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Apr 3, 2011 | Publications

A White Paper on Comprehensive Fiscal Sponsorship

Read our white paper, On Comprehensive Fiscal Sponsorship, for a thorough analysis of the field of fiscal sponsorship. This legal report is intended for individuals and groups considering fiscal sponsorship services.

The following is a list of topics and Chapter 1 of the white paper, On Comprehensive Fiscal Sponsorship. You can download the entire paper in pdf format, including a special section on fiscal sponsorship standards (a work in progress by a national group of fiscal sponsors).

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Mission Alignment
  3. The Memorandum of Understanding and Advisory Boards
  4. Ease of Entry
  5. Ongoing Compliance
  6. Nurturing Support
  7. Addressing Misconceptions
    1. Donor Advised Fund v. Fiscal Sponsorship
    2. Comprehensive Fiscal Sponsorship for the 501(c)(3)
    3. Incubator Only?
  8. The Intangible Benefits of Comprehensive Fiscal Sponsorship
  9. Ease of Exit
  10. Conclusion


The purpose of this paper is to provide readers with a thorough understanding of the emerging field of Comprehensive Fiscal Sponsorship (CFS). It is intended for use by individuals and groups considering utilizing a fiscal sponsor to facilitate their mission-related work, by organizations considering offering fiscal sponsorship services, and by nonprofit, foundation and legal practitioners who wish to inform themselves about this topic.

The term fiscal sponsorship actually refers to several different, often overlapping arrangements; the common denominator is generally that a group wishing to conduct a charitable program without incorporating or obtaining Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recognition utilizes an existing 501(c)(3) nonprofit as its fiscal sponsor.

Many groups, though charitable in nature, lack the legal status they need to receive grants from foundations, individual donors, and government agencies. It should be noted from the outset, however, that existing tax-exempt charities are also increasingly embracing comprehensive sponsors, realizing benefits that extend beyond tax-exempt status such as enhanced back-office efficiencies, cost savings and other value inherent in CFS.

Fiscal sponsors receive tax-deductible contributions that are then allocated in support of project purposes. Such payments are usually disbursed in the form of payments to project staff, vendors, contractors, and grantees. The fiscal sponsor is able to offer this support only to groups whose activities further the sponsor’s mission and tax-exempt purpose.

The level of engagement between sponsor and project varies greatly but at a minimum, all fiscal sponsors must:

  1. retain control and discretion as to the use of the funds;
  2. maintain records establishing that the funds were used for section 501(c)(3) purposes; and
  3. limit distributions to specific projects that are in furtherance of their own exempt purposes. 501(c)(3) organizations acting as fiscal sponsors that fail to conform to these requirements jeopardize their own exempt status.

Fiscal sponsorship has been practiced in varying degrees since at least 1959 when the Massachusetts Health Research Institute, now TSNE, incorporated and began sponsoring community-based public health projects and research laboratories. TSNE has since expanded and now offers CFS to groups of people involved in many types of civic engagement activities in their communities.

Over the years, TSNE, along with other like-minded organizations throughout the country, independently developed a unique brand of fiscal sponsorship known as Comprehensive Fiscal Sponsorship. In 2004 these groups came together and created the National Network of Fiscal Sponsors (National Network) to share and promote effective, responsible practices in the field as well as gain a deeper understanding of the current practice of fiscal sponsorship around the country. Founders of the National Network included Community Partners, Colorado Nonprofit Development Center, Earth Island Institute, PHFE Management Solutions, CIF of The San Francisco Foundation, TSNE and Tides Center.

Most members of the Network practice a flavor of fiscal sponsorship commonly referred to as ‘Model A’ sponsorship. Under a ‘Model A’ relationship, the project becomes a part of the sponsor. “The sponsor takes the project in-house. The project has no separate legal existence.” All employees of the project become employees of the sponsor. The sponsor’s payroll tax withholding, workers’ compensation insurance, unemployment benefits, and health and retirement plans offered all are applied to the project staff in the same manner as the organization’s other employees. The sponsor will be liable for the actions of project employees within the scope of their employment as well as any other liabilities the project accrues. Additionally, all tax reporting is done by the sponsoring organization.

Although the ‘Model A’ “direct project” is the most commonly practiced form of fiscal sponsorship, other manifestations occur throughout the charitable community and their use as legitimate, creative models should not be discounted. Gregory Colvin’s Fiscal Sponsorship: Six Ways To Do It Right provides the most thorough treatment of the various incarnations of fiscal sponsorship to date.

CFS can best be characterized as a subset of fiscal sponsorship, typically patterned after the ‘Model A’ relationship, where the sponsor plays a deeper, more nurturing role than contemplated by any other model. In addition to serving as the legal employer of project employees, offering insurance, and seeing to state and federal compliance matters, sponsors provide a comprehensive suite of services designed to enhance the capacity and effectiveness of projects. Most of these offerings fall into four broad categories: financial management, human resources management, information systems support and capacity building.

Comprehensive sponsors run the essential back-office operations of their projects in a highly competent, cost-effective manner, allowing agents of change to focus their passions and energies on activities central to project purposes. These sponsors also engage the projects in a wide array of capacity building endeavors, and beyond that, a host of intangible benefits begin to accrue the moment a project finds a home with a credible comprehensive sponsor. The end result of CFS is that progressive movements are able to minimize administrative burdens and maximize project impact and society’s corresponding return on investment.

Thoroughly explore the parameters of comprehensive fiscal sponsorship and see our address of criticisms.

Downloadable the full white paper.