Foundations, please get over the urban myth of “tipping”

Written by Vu Le

Hi everyone, before we get started, it’s been five years since Unicorns Unite: How Nonprofits and Foundations Can Build EPIC Partnerships, a book I wrote with co-authors Jessamyn Shams-Lau and Jane Leu, was released. Here’s a free webinar taking place on February 14th at 10am PT to discuss what we’ve learned since then. Auto-captions will be enabled. Also, please use promo code UNI50 here to get 50% off your copy of the book.  

Today, we talk about an issue that many of us probably had no idea existed, but one that is very annoying to those affected, and it perpetuates inequity. The concept of “tipping.” This is basically the idea that if a foundation gives a nonprofit “too much” funding, it would “tip” that nonprofit into becoming a foundation itself, which would then open a hole in the fabric of spacetime and an ancient evil would breach our dimension to rain chaos and destruction and there would be fire and brimstone and terrible wifi.

It seems to have a weird pull on many funders, who sometimes use it as an excuse to limit how much money they give to nonprofits. When I was an ED, I had multiple foundation program officers telling me they could only give my org up to a certain amount, because they didn’t want to accidentally “tip” my org. I thought this problem had gone away, but here’s a recent email I got from a nonprofit leader:

“There is a very large private foundation in our area that has used tipping as a reason why they want to focus only on granting to large organizations because they want to give out only large grants and don’t want to ‘tip’ the smaller non-profits in our area to private foundations. They made clear that they would be focusing only on large organizations that have ‘capacity,’ and they were shifting away from smaller orgs because of this tipping concern. Beyond the very intense frustration that the least-resourced organizations are not going to be eligible for their funds, it has also just added a lot of confusion for folks. I have been in several conversations lately where people have mentioned tipping concerns now where I had not been hearing this as a concern prior.”

Foundations who still believe “tipping” is an issue, we need to have a serious talk. Not much is written about it, but one of the few articles on it is this short piece by a lawyer calling it a non-issue:

This is a piece of urban legend with a little basis in reality, but it is not true […] To qualify as a public charity as a matter of right, an organization which is not a church, school, or hospital (or related entity) must receive at least one third of its support from qualified public sources. It is possible to qualify with as little as 10% public support. […] The IRS has lessened the requirements for foundation scrutiny of this issue, and it is almost never a realistic a problem today.”

There you go, foundation colleagues, that was from an actual lawyer, and not just from me, a guy whose score on the Law School Admission Test was so low that he ended up in nonprofit management, to the shame of his entire village. Tipping is not a real problem. It cannot hurt you. Your fear of it, however, is hurting the nonprofits you claim to care about. Here are several things for you to consider:

The risk of “tipping” is so low that it’s nonexistent: Sure, there may be some obscure law related to tipping. No one cares. There are all sorts of ridiculous laws that no one bothers to enforce, such as this one in Arizona making it illegal to have your donkey sleep in a bathtub. “Tipping” is one of these laws. Talk to your colleagues and see if any of them have heard of a single instance where a nonprofit lost its status because some foundation gave it 50% or 75% or 100% of its annual budget. I’m sure if you comb your network hard enough, you’ll find something. But the chances of tipping are as low as a nonprofit board chair being struck by lightning (not that it stops some staff from daydreaming). Ask yourself if that tiny potential chance is worth the certain challenges you’re causing to nonprofits who need funding to do important work.

Read full article here.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.