Navigating the Intricacies of Self-Dealing in Private Foundations

by: Kyle Anderson
January 16, 2024
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Self-dealing in private foundations is a crucial concept, involving prohibited transactions between the foundation and "disqualified persons." These rules are designed to prevent the misuse of foundation assets for personal gain.

What is Self-Dealing? Self-dealing includes any financial interactions between a foundation and disqualified persons, irrespective of the transaction's apparent fairness or benefit to the foundation. This includes both direct and indirect transactions that could benefit a disqualified person.

Identifying Disqualified Persons: Disqualified persons are individuals or entities with significant influence over the foundation, such as major donors, foundation managers, their families, and related businesses or trusts. For a detailed explanation of disqualified persons, please visit our comprehensive discussion via this link.

The Complex Landscape of Self-Dealing

Private foundations must be vigilant in identifying self-dealing scenarios, which can arise from a multitude of direct and indirect transactions in various contexts. Most dealings between foundations and disqualified persons are prohibited, regardless of the transaction size, though there are some exceptions. A clear example of direct self-dealing occurs when a foundation transacts with a business controlled by one of its own managers, like buying supplies from a store owned by a foundation director. Indirect self-dealing, often more subtle, can take many forms. Consider a scenario where a foundation pays above-market rates to a financial advisor who also works for a foundation director. If such payments lead to preferential treatment for the director, the foundation's actions might be considered indirect self-dealing, prioritizing personal benefits over its philanthropic mission.

A prevalent misunderstanding in foundation management is assuming transactions that seem fair or advantageous are automatically permissible. This is not necessarily true. Transactions that appear to benefit the foundation, like leasing office space from a board member at a reduced rate, can still fall under self-dealing. The crucial factor lies in the nature of the transaction and the relationships involved, rather than just the beneficial appearance or outcome of the transaction.

Understanding the Range of Self-Dealing Transactions in Private Foundations

A broad spectrum of transactions falls under the self-dealing rules, where any interaction between a foundation and a disqualified person is initially considered self-dealing, barring specific exceptions in the Internal Revenue Code. The following are key examples illustrating such transactions:

Property Transactions: Buying, selling, or exchanging property between a private foundation and a disqualified person is generally self-dealing, regardless of whether the transaction seems to favor the foundation.

• Rental and Leasing Agreements: If a foundation rents or leases space from a disqualified person or entity, it's generally seen as self-dealing, even at discounted rates. An exception exists for using space on a rent-free basis as per the Internal Revenue Code.

Goods, Services, and Facilities: Any exchange of goods, services, or facilities between a foundation and a disqualified person usually constitutes self-dealing. The nature of the deal, even if seemingly beneficial, doesn't change this classification. There is, however, an exception for “personal services” discussed below.

Lending and Borrowing: Financial transactions, such as lending money or extending credit between a foundation and a disqualified person, are generally considered self-dealing. This includes below-market interest rate loans from disqualified persons, with an exception for interest-free loans to the foundation used solely for charitable purposes.

Compensation Concerns: Paying leadership, including directors and managers, must be scrutinized under self-dealing rules. While the Internal Revenue Code allows compensation for specific roles, excessive payments are still viewed as self-dealing.

Expense Reimbursement: Reimbursing unreasonable or personal expenses to disqualified persons is a clear case of self-dealing. This includes personal use of foundation resources like using foundation funds for personal shopping or travel.

Unwarranted Benefit: An unwarranted benefit happens when a disqualified person, like a trustee or board member, uses the foundation's money, property, or facilities for their own advantage, in ways that don't align with the foundation's charitable goals. This misuse isn't just about making money or getting physical items; it also includes using the foundation's resources for personal reasons. For example, it's considered an unwarranted benefit if a disqualified person uses the foundation's office for their own business dealings, like holding meetings with their own business partners or clients, or using the foundation’s address for their private business mail.

Understanding Exceptions to Self-Dealing Rules for Private Foundations

The Internal Revenue Code outlines specific exceptions to the general self-dealing rules. The following are key permissible transactions under these exceptions:

Free Services & Goods: It's acceptable for private foundations to receive free services and goods, as this does not count as self-dealing.

Rent-Free Office Space: Private foundations can use office space provided free of charge without violating self-dealing rules.

Zero-Interest Loans: Foundations can accept interest-free loans from disqualified persons if the funds are used solely for charitable activities. However, disqualified persons borrowing from the foundation is not permitted.

Employee Compensation: Disqualified persons can receive reasonable pay as employees if their roles are reasonable and necessary for the foundation’s charitable work. This compensation must be for "personal services," a term that includes managerial and professional roles like management, accounting, legal, and investment services.

Reimbursement of Charitable Expenses: Foundations can reimburse disqualified persons for out-of-pocket expenses that are reasonable, necessary, and directly related to the foundation’s mission, provided these are done under accountable plans.

Fair Access Transactions: Foundations can offer goods, services, or facilities to disqualified persons if these are also equally available to the general public. For instance, if a foundation sponsors a community swimming pool, a disqualified person can use it, provided they receive the same access and treatment as the general public.

De-minimis Benefit: Small benefits to disqualified persons that are minimal or incidental and do not significantly impact the foundation's operations or go against the spirit of the self-dealing rules are often permissible.

Penalties for Self-Dealing Violations

In cases of self-dealing within a foundation, penalties are typically imposed on the individuals involved - the disqualified persons and foundation managers - rather than the foundation itself. The primary offender, known as the self-dealer, is primarily responsible for these penalties. For example, a foundation director misusing funds for personal purposes would be considered the self-dealer and liable for penalties. Penalties may also extend to foundation managers who approve such transactions.

To rectify a self-dealing issue, the involved assets must be returned or an equivalent amount paid back. The most common penalty is an excise tax levied on the self-dealer and possibly the approving managers. This tax is 10% of the transaction amount for the self-dealer and 5% (up to $20,000) for foundation managers, provided their involvement wasn't willful and had a reasonable cause.

Corrective action requires undoing the transaction to restore the foundation’s financial position as close as possible to its state before the incident occurred. If self-dealing is not corrected, annual excise taxes can accumulate for each year it remains unresolved. For instance, a self-dealer may face a cumulative 30% (10% x 3) penalty over three years if the violation remains uncorrected.

Additionally, a second-tier tax may be imposed if the initial tax has been applied and the issue remains unresolved within a timeframe stipulated by the IRS. This includes a 200% tax on the self-dealer and up to 50% (maximum $20,000) on foundation managers for each act of self-dealing. This severe penalty typically applies when the violation is not corrected despite the assessment of the initial tax.

Key Questions for Mitigating Self-Dealing Risks in Foundations

To understand and avert self-dealing risks in foundations, asking pertinent questions is crucial. These questions aid in identifying red flags and avoiding legal issues. Here are some good questions to consider:

Conflict of Interest and Personal Benefits

Board Decision Involvement: Are board members involved in decisions where they have personal financial interests?

Use of Event Tickets: Is there a practice of using foundation-purchased tickets for fundraising events by spouses or other disqualified persons?

Grant and Pledge Alignment: Are foundation grants used to fulfill personal pledges of board or staff members?

Investment Decisions: Are the foundation's investments benefitting disqualified persons, like investing in businesses owned by board members?

Asset Usage: Do disqualified persons use foundation assets, such as vehicles or property, for personal purposes?

Beneficiary Selection: Are grants awarded to organizations where disqualified persons have significant influence or stand to benefit personally?

Financial Transactions and Compensation

Compensation Assessment: What steps are taken to ensure compensation and board fees are fair and justified?

Expense Reimbursements: Are travel or other expenses for disqualified persons’ family reimbursed by the foundation?

Scrutiny of Financial Transactions: Are there financial dealings between the foundation and its board or staff outside of regular compensation?

Business and Family Ties

Contract Awards: Are contracts for goods and services granted to businesses owned or managed by disqualified persons or their families?

Employment of Relatives: Are relatives of disqualified persons employed by the foundation, and on what terms?

Real Estate Transactions: Is the foundation involved in real estate transactions with disqualified persons?

• Loans: Has the foundation provided or guaranteed loans for disqualified persons or their related entities?

• Office Sharing: Does the foundation share office space with businesses or individuals related to disqualified persons?


Effectively managing self-dealing concerns requires a thorough understanding of the associated rules and vigilant monitoring of transactions involving disqualified persons. Through ongoing education and by asking pertinent questions, foundation managers can maintain operations that not only adhere to legal standards but also embody the ethical principles vital to their mission.

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