Jim Robinson, Chairman, Hunterdon County Chamber Foundation, Offers Insight Into The Benefits And Challenges For A Chamber Of Commerce When Forming A 501(c)(3)

Jim Robinson, Chairman of the Hunterdon County NJ Chamber of Commerce Foundation, together with the Chamber’s Board of Trustees, has been deeply committed to bringing the idea of creating a Foundation arm of the Hunterdon County Chamber of Commerce to fruition ever since discussions began heating up five or six years ago.  As he looks back on the Foundation’s trajectory from idea to reality, his perspective offers tremendous insight into the challenges faced, and opportunities in store for the future.

Robinson explained that after 97 years of serving the business community, Chamber members had begun to realize, especially in recent years, how quickly and greatly the number and makeup of businesses in Hunterdon County had grown and changed.  And, while the Chamber had been successfully prioritizing and addressing the concerns of the business community, conversations at high levels in the Chamber began to shift toward how they could better serve the community as a whole.

After investigating different models for community service, on both national and statewide levels, the Chamber began to look very seriously at forming a Foundation, coming to realize that a Foundation would be a way to answer the “big picture” concerns of both supporting the business community through an alliance with the Chamber proper; and, broadening their audience reach and extending services to the larger community.

In Jim Robinson’s words:  “We are very excited about the Hunterdon Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the great potential it has to enhance opportunities for leadership, education, economic and workforce development in Hunterdon County.  The Chamber of Commerce has been serving the business community for almost a century, and the Foundation will provide us the opportunity to expand our services to assist the greater community.”

Once the idea took root, planning began in earnest.  Though most Chambers of Commerce are already non-profit organizations – in other words, they are not subject to federal income tax – they are classed as 501(c)(6) by the IRS.  This classification is specifically reserved to business leagues or membership organizations.  Most professional organizations fall under this classification, and under it, things like membership dues and contributions by its members are only tax deductible as business or advertising expenses, if at all.

The Chamber Foundation, on the other hand, was envisioned as a 501(c)(3), a true non-profit.  This would open up much more exciting possibilities with regard to fundraising, because donations to 501(c)(3) organizations are fully tax deductible as charitable contributions.  This was an important consideration, as to succeed in its vision for serving the whole community, significant funds would need to be made available, and a way to attract those funds, established.  Another advantage down the line would be the ease of programmatic partnerships with other non-profits and government agencies.

The path to creating a 501(c)(3), however, is not an easy one.  One can’t simply post a sign, make a declaration, and invest in a .org domain extension.  The process is expensive, time-consuming, and due to governmental regulations, arcane.  Fortunately, the Chamber’s membership itself was able to eliminate one of the chief impediments – expense.  Think about it.  Just the legal filings with the IRS for 501(c)(3) status are detailed, lengthy and complicated.  Included with them are budget and financial projections that are required to be realistic and accurate to a high standard.  In addition, the Foundation must be properly incorporated.  The costs of hiring professionals for this work are prohibitive for many organizations starting down this path.

Robinson is quick to credit the resources and services of individual Chamber members as being instrumental to the endeavor’s success.  Attorney Nicholas Pellitta, of Norris, McLaughlin & Morris took care of the Foundation’s incorporation process; and, Edward Kurowicki, CPA, of Bedard, Kurowicki & Co., was instrumental in completing filing for the Foundation’s 501(c)(3) status. All were completed at no cost to the Chamber. In addition, Robinson mentioned that without Chamber President & CEO, Chris Phelan, keeping the process on track and the rail cars coupled, as it were, delays would have been inevitable.

Though the Foundation’s 501(c)(3) status is still pending, all filings are complete; and, the Foundation’s Board of Trustees is proceeding with programs that will align with the Foundation’s strategic vision, “to promote, support and fund initiatives that enhance opportunities for leadership, education, economic, and workforce development.”  These programs include, but aren’t limited to:  Leadership Hunterdon, the Leadership Think Tank, and The Center for Business & Entrepreneurship. In keeping with IRS requirements for non-profits, these programs are educational in nature, and in Robinson’s view, “will allow us to provide resources for the entire community for the collective good of the county, which will lead to greater opportunities and success for everyone.”

For more information, please visit: http://www.hunterdon-chamber.org.