If a founder had a run-in with the law more than 35 years ago that resulted in a criminal record, should it be revealed to the board and will it complicate the 501(c)(3) process?
The existence of a criminal conviction is not a bar to obtaining 501(c)(3) recognition as a charitable organization from the IRS. The IRS does not ask about previous convictions. Some very fine organizations have been founded by convicted criminals and in some cases, such as organizations dealing with gang violence or drug addiction, the experiences associated with that conviction may be a principal credential for understanding the mission of the organization.
The founder should be aware, however, that if the organization intends to solicit charitable contributions, many states require disclosure of the conviction on the registration form. The Unified Registration Statement, which can be used in more than 30 states, specifically asks in Question 14 (B) whether any of the “organization’s officers, directors or principal executives has ever been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony.” It is not a bar to registration, but merely a disclosure requirement. (A criminal conviction is a bar to registration as fundraising counsel or professional solicitor in a few states.)
If the conviction is going to be publicly disclosed with the registration filing, it seems to be a no-brainer to disclose it to the board. Even if such registration disclosure is not required, however, a founder asking others to join in support of his or her cause will probably be better served by disclosure. It could engender some really bitter feelings if directors learned of the situation later from outsiders, who then questioned the directors’ own integrity.