First and foremost, let me wish everyone who reads SocEntLaw the safest and happiest of holidays.
Next, I want to share something that, as the Grinch would say, has me “puzzled and puzzled ‘till [my] puzzler [is] sore.”*
Specifically, I cannot figure out why the Brewer Family Foundation’s tax lawyer, Ebenezer Scrooge, is insisting that the Foundation may buy $500,000 of stock in BP or give $500,000 to GreenPeace to celebrate the season, but that the Foundation cannot risk investing the same amount in SunSleigh, Inc. a “social enterprise” developing an affordable solar-powered car. I think old Ebenezer finally has lost it, and the Foundation needs a new tax lawyer.
Let me explain. Although not huge in terms of value, the imaginary Brewer Family Foundation’s mission is nonetheless a big one: to save the world, especially the environment. The Foundation’s endowment is $100 million and as required for tax purposes every year the Foundation distributes to charity at least 5% of the value of the Foundation’s assets. We’ve already met our 5% goal this year, but because our endowment is really well managed and generating an average 10% annual return, we’re feeling more generous than usual this December and have an extra $500,000 to spend. We’ve narrowed down our choices to the following three:
• Buying stock in BP (because we think BP stock is a really good investment right now even though it runs contrary to our mission of protecting the environment); or
• Giving money to GreenPeace expressly because we think GreenPeace hates oil companies and cares about the environment more than any other charity (except, of course, the Foundation); or
• Investing in SunSleigh, a local, privately-held company raising money to develop an affordable solar-powered car.
Personally, I would like the Foundation to invest the extra $500,000 in SunSleigh, but Ebenezer says we can’t.
More background: As I mentioned, SunSleigh is a private “social enterprise” company located here in Atlanta that is developing an affordable solar-powered car. A $500,000 investment in SunSleigh would equate to 1% of the SunSleigh stock. Like the Foundation, the owners of SunSleigh are so committed to the environment that they plan to sell the SunSleigh for as little as possible so long as they can generate a 2% return on invested capital. No doubt the investment will be very risky, and the Foundation might lose all $500,000, but in my well-considered judgment, SunSleigh really could help save the environment if it is successful. In fact, I sincerely and realistically believe that the Foundation might do more to save the planet by investing in SunSleigh than it could ever accomplish through all of its other investments and annual grants to environmental charities like GreenPeace. Moreover, SunSleigh really needs the Foundation’s $500,000 because it has been unable to attract normal investment capital due to SunSleigh’s commitment to keep the car’s costs low and pay only a 2% dividend forever.
So, I called my favorite tax lawyer, Ebenezer Scrooge, just to make sure that I was on solid legal and tax ground if the Brewer Family Foundation invested $500,000 in SunSleigh. After grilling me on all the particulars of the Foundation’s assets, mission, tax filings, annual distributions, and SunSleigh’s ownership, business plan, and stock offering—which, by the way, were all fine and legally compliant as far as Ebenezer was concerned—I was extremely disappointed to hear Ebenezer tell me that if the Foundation invested $500,000 in SunSleigh it could face a $50,000 penalty tax. Even more outrageous, Ebenezer said that I personally might have to pay a $50,000 tax as well. Further, if the Foundation invested in SunSleigh and lost the $500,000, then according to Ebenezer the IRS conceivably could revoke the Brewer Family Foundation’s tax exempt status.
I couldn’t believe my ears! After listening at length to Ebenezer explain in detail the complicated and confusing tax law applicable to private foundations, and after getting more and more frustrated, I finally said somewhat angrily to Ebenezer: “You mean to tell me that, in carrying out the Foundation’s mission to protect the environment, for a mere one-half of one percent of the foundation’s assets the tax law would prefer that I buy stock in BP or give the same amount of money to GreenPeace instead of investing in an idea that could make both BP and GreenPeace obsolete?”
Ebenezer sheepishly said, “Yes, that’s right.”
Then, I exclaimed, “You and the tax law are nuttier than a Christmas fruitcake.” I immediately hung up the phone and poured myself a spiked glass of eggnog to calm my nerves.
Do you know why Ebenezer probably is right? Revisit SocEntLaw in the future for the answer.
* “And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
― Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas