On June 8, 2011 the Internal Revenue Service announced the names of 275,000 non-profit organizations that lost their tax-exempt status because they did not file legally required forms for three consecutive years. That means about 14% of existing non-profits lost their tax-exempt status. Most of the organizations that lost exempt status are charities but some are homeowners associations, civic associations, college fraternities, and other non-profit entities.

Nearly 10,500 of the organizations that lost their exempt status were based in Pennsylvania. More than 100 of them gave a Lancaster address.

If an organization appears on the list, it is because IRS records indicate the organization had a filing requirement and did not file the required returns or notices for 2007, 2008 and 2009.

The IRS thinks that the majority of the organizations are defunct. Some organizations claim they were on the list in error. Donors who made what they thought were tax-deductible contributions to organizations prior to the IRS’s publication of the list will still be able to deduct the donation on their taxes.

The Pension Protection Act of 2006 requires most tax-exempt organizations to file an annual information return or notice with the IRS. Small organizations (with less than $25,000 in revenue per year), which previously hadn’t been required to file tax reports, had to do so for the first time in 2007. Churches aren’t included; they still don’t have to file. The filing requirement is met by filing Form 990, 990-EZ, or 990-N.

Since passage of the 2006 law, the IRS has made extensive efforts to inform organizations of the changes. In 2010 the IRS published a list of at-risk groups and gave smaller organizations an additional five months to file required notices and come into compliance. About 50,000 organizations filed during this extension period.

Tax-exempt status is important for multiple reasons. Contributions by donors will not be tax deductible if the organization is not tax-exempt. The organization does not qualify for an exemption from the sales tax if the status is not currently tax-exempt. The organization must file a corporate tax return and pay income tax if it is not tax-exempt.

The revocation of tax-exempt status can’t be appealed or reversed. Organizations subject to automatic revocation that wish to have their tax-exempt status reinstated must file an application for exemption and pay the appropriate user fee. The IRS will allow small organizations (those with annual gross receipts of $50,000 or less for 2010) applying for reinstatement to pay a lesser application fee of $100 instead of the usual fee of $400 or $850. Also, the IRS will treat eligible small organizations applying for reinstatement before December 31, 2012 as having established "reasonable cause" for their filing failures, meaning their tax-exempt status will be reinstated retroactive to the date it was automatically revoked.

To find out if a nonprofit is on the list, go to www.irs.gov/charities. OpenData also provides on its website a searchable combined list. Go to http://opendata.socrata.com.

Failing to comply with annual reporting obligations is not the only way to lose your tax-exempt status. A non-profit may not provide private benefit to any officers, directors or employees. This is the prohibition against "private inurement."

A tax-exempt organization may engage in lobbying but on a restricted basis. If the organization contacts or urges the public to contact a member or employee of a legislative body to propose, support, oppose legislation, and the activities are substantial, the tax-exempt status is at risk. The rules are complicated and many organizations do not engage in lobbying as a matter of policy so as not to run afoul of the complex rules.

Political campaign activity is prohibited absolutely. The organization may not directly or indirectly participate or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. An exempt organization may invite a political candidate to speak at an event provided that the organization ensures that 1) it affords an equal opportunity to political candidates seeking the same office, 2) it does not indicate support for or opposition to the candidate, and 3) no political fund-raising occurs. Equal access is not necessary if the candidate is a public figure speaking in a non-candidate capacity.

Activities generating excessive unrelated business income and failure to operate with an exempt purpose also put the exempt status at risk.