September 30, 2011; Source: Sun Herald | If you go to the Forward Rebels website, you might think the organization is a nonprofit. You are greeted with a large, bold question that led a Forward Rebels newspaper ad from September 19th, unrelated to the football team’s loss to Vanderbilt: “Are you tired of losing, Ole Miss fans?” You will find this statement a couple of times: “The Forward Rebels is a non-profit, tax-paying corporation organized under Mississippi law. We are funded by private donations.” Sort of sounds like a public charity, especially since 501(c)(3) organizations do find themselves paying the employer’s share of payroll taxes and sometimes unfortunately paying PILOTs in place of official property taxes.
The newspaper ads criticized the University of Mississippi leadership for an alleged lack of “transparency and accountability.” Maybe Forward Rebels might use a dose of its own medicine. Although it originally filed as a nonprofit with the Mississippi Secretary of State, it never registered as a charity. Last week, it dissolved as a nonprofit, though a Forward Rebels spokesperson said that it still exists as a “legal entity,” but not a charity—though that hasn’t stopped the organization from soliciting donations which can be made through Paypal.
The University of Mississippi has been an also-ran in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), long dominated by the likes of Auburn, Alabama, and Florida, which prompted the creation of this purportedly fan-based organization. But who or what is Forward Rebels really? It appears to be mostly anonymous, which rankles some Ole Miss alumni who don’t appreciate its methods. Whoever is behind Forward Rebels isn’t willing to talk about its membership or finances.
Because the University of Mississippi is a public university ultimately under the oversight and governance of the governor and legislature of the state, the Forward Rebels campaign against the university leadership could be taken as having political overtones, perhaps necessitating the organization’s reorganization as a 501(c)(4) or a 527, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Aside from the anonymity of the group, the big problem is the use of the word “donation.” A Forward Rebels spokeperson said that they had not meant to imply that donations to Forward Rebels were tax deductible, but they would drop the use of the word “donation.” The website is still laden with “donation” as we looked at it over the weekend.
What do you think? Does the use of the word “donation” imply charitable deductibility? Should non-charities be allowed to solicit “donations”? Should they have to clarify for potential donors that they will get no tax deduction for their donations?—Rick Cohen