If I Start a Nonprofit Using Savings, Can I Get Money Back Later?

f you’ve got savings and an entrepreneurial streak starting a charitable nonprofit can seem appealing. But there are important financial considerations, particularly if you're nearing retirement age. In particular, what happens when you’re ready to close it down, and might need some of your investment back?

If you've set money aside, perhaps with retirement on the horizon, you might be looking for a new project into which to invest a portion of your savings. If you’ve got an entrepreneurial streak (or better yet, experience running a business) and are thinking this might be your opportunity to focus on making the world a better place, starting a charitable nonprofit can seem appealing. It’s true that the funds you bring in could pay you a salary while you work for the cause.

But there are important financial considerations beyond those related to starting and running the nonprofit, particularly if you're nearing retirement age. In particular, what happens when you’re ready to close it down, and might need some of your investment back?

Can You Transfer or Sell Assets That You’ve Put Into a Nonprofit Organization?

If you owned a for-profit business, you would most likely be able to transfer or sell your interest in it. The details and limitations would depend on any written agreements you’d entered into with other owners or lenders, as well as state or federal laws, including securities laws (those dealing with stocks, bonds, and other negotiable instruments).

By contrast, a charitable organization that is tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code receives different treatment. Should a nonprofit organization sell assets, the proceeds must go to the nonprofit organization.

For example, a nonprofit with extensive real estate might sell a portion of its property in order to raise funds for its charitable purpose instead of borrowing money.

An additional difference between a for-profit business and a nonprofit organization concerns dissolution. If a 501(c)(3) nonprofit is closing, federal rules require any remaining assets to be transferred to another tax-exempt nonprofit.

Also unlike what you may have experienced running a for-profit business, nonprofit organizations typically do not issue stock shares. As such, you would not be able to sell or transfer any stock shares or receive a dividend—any money you put into the organization would be tied up there.

For an entrepreneur who wants to start a nonprofit, these legal and structural limitations create greater risk than might be acceptable. It could be better to look into starting a traditional for-profit business or using traditional investing methods such as stocks, bonds, and so forth, or to look at the alternatives described below.

Is It Possible to Make Money From a Nonprofit Organization?

It is possible to make money through your investment and involvement with a nonprofit organization—most likely in the form of a salary. You might be able to receive a paycheck as a member of the board of directors, or possibly in another capacity, such as being employed as an officer of the organization or a staff member.

The salary would need to conform to salaries of similar positions in similarly situated nonprofits. As a board member, you could not legally be paid an excessive salary or otherwise personally benefit from the nonprofit.

Term limits are another consideration, which members of a nonprofit board typically have. A long-term position might not be possible.

Be careful if you go this route, and consult an attorney: Receiving compensation as a board member could lead to legal issues related to receiving improper personal benefit from the nonprofit or to your losing the statutory immunity protections that are normally afforded to board members.

How Might You Do Good Without Starting a Nonprofit Organization?

Starting a benefit corporation might be a better choice for a retiring entrepreneur, depending on the nature and mission of the business you have in mind.

A benefit corporation is a socially minded form of corporate entity. Many states enacted statutes within the last several years to give entrepreneurs the ability to form a corporation that benefits the community. Benefit corporations, or similar entities, are now available in a majority of states.

A benefit corporation enables the pursuit of socially conscious decisions by eliminating the usual legal requirement that corporate decisions are singularly focused on profit and benefit shareholders. For example, a benefit corporation could pledge to donate a portion of its profits to a charitable cause. The law of each state differs, so check with a lawyer to learn more.

If you are considering forming a nonprofit organization, corporation, or other entity, consult with an experienced attorney to help you choose the right corporate form and to protect your rights. It might also be prudent to discuss your business idea with SCORE. A SCORE mentor might be able to offer suggestions and ideas to help you reach your business objectives and your life goals, such as retirement.

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