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Donor acknowledgements: We have to file what?

12.06.19

Editor’s note: read this if you work for, or are affiliated with, a charitable organization that receives donations. Even the most mature nonprofit organizations may miss one of these filings once in a while. Some items (e.g., the donor acknowledgement letter) may feel commonplace, but a refresher—especially at a particularly busy time of the year as it pertains to giving—can fend off fines.

As the holiday season is now in full swing, the season of giving is also upon us. Perhaps not surprisingly, the month of December is by far the most charitable month of the year, accounting for almost one-third of all charitable gifts made annually. And with all that giving comes the requirement of charitable organizations to provide donor acknowledgements, a formal “thank you” of the gift being received. Different gifts require differing levels of acknowledgement, and in some cases an additional IRS form (or two) may need to be filed. Doing some work now may save you time (and a fine or two) later. 

While children are currently busy making lists for Santa Claus, in the spirit of giving we present to you our list of donor acknowledgement requirements―and best practices―to help you gain control of this issue for the holiday season and beyond.

Donor acknowledgement letters

Charitable (i.e., 501(c)(3)) organizations are required to provide a donor acknowledgement letter to each donor contributing $250 or more to the organization, whether it be cash or non-cash items (i.e., publicly traded securities, real estate, artwork, vehicles, etc.) received. The letter should include the following: 

  1. Name of the organization
  2. Amount of cash contribution
  3. Description of non-cash items (but not the value) 
  4. Statement that no goods and services were provided (assuming this is the case)
  5. Description and good faith estimate of the value of goods and services provided by the organization in return for the contribution, if any
  6. Statement that goods or services provided by the organization in return for the contribution consisted entirely of intangible religious benefit, if any

It is not necessary to include either the donor’s social security number or tax identification number on the written acknowledgment and as a best practice should not be included in the letter.

In addition to including the elements above, the written acknowledgement is also required to be contemporaneous, that is, sent out in a timely fashion. According to the IRS, a donor must receive the acknowledgment by the earlier of:

  • The date on which the donor actually files his or her individual federal income tax return for the year of the contribution
  • The due date (including extensions) of the return in order to be considered contemporaneous

Quid pro quo disclosure statements

When a donor makes a payment greater than $75 to a charitable organization partly as a contribution and partly as a payment for goods and services, a disclosure statement is required to notify the donor of the value of the goods and services received in order for the donor to determine the charitable contribution component of their payment.

An example of this would be if the organization sold tickets to its annual fundraising dinner event. Assume the ticket costs $100 and at the event the ticketholder receives a dinner valued at $40. In this example, the donor’s tax deduction may not exceed $60. Because the donor’s payment (quid pro quo contribution) exceeds $75, the charitable organization must furnish a disclosure statement to the donor, even though the deductible amount doesn’t exceed $75.

It’s important to note that there are some exclusions to these requirements if the value received is considered to be de minimis (known as the Token Exception), but the value received needs to be relatively small (ex: receiving a coffee mug with a picture of the organization’s logo on it). Please consult your tax advisor for more details.

If the organization does not issue disclosure statements, the IRS can issue penalties of $10 per contribution, not to exceed $5,000 per fundraising event or mailing. An organization may be able to avoid the penalty if reasonable cause can be demonstrated.

Receiving or selling donated noncash property? Forms 8283 & 8282 may be required.

If a charitable organization receives noncash donations, it may be asked to sign Form 8283. This form is required to be filed by the donor and included with their personal income tax return. If a donor contributes noncash property (excluding publicly traded securities) valued at over $5,000, the organization will need to sign Form 8283, Section B, Part IV acknowledging receipt of the noncash item(s) received.

By signing Form 8283, the donee organization is not only acknowledging receipt, but is also affirming that if the property being received is sold, exchanged, or otherwise disposed of within three years of the original donation date, the organization will be required to file Form 8282. A copy of this form is filed with the IRS and must also be provided to the original donor. Form 8282 is not required for sales of donated publicly traded securities. The penalty for failure to file Form 8282 when required is generally $50 per form.

Cars, boats, and yes, even airplanes? That would be Form 1098-C.

An airplane? Yes, even an airplane can be donated, and the donee organization must file a separate Form 1098-C, Contributions of Motor Vehicles, Boats, and Airplanes, with the IRS for each contribution of a qualified vehicle that has a claimed value of more than $500. Contemporaneous written acknowledgement requirements apply here too, and Form 1098-C can act as acknowledgement for this purpose. An acknowledgment is considered contemporaneous if it is furnished to the donor no later than 30 days after the date of the contribution if you plan to use the item for a mission-related purpose, or 30 days after the date of the sale of the item to an unrelated third party.

Penalties for failure to provide contemporaneous written acknowledgement for qualified vehicles can be pretty stiff, generally calculated as a percentage of the sale price if sold, or a percentage of the claimed value if not sold. Should you have any questions or receive a request regarding any of the forms noted above, please consult your tax advisor.

As you can see, the rules around donor acknowledgements can seem a lot like Grandma’s fruitcake―complex and perhaps a bit on the nutty side. When issuing donor acknowledgements this holiday season and beyond, be sure to review the list above and check it twice. Doing so may end up keeping you off of the IRS’s naughty list!

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Read this if you are an employer that gives employee gifts.

The holiday season is officially in full swing! Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, many employers are looking for ways to recognize the dedication and hard work of their employees. This gratitude often comes in the form of a holiday gift of some fashion. While this generosity is well-intended, gifts to employees can be fraught with potential tax consequences organizations should be aware of. This article will attempt to demystify the rules surrounding employee gifts to ensure organizations and their employees have a joyous holiday season.

Holiday gifts: Taxable or not?

So, are holiday gifts to employees taxable? The answer, as is so often the case with tax questions, is it depends. The IRS is very clear that cash and cash equivalents (specifically including gift cards) are always included as taxable income when they are provided by the employer, regardless of amount, with no exceptions. This means that if you plan to give your employees cash or a gift card this year, the value must be included in the employees’ wages and is subject to all payroll taxes. Bah humbug indeed!

Nontaxable gift options

There are however, a few ways to make nontaxable gifts to employees. In each instance the gift must be noncash (nor convertible to cash). IRS Publication 15 offers a variety of examples of de minimis (minimal) benefits, defined as any property or service you provide to an employee that has a minimal value, making the accounting for it unreasonable and administratively impracticable. Examples include holiday or birthday gifts with a low market value (a card and flowers, fruit baskets, a box of chocolates, etc.), or occasional tickets for theater or sporting events, among others. Again, cash and cash equivalents never qualify. The key is that the gift must be occasional or unusual in its frequency and must not be a form of disguised compensation. While de minimis benefits can be a gray area, the IRS has generally deemed items with a value exceeding $100 as too large to qualify as de minimis.

Holiday gifts can also be nontaxable if they are in the form of a gift coupon, if given for a specific item (with no redeemable cash value). A common example would be issuing a coupon to your employee for a free ham or turkey redeemable at the local grocery store. Nontaxable employee gifts can also come in the form of achievement awards, either for length of service or for safety achievements. The proverbial gold watch upon retirement is a classic example of such a gift. Here too, the award must always be tangible personal property—never cash or a cash equivalent. There are additional rules and value thresholds on any such gift. Please contact a member of your tax team to discuss these specific details further.

Whether employers are considering supplying gift cards, turkeys, or something in between, we hope all find this guidance helpful and still in the giving spirit! Coincidentally, at the end of A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer himself gives Bob Cratchit a turkey on Christmas day. Of course Mr. Scrooge would be aware of the potential tax consequences! We wish you all a very happy and healthy holiday season!

Not-for-profit resources

If you are a not-for-profit organization receiving charitable gifts, read Donor Acknowledgements: We have to file what?

Article
What employers need to know before making gifts to employees

Read is you use QuickBooks Online.

Your customers are your company’s lifeblood. Make sure their records are thorough and up-to-date.

When companies buy other companies, the customer list is often considered the most critical asset. When a business is damaged and data possibly lost, the customer list is the set of records do they most hope to recover.

You probably spend most of your time in QuickBooks Online working with transactions and reports, but your customer records deserve equal time. If they’re incomplete or otherwise not well maintained, you lose time filling in the blanks when you’re trying to complete a task that requires complete customer profiles. Your searches and reports may not tell the whole picture. Your relationships can suffer, and you may miss out on sales opportunities.

QuickBooks Online provides excellent tools for creating and maintaining comprehensive customer and sub-customer records. Here’s a look at how it all works.

Moving your customer data in

There are two ways to create customer records in QuickBooks Online. If you have an existing database in Outlook, Excel, Gmail, or Google Sheets, you can import it. This will save you an enormous amount of time, but it’s a challenging process. You select the file you want to import, and then you have to “map” it by matching the fields in your database to fields in QuickBooks Online. You’ll likely need our help with this.


To import a customer file into QuickBooks Online, you’ll have to “map” its fields. We can help you with this.

Your other option is to enter records manually. This is time-consuming, but the more information you can include about your customers from the start, the better. You can always edit your records to add, delete, or modify what you originally entered.

To get started, hover over Sales in the toolbar and click on Customers. Then click on New Customer in the upper right corner to open the Customer information window. The only field you’re required to complete is Display name as. You may want to do this if you have a new customer on the phone and you want to concentrate on the conversation. You can take notes about their contact information and fill in the record later, when you’re off the phone.

But wherever possible, as we’ve already said, complete as many fields as you can. You’ll enter name and billing and shipping address and phone number(s) on the opening screen. You can also supply contact details like fax number and website. 

Creating sub-customers

You’ll notice a checkbox that says Is sub-customer. QuickBooks Online lets you “nest” related records under the “parent” record. This can be an actual customer, but many people use it to document jobs they’re doing for the customer. So if you’re a contractor, for example, you might have sub-customers like Sun deck and Spa

If you want to set up such a record, enter the job name and click in the box next to Is sub-customer. Two fields will open below that allow you to select the parent customer and to indicate the sub-customer’s billing status. The remainder of the fields will automatically fill in with the parent customer’s contact information.


You can set up jobs as sub-customers in QuickBooks Online. 

Supplying details

When you’re setting up individual customers, you should add as much detail as you possibly can to each record, beyond basic contact information. QuickBooks Online’s record templates display a number of tabs running horizontally across the window. The most important of these are:

  • Tax info. Are the customers taxable or exempt? If taxable, what is his or her Default tax code? (If you haven’t set up sales taxes yet and need to, please let us help. It’s complicated.)
  • Payment and billing. Do they have preferred payment and/or delivery methods? Will you be assigning default payment terms, like Net 30 or Due on receipt? What is their Opening balance? If they’re brand-new customers who have never ordered from you, this will be $0.00. If they’re existing, active customers, enter any outstanding balance they have with you as of the date that you enter. This must be correct, to avoid any problems with the customers’ ongoing balances. Questions? Ask us.

Other tabs here are self-explanatory. When you’ve entered everything you can, click Save. The new record will now appear in the Customers list and will be available to select from the drop-down list in transactions.

There will be times when you have to refer back to these forms to answer questions. By maintaining detailed, accurate customer records, you’ll be ready to respond. If you have questions about any of the information requested, or about other elements of QuickBooks Online that are puzzling you, please contact our Outsourced Accounting team. so we can set up a consultation.

Article
How to maintain customer records in QuickBooks Online

Read this if you use QuickBooks Online.

Are you finding that you need more flexibility in an area of QuickBooks Online? Maybe it’s time to try an integrated app.

When you first started using QuickBooks Online, you probably found it supplied the tools you needed to manage your accounting—and then some. But as your business grows or becomes more complex, you may need more functionality and flexibility in one or more areas, like time tracking and billing.

There are hundreds of add-on applications that integrate well with QuickBooks Online in the QuickBooks Apps store, which you can find here. Many of these apps are free, but most have subscription fees. They’re designed to amplify the power of QuickBooks Online’s own features. The site will remain your home base, but you’ll have to learn enough about the add-on apps to understand how they work and how they integrate with QuickBooks Online. Here are some of the most popular add-on solutions from the QuickBooks Apps site.

Expensify

QuickBooks Online allows you to record expenses. Its thorough form templates ask you for numerous details, like the vendor, product or service, amount, and billable status. Completed expenses appear in a table. You can run any of several related reports, like Expenses by Vendor Summary. If you use the QuickBooks Online mobile app, you can snap photos of receipts that are turned into expense forms by QuickBooks Online and partially completed with the receipt data.

Using the QuickBooks Online mobile app, you can snap photos of receipts and complete the expense forms provided.

But Expensify ($5-9 per month for one user) does more. It’s a robust expense management system that handles everything from receipt processing to next-day reimbursement. Where QuickBooks Online only supports basic expense tracking, Expensify allows you to create expense reports and follow them through multi-level approvals. It features automatic credit card reconciliation and expense policy enforcement, as well as bill pay and invoices/payments. Two-way synchronization with QuickBooks Online means you can work in either application and your data will be replicated in the other, as is the case with all of these integrated solutions.

QuickBooks Time

Formerly known as TSheets, this powerful time-tracking application builds on QuickBooks Online’s time management and payroll features. QuickBooks Time ($8-10 per user per month plus $20-40 monthly base fee) is now owned by Intuit, so it’s embedded directly in QuickBooks Online. 

Your employees can track their hours on any device, from any location, and they will instantly be available in QuickBooks Online so managers can review, edit, and approve timesheets. That data can then be used in areas like invoicing, job costing, and payroll. Advanced features include scheduling capabilities, overtime monitoring, GPS tracking, and real-time reports. The Who’s Working window shows you where your staff members are working and what they’re doing, in real time. 

Method:CRM

QuickBooks Online does a good job of helping you create profiles of customers and storing them for quick retrieval. But some businesses need more than that. They need true Customer Relationship Management (CRM). Method:CRM ($28-49 per month per user; discounts for annual subscriptions) is an excellent partner for QuickBooks Online in this area.

You can record and store customer details in QuickBooks Online, but Method:CRM adds true Customer Relationship management to the site.

When you integrate Method:CRM with QuickBooks Online, you no longer have to do duplicate data entry to keep track of your customers and their sales profiles and histories. You get a shared lead list and activity tracking (emails and phone calls), and your customer records contain the information a sales team needs, like customer details, interaction, transactions, and services performed. Leads are stored in Method:CRM until they’re customers, and you can track sales opportunities from a customer’s initial interest through the final sale. 

Two more advanced integrated apps

QuickBooks Online provides basic inventory-tracking capabilities, but if your business has more complex needs, an integrated application like SOS Inventory ($49.95-149.95 per user per month) should be able to meet them. Built for QuickBooks Online from the ground up, the application offers advanced features like sales orders and order management, assemblies, serial inventory, and multiple locations. And if you need more sophisticated bill pay, invoicing, and payment processing (with multiple automated approval levels) than QuickBooks Online offers, you might look into the highly-regarded Bill.com ($39-69 per user per month).

Growth Is good, but challenging

We wanted to introduce you to a few of the hundreds of integrated apps available for QuickBooks Online because you should know that there are options for expanding on the site’s built-in capabilities. As your business grows, so does your need for more sophisticated accounting. QuickBooks Online may still be able to serve you well with the help of one or more of these add-ons.

You may also want to explore the possibility of upgrading your version of QuickBooks Online. We encourage you to consult with us if you’re outgrowing QuickBooks Online. We can help you explore the options so you can spend your time planning for your company’s future instead of wrestling with your accounting application. Please contact our Outsourced Accounting team

Article
Expand QuickBooks Online's features: Use integrated apps

Read this if you are at a not-for-profit organization.

There is no question the investment landscape is forever changing. Even before COVID-19 placed a vice grip on all aspects of society, many not-for-profit organizations were looking for ways to maximize the value of their current investment holdings. One such way of accomplishing this is through the use of alternative investments, defined for our purposes as investments outside of standard assets such as traditional stocks and bonds. Alternative investments have become increasingly specialized and are often seen in the form of foreign corporations or partnerships (often times domiciled in locales such as the Cayman Islands where tax laws are more favorable to investors) and are much more commonplace than ever before.

While promises of higher rates of return are received warmly by not-for-profit organizations, alternative investments often carry with them the potential for additional compliance costs in the form of tax filing obligations and substantial penalties should those filings be overlooked.

This article will highlight some of those potential foreign filings, as well as highlight potential consequences they carry and what you need to know in order to avoid the pitfalls. 

Potential foreign filings related to investment activities

Not-for profit organizations should be aware of the potential filings/disclosures required in regards to their ownership of investments located outside of the United States. The federal government uses a variety of forms to track transfers of property, ownership, and account balances related to foreign activity/investments. A list of some of the potential foreign filings are detailed below (not an all-inclusive list):

Form 926 – Return by a US Transferor of Property to a Foreign Corporation

This form is generally required when a US investor transfers more than $100,000 in a 12-month period, or any other contribution when the investor owns 10% or more of a foreign corporation. The requirement to file this form can be via a direct investment in the foreign corporation, or indirectly through another entity (such as a partnership interest). The penalty for failure to file is equal to 10 percent of the transfer amount, up to $100,000 per missed filing.

Form 8865 – Return of US Persons with Respect to Certain Foreign Partnerships

Similar to Form 926, this filing arises when a US person (which includes not-for-profit organizations) transfers $100,000 or more in a given year, or if they own 10% or more of the foreign partnership. There are different levels of disclosure required for different categories of filers. Filings are also triggered by both direct and indirect investments. The penalty for failure to file varies by category type, ranging from $10,000 to up to $100,000 per missed filing.

FinCEN Form 114 – Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts

Commonly referred to as the FBAR, this form tracks assets that US taxpayers hold in offshore accounts, whether they be foreign bank accounts, brokerage accounts, or mutual funds. This form is required when the aggregate value of all foreign financial accounts exceeds $10,000 at any time during the calendar year. Further, any individual or entity that owns more than 50 percent of the account directly or indirectly must file the form. Lastly, individuals who have signature authority over accounts held by the organization are also required to file the FinCEN Form 114 with their individual income tax return. The penalty for failure to file can vary, but can be as high as 50 percent of the account’s value.

Please note: there is a specific definition of the term “foreign financial account” which excludes certain items from the definition. Organizations are encouraged to consult their tax advisors for more information.

Form 5471 – Information Return of US Persons with Respect to Certain Foreign Corporations

Form 5471 is required to be filed when ownership is at least 10% in a foreign corporation. There are different disclosures required for different categories of ownership. Organizations required to file Form 5471 are typically operating internationally and have ownership of a foreign corporation which triggers the filing, but this form would also apply to investments in foreign corporations if ownership is at least 10%. The penalty for failure to file is typically $10,000 per missed filing.

Recommendations to avoid the pitfalls of alternative investments

In order to avoid missed filing requirements, exempt organizations should ask their investment advisors if any investment will involve organizations outside of the United States. If the answer is “yes,” then your organization needs to understand any additional filing requirements up front in order to take into consideration any additional compliance costs related to foreign filings. You should review and share all relevant investment documentation and subsequent information (e.g., prospectus and any other offering materials) with your finance/accounting department, as well as your tax advisors—prior to investment.

We also recommend you engage in open and frequent communication with your investment managers and advisors (both within and outside the organization). Those who manage the entity’s investments should also stay in close contact with fund managers who can help communicate when assets are invested in a way that might trigger a foreign filing obligation.

As investment practices and strategies become increasingly complex, organizations need to stay vigilant and aware in this forever changing landscape. We’re here to help. If you have any questions or concerns about current investment holdings and potential foreign filings, please do not hesitate to reach out to a member of our not-for-profit tax team.

Article
Alternative investments: Potential pitfalls not-for-profit organizations need to know

Read this if you are an employee benefit plan fiduciary.

Fiduciary risk management

This is the final article in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with ERISA requirements. You can find the full series here.

If, as part of your involvement with an employee benefit plan, you have decision-making ability; you advise those with decision-making ability; or someone tasks you with decision-making related to the plan, you are more likely than not, a fiduciary. As discussed in the first article of the series, this status comes with responsibilities and, therefore, risks and consequences.

The general approach to handling risk is a cycle of identifying, assessing, controlling, and reviewing controls over risks. Based on the assessment of a given risk, there are four ways to manage it: you can avoid, reduce, transfer, or accept the risk. 

Identifying and assessing fiduciary risk1 

The risks facing a plan fiduciary include, but are not limited to, the following:

Removal of fiduciary

In appropriate cases, a fiduciary may be removed and permanently prohibited from acting as a fiduciary or from providing services to ERISA plans.

Civil penalties

Among other penalties, the DOL may assess a civil penalty equal to 20% of the amounts recovered for the plan through litigation or settlement.

Criminal prosecution

Upon a conviction for a willful violation of ERISA’s reporting and disclosure requirements, a fiduciary may be subject to fines and/or imprisonment for not more than ten years. There is also a provision in ERISA that applies to any person, not just ERISA fiduciaries, that makes coercive interference with ERISA rights a criminal offense punishable by fines and/or imprisonment for up to ten years. In addition, outside of ERISA, there are a number of criminal statutes that apply to any person, not just ERISA fiduciaries, including criminal statutes for embezzling from an ERISA plan, making false statements in ERISA documents, and taking illegal kickbacks in connection with an ERISA plan.

Participant lawsuits

Additionally, plan participants may file a lawsuit against the fiduciary for breach of their fiduciary duty. Over the past few years, this has become more common and has generally been related to the fiduciary’s failure to adequately negotiate and monitor plan fees. 

Co-fiduciary liability

ERISA's unique co-fiduciary liability provisions make each fiduciary responsible for the actions of the other plan fiduciaries but only under certain circumstances. As a general rule, fiduciaries aren’t responsible for the breach of another fiduciary unless:

  • They participate knowingly in, or knowingly undertake to conceal, an act or omission of such other fiduciary, knowing such act or omission is a breach;
  • Their failure to be prudent in the administration of their own fiduciary responsibilities enables the other fiduciary to commit a breach; or
  • They have knowledge of a breach by such other fiduciary and don’t make reasonable efforts under the circumstances to remedy the breach.

Controlling fiduciary risk

There are several ways to effectively manage fiduciary risk. When used together, they give you solid controls to greatly reduce your level of risk.

Plan documentation

A fiduciary and/or plan sponsor should reduce their exposure to the risks identified above and their first line of defense is through plan documentation (discussed in depth here). Broadly speaking, the organizers and fiduciaries of the plan should ensure that policies and procedures are laid out to ensure proper oversight and internal controls are in place to prevent any voluntary or involuntary noncompliance with ERISA and the DOL.

Oversight

Fiduciaries should meet formally on a regular basis to review the plan’s offerings, service providers, fees, and other issues that may affect the plan. A single individual who is the sole fiduciary for a plan may not have the knowledge or bandwidth to appropriately fulfill the responsibilities of the plan. Additionally, having an auditor come in and audit the plan can help identify some of the risks identified above, although an audit of the plan does not reduce your responsibility to monitor and review the plan’s activity on an ongoing basis.

Third Party Administrators (TPA) & recordkeepers

Fiduciaries may also be able to mitigate some of the risks identified above through use of a TPA and/or recordkeeper. While TPAs and recordkeepers are not generally considered fiduciaries or co-fiduciaries, TPAs have varying service offerings, including recordkeeping, that are powerful tools to plan administrators to review and operate the plan. For example, depending on the plan sponsor’s existing payroll and HR structure, inclusive of TPAs and recordkeepers, fiduciaries may be able to automate the transfer of contributions to ensure timeliness of deposits. The plan may also be able to add another layer of internal controls by incorporating the TPA’s or recordkeeper’s internal controls into the plan’s control environment assuming the fiduciary has gained an understanding and comfort around the controls present at the TPA and/or recordkeeper.

Professional investment advisors and co-fiduciaries

Employee benefit plans must meet certain requirements with regard to their investment offerings. For instance, the plan must allow participants to invest in a diversified portfolio. The plan may try to transfer some of these risks and employ the help of a professional investment advisor to help ensure the plan’s investment offerings meet such criteria. This could involve hiring either an ERISA 3(21) fiduciary or an ERISA 3(38) fiduciary. The former serves as an advisor and a co-fiduciary, but does not have any authority by themselves, while the latter is an investment manager and therefore authorized to select investments for the plan. Doing so may help demonstrate to regulators that a fiduciary has fulfilled their duty in this regard. Alternatively, a plan may hire a 3(16) Fiduciary. 3(16) Fiduciaries are individuals or organizations that are charged with running plans as the plan administrator. A company may be able to shift most of their fiduciary risk to such a fiduciary. 

In any case, the plan fiduciary must continue to monitor a 3(16), 3(21) or 3(38) advisor to make sure it is still prudent to use that advisor.

Bonding and fiduciary liability insurance

Bonding is required for most EB plans and does not protect the fiduciary from any risk. It does however protect the plan from fraud or dishonesty. On the other hand, fiduciary liability insurance can protect the fiduciary in the case of breach of fiduciary duty. This type of insurance is not required but is another option to transfer fiduciary risk.

As mentioned in our second article, much like owning a car, regular preventative maintenance can help you avoid the need for costly repairs. Plan fiduciaries should periodically refresh their understanding of ERISA requirements and re-evaluate their current and future business activities on an ongoing basis. Doing so will help mitigate any risks associated with non-compliance with the DOL and IRS and keep the plan running smoothly. 

Need help navigating the fiduciary road? Reach out to the BerryDunn employee benefit consulting team today.

1From Fidelity’s Plan Sponsor Webstation: Consequences of breach of fiduciary duties 

Article
Fiduciary risk: Five ways to control and reduce it

Read this if you are responsible for cybersecurity at your organization. 

During the financial audit process auditors are required to develop and confirm their understanding of Information Technology (IT) and cybersecurity practices as it relates to financial reporting to better understand risks and because of auditors’ heavy reliance on data pulled from accounting information systems. As auditors, we have seen a significant increase in the amount of impactful incidents affecting not-for-profit organizations and our IT security experts often share valuable advisory comments in annual audit communications with our clients. With recent incidents and a very rapidly changing business environment, here are the three most important from the last six months that impact all not-for-profits. 

Board oversight of cybersecurity 

Cybersecurity gaps within an organization’s systems may lead to risk exposure and have material impacts on all aspects of operations. Responsibility for cybersecurity controls and for establishing a culture of awareness and security should come from the Board and senior leadership. Board members and senior leaders should stay apprised of cybersecurity efforts on a regular basis and incidents should be summarized and reported on a quarterly basis. 

The Board should also consider adding a member who is a professional with IT and cybersecurity experience to help manage and understand the specific risks to the organization and help drive and support cybersecurity efforts.

Ransomware threats and preventive controls

The use of ransomware as a profitable attack on organizations by hackers continues to rapidly increase. Within the last year there have been multiple high-profile incidents that illustrate the impact of a successful attack. These impacts fall into two main areas. One impact may be financial, as millions of dollars are paid to the bad actors as ransom in hopes of being able to regain control of systems. The second impact is operational, resulting in a loss of control of systems and data during the event. Potentially, an unsuccessful data restoration could result in the total loss of information and data maintained on your networks. 

Though no organization may be able to prevent a ransomware attack from occurring entirely, there are basic cybersecurity controls that help reduce the likelihood and impact of an attack. Preventive controls may include: 

  • Security awareness training on phishing emails and overall IT security practices for all organization users
  • Multi-factor authentication 
  • Access controls that prevent users from installing unapproved software onto organization-owned workstations and networks
  • Anti-malware software installed on devices that connect to organization systems 
  • Use of Zero Trust data management tools for backups
  • Disabling macros in emails (prevents back-end processes from automatically running) 

In addition to including these preventive controls to your cybersecurity program, your organization should assess current corrective controls already in place to react to a ransomware event if one is detected or reported. Corrective controls may include:

  • Disaster recovery plans/business continuity plans 
  • Incident response plans
  • Backup controls and restoration tests 

As the risk of ransomware continues to increase and the types of attacks continue to increase in sophistication, your organization should consider regular assessments of IT controls and cybersecurity practices on a regular basis. Such assessments may be performed in conjunction with annual financial statement audits as an expanded scope and/or as a separate annual IT assessment. 

COVID-19 IT considerations 

The global COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted nearly every aspect of modern life, including the way we work. As personnel were sent home and literally became a remote workforce overnight, changes to IT systems and controls rapidly adjusted to accommodate this new way of business. 

Where controls and procedures were adjusted, if not suspended, your organization should review those changes and determine if controls should revert back to the pre-pandemic process—or be formally changed and documented as policy. 

Guidance from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) dictates that a gap in controls associated with the pandemic is not a legitimate reason for not completing a control and that any changes must be documented and properly managed.  

Well over a year into the pandemic, the concept of a hybrid workforce has emerged as the predominant way employees and businesses want to work. Your organization should review current policies and procedures that may pre-date the pandemic to ensure that the updates both document and consider the current business environment. 

Additionally, with personnel working remotely or in a hybrid model, or a combination of both, you should assess practices for managing remote access and a hybrid workforce and, where needed, implement industry best-practice tools and procedures to accommodate a remote workforce while maintaining security controls. If you have questions regarding you cybersecurity procedures or want to learn more, please contact our team. We’re here to help. 
 

Article
Cybersecurity update for organizations: Considerations for boards and senior management

Read this if you are working on ESG initiatives at your organization.

Whether you are a director or an executive well into the journey of developing and communicating your company’s strategic sustainability plans or in early stages, the rising public demand for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting is becoming a force that cannot be ignored by boards and management teams.

ESG overview: reminders and FAQs

What does ESG information comprise? The term “ESG” reporting, used broadly, covers qualitative discussions of topics and quantitative metrics used to measure a company’s performance against ESG risks, opportunities, and related strategies. ESG, sustainability, and corporate social responsibility are terms often used interchangeably to describe nonfinancial reporting being shared publicly by companies. Such information is not currently subject to a singular authoritative set of standards.

What are examples of ESG and sustainability information? The following do not represent all-inclusive lists and, while some ESG information may be measured quantitatively, there are often many means to calculate metrics or information that may be difficult to quantify and therefore may be expressed qualitatively and described as such: 

As corporate ESG activities increase in relevance and importance to stakeholders, companies are seeking to both understand the complex landscape of ESG disclosure and reporting and determine the best path forward. This includes identifying, collecting, sharing, and improving upon qualitative and quantitative metrics reflecting long-term, strategic ESG value creation.

Organizations are in various stages of readiness to report on such decision-useful information. Currently, a myriad of reporting frameworks and wide variations in how companies choose to publicly share ESG information exist, making the ESG landscape complex to navigate. However, two things are certain:

  1. The pressure for companies to publicly disclose their approach to sustainability and ESG reporting continues to mount from a broad variety of stakeholders, and 
  2. ESG is rapidly rising to the forefront of boardroom agendas.

We have prepared the following to provide useful reminders, FAQs, and insights for those charged with governance as they consider the rapidly changing current ESG reporting landscape and evolving regulatory developments.

Is there a single authoritative set of ESG reporting standards? 

There are currently several frameworks and standards in use globally by companies to report on ESG, many of which may be complementary and used in combination for external reporting. Some of the more commonly used frameworks are: Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB); Global Reporting Initiative (GRI); Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD); International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC); and Climate Disclosures Standards Board (CDSB). While many of these may already be complementary to each other, there is also growing support for a singular, global set of reporting standards for ESG, though the timing to achieve the necessary convergence remains uncertain.

Are U.S. companies required to disclose ESG information? 

Outside of certain industry regulators, such as required reporting by the Environmental Protection Agency on greenhouse gas emissions, implementation by U.S. companies remains voluntary. However, pressure from institutional investors—BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard—is mounting in support of companies providing ESG disclosures that align with both the SASB and TCFD frameworks. Additionally, sustainability risk issues are increasingly integrated into organizational risk frameworks such as COSO’s Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) framework.

Companies must also assess whether other ESG information, such as climate risk disclosures, are required under current MD&A disclosure rules. For example, if the risk represents a known trend or uncertainty the company reasonably expects will have a material impact on the company’s results of operations or capital resources, additional disclosure would be required.

What companies are reporting, and what information are they reporting? 

ESG disclosures vary significantly depending on the nature of the business, geography, industry, and stakeholder base, as well as available resources to devote to ESG. The largest global public companies have led the way in external ESG reporting and engagement, but this reporting is rapidly expanding to encompass smaller public entities and private entities. Companies of all sizes are both feeling the pressure to produce ESG reporting and identifying it as a means to differentiate themselves in the market by proactively conveying their corporate stories and strategies.

As noted in a recent White & Case study of proxy statements and filed 10-Ks for the top 50 companies by revenue in the Fortune 100, the following ESG categories showed the most significant increase in disclosures from the prior year:

  • Human capital management (HCM)
  • Environmental
  • Corporate culture
  • Ethical business practices
  • Board oversight of environment & social (E&S) issues
  • Social impact/community
  • E&S issues in shareholder engagement

The study noted that a majority of E&S disclosures in the SEC filings were qualitative and did not provide quantitative metrics. However, disclosures pertaining to environmental, HCM, and E&S goals, along with social impact and community relations were more likely to contain quantitative metrics.

Where do companies report ESG information? The most common places companies are providing public ESG disclosures include:

  • Standalone reports including corporate social responsibility (CSR)/sustainability reports
  • Company websites and marketing materials
  • MD&A sections of annual and quarterly reports
  • Earnings calls
  • Proxy statements and 8-Ks

Evolving auditor ESG attestation

Many of the metrics and qualitative disclosures around ESG information are not “governed” by an established framework such as generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), and thus, may not be subject to the same rigor of processes and controls over such processes to ensure the integrity and accuracy of the underlying data and the appropriateness of the decisions and judgments being made by management in reporting on such information. For example, the fear of corporate “green or impact washing”—the incentive to make stakeholders believe that a company is doing more to promote ESG activities, particularly environmental protections, than it actually is—has left many stakeholders questioning the reliability, consistency, and accuracy of company ESG reporting. As ESG reporting continues to evolve and become a significant consideration for boards, investors, employees, suppliers, lenders, regulators, and others in making business decisions, there is a growing focus on the value of assurance on such information provided by independent third parties.

Type of attestation services to be provided

Determining the scope and level of assurance to be provided will vary based on company objectives in presenting ESG information, management’s readiness, and intended users and uses of ESG information. Attest services may include:

  • Examination: Consists of an examination performed by an auditor resulting in an independent opinion indicating whether the ESG information is in accordance with the agreed upon criteria, in all material respects. An examination engagement is the closest equivalent to the reasonable assurance obtained in an audit of financial statements.
  • Review: Consists of limited procedures, performed by an auditor, that result in limited assurance. The objective of a review engagement is for the auditor to express a conclusion about whether any material modifications should be made to the ESG information in order for it to be in accordance with the agreed upon criteria. Review engagements are substantially less in scope than examination engagements.


The ESG journey: first steps for boards just beginning the ESG reporting journey

The AICPA and Center for Audit Quality (CAQ) have issued a roadmap for audit practitioners laying out initial steps for those organizations and their boards who are in the beginning phases of the ESG reporting journey:

  • Conduct a materiality or risk assessment to determine which ESG topics are prioritized as important or “material” to the organization, its investors and other stakeholders
  • Implement appropriate board oversight of material ESG matters
  • Integrate/align material ESG topics into the ERM process
  • Integrate ESG matters into the overall company strategy
  • Implement effective internal control over ESG data collection, processing, and reporting


For boards considering an attestation engagement

The CAQ has further prepared the following questions boards may consider for companies that have already started reporting on ESG and may be considering an attestation engagement:

  • What is the purpose and objective of the attestation engagement on ESG information?
  • Who are the intended users of the ESG information and related attestation report?
  • Why do the intended users want or need an attestation report on the ESG information?
  • What are the potential risks associated with a misstatement or omission in the ESG information?
  • Does the company have a clear understanding what ESG information the intended users want or need to be in the scope of the attestation engagement?
  • What level of attestation service (examination or review engagement) will help the company achieve its objective?

Additional questions for board members to consider regarding their company’s preparedness for reporting include:

  • Does management have well established controls, policies, and procedures for the collection of and disclosure of ESG information? Are there gaps to be addressed?
  • Has the board, along with management, set specific objectives and goals for external reporting of ESG information?
  • Is the information disclosed by the company consistent across its various communication channels?
  • Are the ESG responsibilities at the board level clearly defined among appropriate committees and are those responsibilities directly linked to corporate strategic ESG goals and external reporting needs?
  • Have the right advisors been identified to assist in preparing for reporting and/or to attest to the quality of reporting?

Next steps

We encourage management, audit committees, and other board members to continue to educate themselves on the evolving landscape of ESG and carefully consider the needs of various stakeholders broadly when mapping out their ESG reporting needs. Particular attention should be paid to regulatory developments in this area.

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ESG reporting: Considerations for boards and those charged with governance

Read this if you are a plan sponsor of employee benefit plans.

This article is the eleventh in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requirements. You can read the previous articles here.

Most employee benefit plans have outsourced a significant portion of the internal controls to a service organization, such as a third-party administrator. The plan administrator has a fiduciary responsibility to monitor the internal controls of the service organization and to determine if the outsourced controls are suitably designed and effective.

SOC 1 reports: Internal controls and financial reporting

Generally, the most efficient way to obtain an understanding of the outsourced controls is to obtain a report on controls issued by the service organization’s auditor. Commonly referred to as a System and Organization Controls (SOC) report, the SOC report should be based on the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ (AICPA) attestation standards and should cover internal controls relevant to financial reporting, also known as a SOC 1 report (the “1” indicating it covers internal controls over financial reporting).

Plan sponsors should perform a documented review of the SOC 1 report for each of the plan’s significant service organizations. The documented review should include the plan sponsor’s assessment of the complementary user entity controls outlined in the SOC 1 report. The complementary user entity controls are internal control activities that should be in place at the plan sponsor to provide reasonable assurance that the controls tested at the service organization are operating effectively at your plan. If a service organization’s internal controls are operating effectively, but complementary user entity controls are not in place at your organization, the effectiveness of the service organization’s internal controls may not transfer to your plan’s operations.

Creditability and CPA firms: Considerations

Creditability of the CPA firm completing the SOC 1 report examination may impact the reliability of the CPA firm’s opinion and thus your reliability on the service organization’s internal controls. Unfamiliarity with the service auditor’s qualifications may be mitigated through additional research. Items to consider are: 

  • The firm’s expertise in SOC 1 reporting
    • Are they familiar with the service organization’s industry?
    • How many professionals do they have that perform SOC 1 examination services?
  • The evaluation of AICPA peer reviews 
    Audit firms are required to have a periodic peer review conducted. The results of the peer review are public knowledge and can be found on the AICPA’s website.
    • Did the service auditor receive a “pass” rating during their most recent peer review?
    • Did the peer review cover SOC 1 examination services?
  • Evaluation of the service organization’s due diligence procedures surrounding the selection of an auditor

Some of this information may be readily available via the service auditor’s website, while other information may need to be gathered through direct communication with the service organization. A qualified service auditor should be able to provide a SOC 1 report that contains sufficient detail, relevant transactional activity, relevant control objectives, and a timely reporting period.

SOC 1 reports may contain an unqualified, qualified, adverse, or disclaimer of opinion. The report determines if the controls in place are adequate for complete and accurate financial reporting. Report qualifications may affect the risk of relying on the service organization and may result in the need for additional procedures or safeguards to help ensure the plan’s financial statements are presented fairly. Even if the SOC 1 report received an unqualified opinion, you should review the controls tested by the service auditor and the results of such testing for any exceptions. Exceptions, even if they don’t result in a qualified opinion, may have an impact on the plan’s control environment. 

You should also review the scope of the audit to check that all significant transaction cycles, processes, and IT applications were properly assessed for their impact on the plan’s financial statements. Areas outside the scope of the SOC 1 report may require additional consideration, including the possibility of obtaining more than one SOC 1 report for subservice organizations whose functions were carved out from the service organization’s SOC 1 report.

Subservice organizations

Subservice organizations are frequently utilized to process certain transactions or perform certain functions at the service organization. Management of the service organization may identify certain transaction cycles and processes that are performed by a subservice organization and choose to exclude relevant control objectives and related controls from the SOC 1 report description and the scope of the auditor’s engagement. In such cases, multiple SOC 1 reports may need to be acquired to gain adequate coverage of all controls and objectives relevant to your plan. 

Furthermore, you need to consider the time period the SOC 1 report covers. Coverage should be obtained for your plan’s full fiscal year. For SOC 1 reports that lack coverage of your plan’s full fiscal year, a bridge letter should be obtained to help ensure that no significant changes in controls occurred between the SOC 1 report examination period and the end of your plan’s fiscal year.

Although plans commonly outsource a significant portion of their day-to-day operations to service organizations, plan fiduciaries cannot outsource their responsibilities surrounding the maintenance of a sound control environment. SOC 1 reports are a great resource to assess the control environments of service organizations. However, such reports can be lengthy and daunting to review. We hope this article provides some best practices in reviewing SOC 1 reports. If you have any questions, or would like to receive a copy of our SOC 1 report review template, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our Employee Benefits Audit team.

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Service organizations and review of SOC 1 reports: Considerations and recommendations