Virtual Currency Gifts: Should Churches and Nonprofits Accept Bitcoin?
Virtual Currency Gifts: Should Churches and Nonprofits Accept Bitcoin?
By William R. Thetford, Esq. and H. Robert Showers, Esq.
Updated October 27, 2021
Excitement rides high on the cryptocurrency wave these days. Even on the wave, though, one must be wary of the height. For churches and nonprofits, that height presents some serious risks and the possibility of being defrauded by offers that are too good to be true. However, with some reasonable safety measures, a nonprofit or church may be able to carefully draw legitimate benefits from this new source of funding.
The unique offerings and rapid growth of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have drawn a lot of attention from investors, committed users, and others watching from the sidelines. That potential also draws in people looking for illegal ways to make easy money, and cryptocurrency, unfortunately, lends itself quite well to that desire. Bitcoin and many cryptocurrencies have three primary features that lend themselves to both camps: a lack of regulation, speed of transaction, and anonymity of the parties.
For churches and nonprofits, none of the above are specifically useful for receiving donations or gifts. All three of the above, however, are beneficial if someone is looking to scam a church or nonprofit. Fraudsters sometimes use cryptocurrencies as a tool to defraud unsuspecting people with a fake “gift.” Legitimately liquidating cryptocurrencies often carries fees, and scam artists sometimes trick people or even nonprofits into paying transaction fees up front without actually receiving the cryptocurrency itself. AARP’s Fraud Watch Network director Amy Nofziger said, “Scammers have latched on to cryptocurrencies in the last year or two.” If someone asks to be paid in Bitcoin, “Chances are it’s a fraud.” As long as the nonprofit can verify that a gift is not a scam, accepting a donation of Bitcoin may be worthwhile.
True gifts may be determined by establishing rules for receipt. The church or nonprofit should decide on procedures for gifting in advance, such as what will or will not be accepted. If an unknown would-be donor offers a huge sum, contingent upon receipt of the church’s banking information, consider a scam likely. The nonprofit must decide whether to accept or refuse such an offer. Alternatively, the nonprofit could request that the would-be donor routes the gift through an established third-party giving platform that the nonprofit vetted in advance. There are many platforms attempting to establish themselves in a place of trust, such as Engiven, Every.org, and Giving Block to assist nonprofits in receiving cryptocurrency at the price of a small transaction fee and are safer than giving out bank information to every potential donor. Other options for sending and receiving cryptocurrency are “donor advised funds” through a company like Charity Vest, or managing the organization’s wallet either personally or through an exchange or broker like Coinbase. Even with such procedures, there are risks after receipt.
The organization may, upon receipt of a Bitcoin gift, choose to invest or exchange the cryptocurrency for typical currency. Investment, which may be profitable, is also risky and probably violates the nonprofit’s or church’s gift acceptance policies. Like playing the stock market, investing in the volatile cryptocurrency market can bring great gains and terrible losses. A safer bet probably would be cashing out your chips immediately – selling the cryptocurrency upon receipt as soon as possible. For example, a nonprofit receives $1,000 in stocks in a company. The next day, those same stocks may be worth $1,200 or $800. Cryptocurrency investment is similar but often more volatile. If your nonprofit does not have significant charitable assets, cashing that $1,000 may be best. Many giving platforms provide an option for automatic liquidation of the cryptocurrency upon receipt by donors.
While Bitcoin and other such currencies may be here to stay, nonprofits would do well to create a knowledgeable strategy before jumping on the bandwagon. For a more in-depth explanation, the following sections will help churches and nonprofits looking for advice on accepting cryptocurrency donations.
As Bitcoin and other virtual currencies become increasingly popular, Section 501(c)(3) nonprofits may encounter a novel question when a donor offers to contribute Bitcoin. Should the church or nonprofit accept the Bitcoin as a tax-deductible charitable contribution? The short answer is maybe, “yes.” Additionally, the nonprofit’s leaders should consider acceptance of such assets as part of a gift acceptance policy. They should also determine whether to sell the donated Bitcoin promptly (like many other donated assets) or to keep it as an investment.
What Is Bitcoin?
Before accepting Bitcoin as a charitable donation, nonprofit leaders should understand what it is. Bitcoin is the most common form of “virtual currency” (also known as cryptocurrency), which is a digital representation of value that uses peer-to-peer “blockchain” technology to create a public electronic ledger to track transactions. Unlike traditional currencies that track activity through centralized banking systems, digital currency transactions are reviewed by multiple verification sources around the globe using complex algorithms, often resulting in almost instantaneous verification, allowing transfers to occur quickly. In the digital age, there are hundreds of different virtual currencies; some common currencies include Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, and Ripple.
A key benefit for donors is that they may enjoy significant tax benefits in giving virtual currencies to nonprofit charities, rather than simply donating cash. Such benefits result because virtual currencies change in value over time and therefore may be treated similarly to donations of appreciated real property, stocks, and other assets. In other words, a donor may take a tax deduction based on the virtual currency’s value at the donation date instead of the value at the donor’s date of purchase.
Given Bitcoin’s exponential rise in value, a donor who bought Bitcoin a few years ago could indeed garner quite a huge tax deduction for now giving it to charity. With this potentially enormous benefit, plus the steadily increasing use of virtual currencies, more nonprofits may begin to see donor requests for acceptance of Bitcoin or other virtual currency donations. As well publicized, the value of Bitcoin and other virtual currencies has also been incredibly volatile – with huge financial swings in both directions. What is valuable today could be worthless next year, or nearly so. What should nonprofits do?
Accepting and Cashing Out Bitcoin Gifts
The lucky nonprofit that receives a Bitcoin donation offer may be best off accepting and cashing out the virtual currency as soon as possible, for a clear reflection of the asset’s value and proverbial money in the bank. The best practice, especially for small organizations, may be to sell the virtual currency immediately and convert it to US Dollars, just like they would do with other donated property.
Note that the IRS treats virtual currency as non-cash property. Accordingly, for related IRS compliance, the nonprofit must file IRS Form 8282 if the virtual currency is worth at least $5,000 and is sold, exchanged, or otherwise disposed of within three years of receipt. Additionally, the nonprofit will need to sign the donor’s IRS Form 8283, acknowledging receipt of the charitable deduction property, if the donor is claiming a deduction of more than $5,000. For more information regarding IRS requirements related to virtual currency transactions, please see here.
Accepting and Investing Bitcoin Gifts
Alternatively, perhaps the nonprofit should accept and hold on to the virtual currency, with the hope and expectation of its increased future value. As the value of Bitcoin has skyrocketed in just the last few years, this approach may be particularly enticing to nonprofit leaders who want to ensure the longevity of the organization. But be careful! With the potential for great reward comes great risk. Bitcoin and other virtual currencies remain highly unstable investments, sometimes resulting in major crashes in value.
Accepting donations of virtual currency raises related corporate governance policy considerations as follows. First, such donation may well spark a conscientious nonprofit’s leadership to check on its gift acceptance policy, or perhaps to adopt a gift acceptance policy if none exists – and with express allowance for acceptance of virtual currency donations. Second, if the nonprofit seeks to retain the virtual currency as an investment, an investment policy may be warranted, as well.
What Should Be in a Gift Acceptance Policy?
Key elements of a gift acceptance policy include the following: (a) whether the nonprofit will accept any “restricted” gifts or not; (b) whether the nonprofit will accept foreign donations; (c) procedures for how to handle specific types of gifts (e.g., IRS forms to be completed, appraisals required for some gifts); and (d) charitable receipts. Additionally, the gift acceptance policy should contain a detailed list describing the types of gifts that may be accepted, such as checks and credit card donations (yes), publicly traded securities (yes), closely held or other private securities (generally no), vehicles (maybe), other personal property (maybe), charitable gift annuities (only with a carefully developed plan), and timeshares (never). Bitcoin and other virtual currencies thus could be categorized like publicly traded stock, typically to be cashed upon receipt or perhaps to be kept as an investment.
Adopting and following a gift acceptable policy helps protect the nonprofit’s tax-exempt status by ensuring that accepting certain donations will not jeopardize the organization’s purpose, mission, and priorities. Nonprofits should work closely with legal counsel to determine the types of gifts the organization should accept and how to handle each type. A basic gift acceptable policy should be relatively easy to develop, with specific nuances consistent with the nonprofit directors’ fiduciary duty of due care and diligence.
Is An Investment Policy Warranted?
Assuming that a nonprofit’s gift acceptance policy (or ad hoc Board decision) allows for acceptance and investment of virtual currency, an investment policy should include due consideration for how to handle the asset – such as benchmarks for whether and when to sell the virtual currency.
An investment policy is typically adopted by nonprofits with significant charitable assets. A well-drafted investment policy preserves, protects, and grows the nonprofit’s assets while maintaining sufficient liquid reserves to meet obligations arising from the organization’s ongoing activities. Such policy is thus similarly consistent with the nonprofit directors’ fiduciary duty of due care and diligence, essentially to promote wise stewardship of a nonprofit’s charitable assets. For example, if a nonprofit has at least $1 million and only $100,000 in annual operating expenses, prudent stewardship may warrant investing $800,000 or so in a conservative investment vehicle such as a certificate of deposit that bears interest.
Nonprofits with substantially larger assets may need a detailed investment policy including the following aspects: (a) identification of an investment fund manager (or standards for selecting the manager); (b) the organization’s risk and return objectives (typically quite conservative, in keeping with the directors’ fiduciary responsibilities to guard charitable assets); (c) how these objectives relate to the organization’s spending trends; and (d) the strategies employed for achieving those objectives. A strong portfolio may include some fairly risky investments such as Bitcoin because the potential reward is high, but these riskier investments will be balanced out by those that receive a consistent (although maybe small) return on investment. A more conservative investment policy may require that all virtual currencies (whether donated or obtained otherwise) be converted into lower risk investment.
The Bottom Line
A church or nonprofit may indeed want to look the proverbial Bitcoin gift horse in the mouth – and sometimes be grateful for it! With poor management or procedures, cryptocurrency gifts could be a significant liability, but with the right approach, they could be a previously untapped source of funding. Like all charitable assets, the nonprofit’s leaders should exercise careful and wise stewardship of cryptocurrency gifts for optimal protection and promotion of the nonprofit’s mission.
[Aside from the preface, much of this article was originally published by Wagenmaker & Oberly on February 19, 2021. It is republished here with permission with some updates, additions, and edits.]