (crypto) is becoming an increasingly common form of donation. To accept this form of gift, you can either establish the infrastructure to receive, hold, and sell the assets, use a third-party payment processor, or use a Donor Advised Fund. Just as with gifts of securities, many organizations choose to liquidate the crypto upon receipt. We recommend contacting your custodian for more information on accepting these donations.
There are many types of gifts to include in the Gift Acceptance Policy that fall under the Planned Giving umbrella. Examples include bequests, trusts, and beneficiary designations.
If your organization offers Charitable Gift Annuities (CGAs), consider including the requirements and details such as minimum gift amount, minimum age, and frequency in the Gift Acceptance Policy.
When your organization is named as a beneficiary of a Charitable Lead Trust (CLT) or a Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT), we recommend getting involved as soon as possible by requesting the governing documents, reviewing the terms, and discerning who the trustee(s) is. You may choose to state in your Gift Acceptance Policy whether you are willing to be named as the Trustee of these types of gifts. The designation as beneficiary may be revocable or irrevocable, and you may not be notified when you are initially named in a Trust document.
Other gifts such as Life Insurance Policies can cause your organization to incur future expense. The Gift Acceptance Policy may note stipulations such as requiring that the organization must be named irrevocable owner as well as beneficiary, and that the designation/gift will not be accepted unless future premiums owed are paid by the donor.
Regardless of the type of gift, there may be strings attached. A gift may be given with explicit directions as to what initiative or program it is intended to benefit. A gift may also require human or financial resources to liquidate. Donations could come with the condition that the value of the gift be maintained in perpetuity, and only the income may be used. These gifts bring with them an increased investment management responsibility. If a gift is to be used toward a specific purpose, or its principal value must be maintained in perpetuity, it will need to be held separate from other pools of funds to eliminate the risk of misusing the gift.
Ultimately, your organization must be willing to accept the steps, conditions, and purposes that come attached to any gift, for any amount of time. Consider whether your organization will be able to honor conditions in 50 years, for example. Creating limitations within your Gift Acceptance Policy as to what level of restrictions on gifts will be considered helps to provide a framework supporting both the current and future operations of your organization.
Failure to take proper precautions when it comes to gift acceptance can have consequences. In one instance where an organization faced a legal issue surrounding donor intent, heirs of a donor who gave $100,000 in 1886, with the intent of establishing a separate women’s college within Tulane University, filed suit when Tulane’s Board voted to close the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College in 2006. Ultimately, the case created the precedence that heirs of donors have the right to file suit when conditions of a gift are not met.
It is also important to determine where the donated funds are coming from. Nonprofits risk reputational damage if they accept gifts from individuals, organizations, or foundations with objectionable history or practices. Consider how your organization will conduct such background checks, and whether the process should become more expansive as the size of gift increases. Additionally, it is important to understand the motive of the donor. If a gift is given with the implicit or explicit expectation that the donor (or their company, family, or colleagues) will personally benefit, then it would be unethical to accept such gift, and acceptance of the gift could also jeopardize your organization's tax-exempt status.
In another case, The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced they would not accept donations from a major donor who was linked to the Opioid crisis after protesters held demonstrations inside the museum. This exemplifies how a donor’s actions and reputation can implicate your organization.
For acceptance of gifts that come with restrictions or specific uses, or are above a pre-determined amount, your organization may choose to use a Gift Agreement. A Gift Agreement provides a further layer of protection for your organization by documenting the terms, donor intent, and related expenses of a gift. A Gift Agreement can include clauses that protect your organization from future challenges. For example, a Variance Clause is useful when the original terms of the gift can no longer be met. A Moral Clause protects against instances where a donor is involved in objectionable practices, and the receiving organization would risk reputational damage from accepting a gift. We recommend discussing both a Gift Acceptance Policy and Gift Agreement with legal counsel.
It is important to make sure gifts are evaluated in a timely manner with decisions quickly communicated to donors to maintain relationships. With any gift, make sure you have the appropriate contact information to let donors know how much you appreciate their support of your mission. Every gift, regardless of whether it may be accepted or not, should be a catalyst for a thank you. By demonstrating your good stewardship, well-developed policy, and responsiveness, you may turn an initial donation into a fruitful, long-term relationship with appreciative supporters.