Are associations taking unfair advantage of their tax-exempt status when they acquire and manage shows other than their own? And are those activities inconsistent with their not-for-profit status? Those are the questions raised in a letter the Society of Independent Show Organizers in Framingham, Mass., sent to 15 association executives and members of the press. The letter, signed by SISO chairman Robert E. Harar, asks recipients to voice their views.
"It is our goal to find out how extensive these trends are as well as the potential legal implications," Harar wrote. "It appears that we're not equal competitors," added SISO executive director Stephen Schuldenfrei, in an interview. "All we're asking for is a level playing field."
The letter's recipients contacted by AM all disagreed with SISO. Their members, they say, accept increasing competition as a reality, not a result of unfair practices. The trend they observe is that for-profits and not-for-profits are forming alliances in response to the tough marketplace, not making accusations.
"At one time you were either a for-profit organization or an association," says Steven Hacker, CAE, president of the International Association for Exposition Management in Dallas. "These days, the lines are becoming blurred. You see major organizations such as Miller Freeman and Reed managing association events. You're seeing show organizers purchase events from associations, you're seeing all kinds of joint ventures. Rather than squaring off and dividing turf, parties are coming together who heretofore had not thought about doing business together. In many cases, cooperation has replaced combat."
The implication that associations may be acting outside their not-for-profit status when they acquire shows rankled David L. Amati, PhD, CEM, director, professional meetings and activities group, Society of Automotive Engineers International, Warrendale, Pa. SAE has acquired two shows. Asked to respond to the letter (he was not a recipient), Amati said, "We never acquire or manage shows not consistent with our status. The shows are automotive engineering-oriented shows. We don't do bakery shows."
And, when tax-exempt organizations do engage in commerce unrelated to their exempt purpose, that commerce is subject to taxation, pointed out J. C. Mahaffey, CAE, president and CEO, Associa- tion Forum of Chicagoland in his letter to SISO. "I suggest you contact the IRS Office of Exempt Organizations to discuss this issue. I believe that exempt status is a privilege, not a right, and organizations not voluntarily paying their fair share of UBIT should be subject to IRS investigation," Mahaffey wrote. "That, in my opinion, is the only difference between the for-profit and tax-exempt sectors. In every other way, we are fair and equal competitors."
At press time, SISO board members planned to discuss the issue at their next meeting, and decide "where to go, from here, if anywhere," says Schuldenfrei. "It's like a billboard that says, 'Watch this Space.'"