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Avoiding Conflict of Interest on a Nonprofit Board of Directors

Multi-ethnic business people discussing in board room meeting

In one of our recent articles, we discussed the importance of having a strong organizational structure and the role of a board of directors within a nonprofit organization. That article will give you a general introduction to the various pieces of a nonprofit’s governance. Once you have a grasp on the governing body of a nonprofit, you next need to be aware of IRS guidelines when it comes to conflicts of interest.

What Is a Conflict of Interest?

It is important to understand the IRS perspective about conflict of interest when structuring the board of directors for a nonprofit organization.  A conflict of interest is a transaction or arrangement that might benefit the private interest of an officer, board member, or employee…or even a relative of the same.  Conflicts of interest on a board of directors can take several forms:

  • Related parties serving on the board together
  • Board members who are related to employees
  • Board members who are also employees
  • Certain transactions involving board members or employees
  • Property conflicts

While it may not be possible to avoid a conflict of interest in every situation, it is best practice to avoid or minimize them.

How Relationships Impact Conflict of Interest

To avoid having a majority-related board, you have to know how the IRS defines a relationship between board members. Board members who are related either through blood or marriage are considered related parties. The IRS typically considers grandparents, spouses, or siblings a relationship. Any relationship beyond an immediate family member, such as a cousin or aunt, is not normally considered a relationship for conflict purposes.

Business partners are also considered related parties.  If two or more individuals co-own at least 35% of a business, the IRS considers them related through business dealings. This becomes a potential conflict when both serve as board members for the same nonprofit organization. Individuals related by business dealings are treated the same as blood/marriage relationships.

Can Relationships On the Board Affect Quorum?

Understanding how the IRS defines relationships and conflicts of interest is important when determining what qualifies as the organization’s quorum. A quorum is defined as the minimum number of members of a board of directors who can officially meet to discuss business and vote on decisions. In a nonprofit setting, a quorum is the minimum number of unrelated board members needed to count as an official meeting.

For example, if a board of directors is comprised of five individuals, in most cases three of these board members can meet and satisfy quorum. However, if a board is comprised of five individuals, of whom two are related, satisfying quorum becomes more complicated. If both related members are at a meeting during a voting situation, all five board members must be present to satisfy quorum because the majority of board members present must be unrelated.

Related Party Conflict Impacts Public Charities Specifically

Public charities are almost always disallowed from having a majority-related board. Despite not having a specific, written prohibition against it, the IRS will disallow it in its review of an organization’s Form 1023 application.  The reason has to do with the potential for private benefit.

Individuals are prohibited from inurement, that is, receiving excessive compensation or benefit from their employment or association with the organization they serve. Even if individuals on the board are not compensated, the inurement prohibition infers the unwritten rule against majority-related board members.  This prohibition is in place because such arrangements have the potential to jeopardize the mission of the organization.

If it is determined that close control by related individuals would best serve the nonprofit, the board may decide that the organization should be a private foundation instead of a public charity.  Private foundations do not adhere to the same conflict of interest guidelines as public charities.

A similar situation arises in a public charity when a board member’s relative is to be hired by the organization. The related board member must recuse themselves of voting on the hiring and compensation amount for their relative.

Dual Capacity Individuals and Conflict of Interest

The IRS inurement prohibition goes beyond majority-related board members. It also includes dual-capacity individuals.

Dual-capacity individuals are those who serve as an employee as well as a board member of the same organization. These individuals do not help satisfy quorum, especially when the board is voting on compensation for that board member’s position. In fact, such individuals must recuse themselves from discussion and voting on matters pertaining to them.

It is critical to understand the division of responsibilities for board members and employees. The board is responsible for the governance of the organization, while employed individuals are responsible its management and operation. As stated in our last article on board members, having an individual be responsible for both of these roles is not long-term best practice.

Business Dealings and Conflict of Interest

Additionally, a conflict of interest is created if the organization chooses to use services provided by a board member’s for-profit company. If an organization wants to use such services, it must provide documentation showing that individual’s company is the best option for the organization, and services must be provided at a fair value (if not below market value).

Property Ownership and Conflict of Interest

Insider-owned land, buildings, vehicles, or equipment that is being used by the organization present a conflict of interest. At a minimum, the insider must recuse themselves of any discussion or decision-making. Unless donated, the IRS may require proof that the transaction is in the best interest of the nonprofit, which as mentioned in the above paragraph, will require research and documentation.

Final Thoughts

Avoiding conflict of interest is always best practice. If having a conflict of interest is unavoidable, there are measures the organization can take to avoid questions from the IRS. All decision-making should be documented. Proper documentation also helps the organization ensure that all meetings have the proper board members to satisfy quorum. Having policies and criteria for board members, both new and current, will help the organization abide by IRS guidelines.

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Greg McRay is the founder and CEO of The Foundation Group. He is registered with the IRS as an Enrolled Agent and specializes in 501(c)(3) and other tax exemption issues.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. My church is currently debating whether the spouse of an employee should be on our council (Board). I’m arguing that if they are a member of the church, they have the right, but should recuse themselves of decisions that would directly enrich themselves or their spouse. Thoughts?

  2. Does being a RESIDENT board member of a 501(c)3 CCRC not present a conflict of interest, as the entire operation is to serve the residents?

    1. What you are describing is pretty normal in a member organization. It’s pretty rare indeed for the board of a membership driven nonprofit to have non-member board directors. While there is some slight conflict, it should rise to a problem level. CCRCs, HOAs, even churches are usually in this situation. Unless the board decisions are directly enriching individual board members, the conflict should be completely negligible.

  3. I got close a religious corporation where 5 of the board members are relatives and the other two members of the board cannot do anything about it as all their initiatives are being blocked by the majority. The bylaws allow this impasse. Is this situation illegal, i.e. can those two members use IRS or California law to change the situation, which is harming the public interest?

    1. Hi, Nikolay. Actually, if the nonprofit you’re talking about is a 501(c)(3) public charity…and I suspect it is…then the current board structure is in violation of the IRS organizational test for public charities. The IRS requires public charities to have a board structure that is a majority unrelated by blood, marriage, and outside business connections, and majority non-employees of the nonprofit. Failure to structure this way results in an inability of the board to operate at arms-length and creates the possibility of significant IRS penalties under their Intermediate Sanctions rules. If you cannot influence this board to get compliant, I frankly recommend you get away from it. It probably isn’t worth the liability to you. Good luck!

      1. Yes, it’s a public charity and I’m not a member of the board (thank God), but a member of the parish and our community has been trying to influence the board to change, but the bylaws are flawed and don’t allow adding new members to the board easily, so, every year, they just shift the same related people around and not new people can get onboard and move the church into the public interest’s direction. Thank you very much! Your knowledge and willingness to help is without a match! God bless!

  4. What is the quorum if you have multiple pairings. ie. 2 sisters on the board and a married couple of another family. 4 related people but two separate families?What is the quorum if you have multiple pairings. ie. 2 sisters on the board and a married couple of another family. 4 related people but two separate families?

    1. Great question, Kyle. Best practice dictates that a quorum not be defined as only a numeric majority of the board. It is best to set the quorum requirements as a numeric majority of board members present, but only assuming the members present have among them a simple majority unrelated to each other and/or having an employment stake in the organization. It gets a little more unwieldy in the situation you describe with multiple relationships. Frankly, I would avoid allowing this to ever happen in the first place. If it already is that way for your organization, at least the above quorum definition provides minimal arms-length. The trouble comes in when related parties can be expected to vote in-sync. By the same token, I’ve seen related parties fight each other like alley cats!

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Boards and Conflicts
1. Avoiding Conflict of Interest on a Nonprofit Board of Directors
2. A Nonprofit Board of Directors – What is a Board?
3. Nonprofit Bylaws – The Dos and Don’ts
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