A public benefit corporation is a type of non-profit organization (NPO) dedicated to tax-exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code which covers: charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals. Public benefit NPOs may not distribute surplus funds to members, owners, shareholders; rather, these funds must be used to pursue the organization’s mission. If all requirements are met, the NPO will be exempt from paying corporate income tax, although informational tax returns must be filed.
Under the rules governing public benefit NPOs, “charitable” purposes is broadly defined, and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency. These NPOs are typically referred to as “charitable organizations,” and eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions from donors.
To be organized for a charitable purpose and qualify for tax exemption, the NPO must be a corporation, association, community chest, fund or foundation; individuals do not qualify. The NPO’s organizing documents must restrict the organization’s purposes exclusively to exempt purposes. A charitable organization must not be organized or operated for the benefit of any private interests, and absolutely no part of the net earnings may inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.
Additionally, the NPO may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities, and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.
All assets of a public benefit non-profit organization must be permanently and irrevocably dedicated to an exempt purpose. If the charitable organization dissolves, its assets must be distributed for an exempt purpose, to the federal, state or local government, or another charitable organization. To establish that the NPO’s assets will be permanently dedicated to an exempt purpose, the organizing documents should contain a provision ensuring their distribution for an exempt purpose in the event of dissolution. If a specific organization is designated to receive the NPO’s assets upon dissolution, the organizing document must state that the named organization must be a section 501(c)(3) organization at the time the assets are distributed.
If a charitable organization engages in an excess benefit transaction with someone who has substantial influence over the NPO, an excise tax may be imposed on the person and any NPO managers who agreed to the transaction. An excess benefit transaction occurs when an economic benefit is provided by the NPO to a disqualified person, and the value of that benefit is greater than the consideration received by the NPO.
To apply for tax exemption under section 501(c)(3), the NPO must file Form 1023 with the IRS, along with supporting documentation, including organizational documents, details regarding proposed activities and who will carry them out, how funds will be raised, who will receive compensation from the NPO, and financial projections. If approved, the IRS will issue a Letter of Determination. Public charities must also apply for exemption from state taxing authorities, a process which varies from state to state.