Friday, December 19, 2014

It was a Harlan Ellison sort of day

I spent the afternoon at the museum alternating between cursing the Internal Revenue Service and muttering about now-deceased members of the historical society. For various reasons, known (as far as I can tell) only to some desk monkey at the IRS, the historical society has gotten stuck with the task of completing a 990-EZ. The 990-EZ is five pages long and asks for so much information that I can't help but wonder just what else they could possibly ask for on the regular 990. I hope I never get to find out because the 990-EZ is enough of a nightmare on its own.

Among other things, in addition to the five pages of questions, it asks for two attachments: Schedule A and Schedule O. Schedule A is where a nonprofit gets to break down its finances for the past five years; Schedule O is basically a sheet of lined paper where you get to lie about anything that doesn't fit neatly into predetermined categories. And when I say break down I mean exactly that: how much income did we receive in the form of grants, donations, membership dues; how much came from fund-raising efforts; how much was interest or dividends? How much in-kind support did we get from local government or other entities? How much did we spend on maintenance, rent, whatever. And lots lots more, all the way back to 2009. I really, really hate detail work, especially when I'm sure there's some sort of deadline (which I've probably missed) hanging over my head.

I have to say in all honesty that the forms would not actually be that hard to deal with if the data existed to plug into the appropriate blank spaces. Long and boring, yes, but technically difficult? No, assuming, of course, that one has actual financial records to refer to while filling in the blanks.

I managed to come up with some numbers for 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010. The easiest year to do was the most recent -- 2013. That's the year I became treasurer and set up the Excel spreadsheet. 2012, 2011, and 2010 weren't bad either. My predecessor was well-organized. She didn't use an old-fashioned ledger or do a spreadsheet, but her monthly hard copy reports are nice and clear. The biggest problem I had with the those years it was sometimes impossible to separate out donations from other income -- the monthly treasurer's reports would occasionally do a lump sum (Sales & Donations) that aggregated data that should have been kept separate.

Keeping income streams separate, incidentally, is an issue that I've brought up at numerous meetings -- we need to draw nice sharp lines between the money we take in as admission fees, the money that gets spent in the gift shop, and the money people are nice enough to drop in the donations jar. These are distinctions that the IRS definitely draws but most of the society members have trouble recognizing. I'd been obsessing about it because I'd like us to have a nice firm visitor count but maybe if I bring it up at a meeting in the context of retaining our nonprofit status it'll sink in. But that's a minor quibble in the overall scheme of things, considering I hit a blank wall when I got 5 years back in the files.

2009 is a black hole. I can't find any treasurer's reports. Ditto bank statements. Nothing. Nada. Someone mentioned a few months back that one of the sons of the society's deceased president had a bunch of stuff he'd found in his father's house that he was planning to bring to the museum. He never did. I have this rather sick feeling that there were a whole lot of historical society records that had been sitting at the dead guy's home office and have since gone to the landfill in Ontonagon County. This is the shoe that I've been waiting to hear drop for the past 22 months. It finally dropped. I knew it was going to happen sooner or later. The deceased president had a really hard time drawing lines between the various areas of his life. He was involved in a lot of different things in the community, and they all overlapped. It didn't help that he'd been president of the historical society for so many years that to him the museum had become an extension of his own home and vice versa. I figured that out when I was going through the vertical files last year. And the more I saw of that, the more I worried that sooner or later it was going to end up biting us in the butt.

Well, it's now later, we've been bitten, and it's not fun to deal with. We're a 501(c)3. We should have been keeping meticulous records. We didn't, and as the current treasurer I get to untangle the mess. I don't think the IRS is going to do anything nasty to us, but you never know. After all, they cursed us with the 990-EZ because the 990-N (an electronic post card that basically says, hey, we still exist) got filed a couple weeks late. Maybe I should stop referring to the professional paper pushers as desk monkeys. Either that, I need to remember that even desk monkeys can bite.

It did occur to me (again) that the Tea Party types who were fulminating about the IRS the other year really had nothing to bitch about. The IRS drives everyone crazy; they're an equal opportunity annoyance.


  1. We refer to tax prep as "creative fiction" and I heartily recommend that approach.

  2. Damn, I wasn't ready to think about the IRS yet.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  3. Make it up. Are they going to check? No. Use the data you have to extrapolate and as long as it looks reasonable you can rest assured you will be home free.


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