Monday, April 29, 2013
The fairly strict divide in the United States between for-profit and nonprofit forms presents a quandary for many entrepreneurs who want to combine doing good with doing well. On the one hand, for-profits offer great flexibility and access to capital and so attract entrepreneurs who would like to take advantage of the ability of for-profits to scale up rapidly to meet growing demand. At the same time, however, for-profit forms also limit entrepreneurs’ ability to engage in philanthropy, due to the fiduciary duties managers owe to the equity holders. On the other hand, nonprofits offer their founders the freedom to prioritize public benefit but limit both their access to capital, in large part due to the bar on equity financing for a nonprofit, and their flexibility in addressing changing societal needs as a result of constraints in the law designed to deter nonprofits from straying into activities unrelated to their narrow primary mission. Hybrids — low-profit limited liability companies, benefit corporations, and other related forms — have been touted as the “both-and” solution to this problem by marrying the capital and innovation that results from the ability to generate a profit for investors with the public benefit goals that characterize most nonprofits.
Since the first hybrid enabling law was passed in Vermont in 2008, the number of states offering hybrid forms has grown steadily, as has the number of entrepreneurs choosing statutory hybrids as a middle road between the for-profit and the nonprofit. Plaudits for and criticism of the hybrid form have also proliferated. Proponents have lauded their ability to facilitate socially conscious enterprise. Detractors have questioned the viability of the hybrid form and have suggested that they create more fiduciary conflicts than they resolve. To date, however, there has been no serious scholarly publication addressing the appropriate tax treatment of hybrid entities even though some supporters of hybrids have asserted that these forms deserve beneficial tax treatment. In this Article, we intend to close that gap by thoroughly examining the arguments for tax preference and the likely consequences that would flow from offering such preference.
We accept the fact that hybrid forms have gained a firm foothold in the legal landscape and expect that they will increase in prominence and influence. We contend, however, that offering nonprofit-like tax benefits to hybrid entities will likely have a deleterious effect, not only on the charitable sector and the public fisc, but possibly even on hybrids themselves. The Article concludes with some proposals for possible modifications to existing tax laws that would acknowledge hybrids’ virtues while not exacerbating their potential weaknesses.