Is a non-profit organization (NPO) allowed to make a profit during the year? If yes, is there a limit on the amount of income that can be carried over from year to year?
A NPO is allowed to have an excess of revenues over expenditures in a given year or accounting period, and there is no specific cap set by the Internal Revenue Code. Generally, NPOs refer to this condition as a net increase, because it is simply an increase in funds available for use in furthering the organization's exempt purpose. However, NPOs should be aware of the following IRS guidelines regarding sources and uses of funds.
Unrelated Business Income Tax:
Revenues derived from sources unrelated to the organization's exempt purpose may be subject to unrelated business income tax (UBIT). IRS Publication 598 covers the basics of unrelated business income tax. Also, our January 10, 2011 blog post lays out some specific IRS standards regarding UBIT considerations.
Courts have coined the term "private inurement" to describe when a NPOs money or other assets are devoted to private uses by insiders instead of the charitable purposes they were intended for.
According to the IRS, "No part of the net earnings of a section 501(c)(3) organization may inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual. A private shareholder or individual is a person having a personal and private interest in the activities of the organization."
NPOs must carefully direct and document use of their funds toward clearly identified exempt purposes. Exempt purposes can be a nebulous term, but organizations that have applied for and received tax-exempt status from the IRS must have clearly stated purposes and should use any excess funds towards those purposes, rather than for the benefit of any private individuals. Specific uses of funds are at the discretion of the organization and its directors, but furthering the exempt purpose should always be the end goal. See this previous blog post for more on private inurement.
To answer the second question, it is very common for NPOs to report a substantial excess of revenues over expenditures in a Designated Fund. A Designated Fund is a specific fund used to finance or support an identified cause.
Designated Funds can either be initiated by the NPO or by a charitable donor. For example, a local church (the NPO) recently started raising estimated funds of $1 million for the construction of a new auditorium. The charitable donor can give money to be used specifically for the auditorium; the church cannot use the designated money for another purpose.
Let's say that at the end of the fiscal year, the church has raised $300,000 for the purpose of an auditorium. In this situation, the church may appear to have a very large "profit." However, as long as the money is designated for the purpose of the auditorium, the $300,000 increases a "Designated Fund" which must be carried into the following year.