Two relatively recent news events have raised the issue of nonprofit organizations returning gifts to donors:
- The mainstream media wanted to know if Penn State University should return donations to donors who ask for a refund or should Penn State stick to its longstanding policy of not returning gifts. Following the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, the University affirmed its no-refund policy in its official talking points.
- The mainstream media also took notice of a lawsuit filed by country music star Garth Brooks against INTEGRIS Canadian Valley Regional Hospital. Brooks sought the return of a $500,000 contribution. The media wondered if the Hospital should have returned the donation before things ended up in court.
Since much has already been said about whether gifts should be returned upon a request by a donor, I want to focus on whether a nonprofit organization can legally return a donation.
I’m not a lawyer. So, I decided to contact one. I spoke with a high-ranking state official who specializes in the regulation of nonprofit organizations. The official requested anonymity since we were discussing hypothetical situations.
Under certain circumstances, nonprofit organizations can refund a donor’s contribution. However, under other circumstances, returning a donor’s gift could result in a review by state authorities. Whether or not a situation results in state review will depend on a given state’s regulations, the impact returning the gift would have on the nonprofit, and the size of the gift in question,.
Different states have different laws and regulations governing nonprofit organizations. However, most, if not all, state rules are vague on the point of charities returning gifts. What states do recognize is that when a donor gives money to a nonprofit organization, that money is no longer the donor’s once accepted by the charity. Instead, the money is, in effect, owned by the public interest. Because nonprofit organizations exist to benefit the public interest, regulators will be concerned that gifts are used to further the public interest. Returning a donor’s gift could be contrary to the public interest. That’s the issue for regulators.
For example, a donor may want his $1 million gift returned. However, at the time of the request, the nonprofit may have already spent the money on construction of a new building. It may no longer be holding the donor’s money. And, it may not have sufficient cash on-hand to provide a refund. Or, providing a refund may substantially hurt the organization’s financial health. In such a situation, state regulators might find that returning the gift could be counter to the public interest and might move to block a refund.