How Much Unrelated Earned Income May a Nonprofit Receive?

An example of earned income for a nonprofi is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gift shop.
Is the income from a museum gift shop unrelated or related business activity? The answer can be complex. Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Many nonprofits run business enterprises to supplement their charitable giving income and to help create multiple streams of revenue.

Invariably, though, a recurring question has to do with related and unrelated business income from selling services or goods by a nonprofit.  

First, nonprofits must understand the difference between related and unrelated business income.

The first simply means that the revenue supports the mission of the organization.

For instance, a symphony orchestra sells tickets to its performances. Those performances are, obviously, mission related. On the other hand, if a nonprofit decides to sell balloons at market rates to the general public, the income would not likely be mission related.

However, whether income is related or unrelated is complex with many exemptions and nuances.  For instance, if those balloons were sold by a volunteer work force, the income might be considered mission related.

Similarly, income from an ice cream shop run by a nonprofit that employs the physically challenged youngsters that the nonprofit exists to serve would likely fall into the mission related category. 

If income turns out to be unrelated to the nonprofit's mission, then the question becomes how much of that income is acceptable.  

Many large nonprofits such as universities and medical centers create many sources of income, some related and some not.

Figuring out whether they owe taxes on any of that income requires the brain power of more than one tax attorney.

For small nonprofits, the questions should be much easier, but charities need to think through the related vs unrelated issue well before they start any business activity.

To help clarify this question, I asked Emily Chan, an attorney who specializes in nonprofit issues, for her opinion.

Here's what she said:

Nonprofit organizations are generally limited in the amount of unrelated business activities they can conduct.

But the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has not been specific about how much permissible earned income can be generated by unrelated sources.

Although no fixed percentage limitation exists, there are two main reasons why unrelated business income raises concern for public charities and most other exempt organizations under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c).

  1. First, unrelated business income is taxable at the corporate tax rate (i.e., subject to the unrelated business income tax (UBIT).
  2. Second, an exempt organization cannot engage in more than an insubstantial amount of unrelated business activity without risk of losing its tax-exempt status.

An "unrelated business" is defined by the IRS as a trade or business that is regularly carried on, and not for the most part related to the exempt purpose of the organization.

A related business means that the income-generating activity supports the organization's exempt purposes, and does not just produce income.

Whether or not the activity produces income is not the most important fact. But what does matter is if that activity supports the organization’s mission.

The analysis of related vs. unrelated business activities can become quite complex. For instance, individual items sold in a museum gift shop could be classified either way.

There are also exceptions to the rule under Internal Revenue Code section 513(a) for certain activities.

These exceptions include:

  • Activities run by volunteers
  • Activities carried on for the convenience of its members, students, patients, officers, or employees
  • Selling of donated merchandise. (Passive income, such as interest, dividends, rents, and royalties is also generally excluded from unrelated business income.

Serious issues would likely exist under the unrelated business income rules for an organization with over 50 percent of its total gross income produced from unrelated business activity.

However, regulations are imprecise about where to draw the line below that 50 percent mark.

Without a fixed percentage limitation from the IRS, legal advisers often use various rules of thumb, although 20 percent is common.

Organizations should seek appropriate counsel or expertise when engaging in business activities.

If the activities do not meet the definition of an unrelated business or fall under an exception or exclusion, the organization may have much more flexibility in how it engages in such activities without triggering any penalties.

Resources: 

IRS Publication 598 -- Tax on Unrelated Business Income of Exempt Organizations

Does My Nonprofit Need to Pay Tax? Understanding Unrelated Business Income Tax, NPQ, 12/25/2011

This communication was not written or intended to be used, and may not be used, by any taxpayer for the purpose of (i) avoiding any tax-related penalty under the Internal Revenue Code, or (ii)