Fiscal Sponsorship for Chicago Performers

A conversation with Links Hall's Associate Director Marie Casimir
Marie Casimir

Links Hall is a place, but it’s also a pursuit. The energy of Links Hall emanates from its walls; from the performers that present in its studios; and from its programs that nurture the talent and vision of its artists. Links provides a launching pad for artists to explore ideas and exceed the expectations of Chicago’s art world.

Behind the scenes of all this activity is an administrative powerhouse supporting artists on the balance sheet as well as on the stage. Fiscal sponsorship “allows individual artists and collectives to access fundraising opportunities, financial services, training and mentoring expertise” according to their website. To unpack that, I spoke to Associate Director Marie Casimir to get a clearer picture of what’s involved in Links Hall’s fiscal sponsorship program.

Victoria Bradford: Is Links Hall’s program geared specifically toward dancers and performers?

Marie Casimir: We leave it open to anything that fits within the Links Hall mission—anything that we would likely produce here at Links Hall. But we stay flexible. The Links Hall space has a finite capacity. If a project falls slightly outside of that capacity but falls within the Links Hall mission, then we would become a fiscal sponsor. Our program is especially for performing arts as that was where support was lacking when we began the program.

At Links, your fiscally sponsored project can be your practice.

How long ago did you begin the program?

Our fiscal sponsorship started informally in 2005. We were working with three to six artists before we formalized the program. These were artists who were really close to Links—they had either performed here, or had been in residency, or involved in some sort of project and needed to be fiscally sponsored.

We put together a fiscal sponsorship committee in 2012 to begin developing the program and the language around it. The committee set the guidelines around how to review and approve artist applications.

Seyfarth Shaw LLC provided pro-bono legal counsel to help Links create a contract that would protect equally the artists and Links Hall. Some fiscal sponsors own the artists' work; Links wanted to be sure all intellectual, tangible and intangible property of the artists’ fiscally sponsored project belonged only to the artists.

Is it correct to say the project, not the person, is being sponsored? Can you clarify that distinction?

Fiscal sponsorship is not about an artist or person. It’s about a project like a performance or a film. For instance, we were the fiscal sponsor for “Fanfare for Marching Band,” a short film by Mucca Pazza, Daniele Wilmouth and Peter Carpenter. That project had a beginning and an end date, which feels more “do-able” for Links—to provide project-based support.

It’s interesting to note how grants and even this program are “project-based.” As an artist I find that to be challenging. It is so important to have a daily practice that is not about a particular end. You can easily lose sight of that whenever everything is about a project goal.

At Links, your fiscally sponsored project can be your practice. It doesn't have to be a specific performance or exhibition or festival. Mark Jeffery and Judd Morrisey have used their fiscal sponsorship for their practice which has included researching, developing and presenting Precession, the In>Time Festival, and ATOM-r. We look at a fiscally sponsored project as a time-based period of an artist's practice. We make it time-based because we need to be able to serve a lot of artists, and we have a small staff.

What are the tax benefits of being fiscally sponsored?

Without having to be a non-profit, you’re able to receive tax-deductible donations. That’s huge for independent artists who don’t necessarily have the resources to incorporate or become a 501(c)(3) with the IRS.

Links takes care of issuing 1099s to all the vendors each project paid so that the artist doesn't have to keep up on those deadlines (which have stiff penalties if you miss them or do them incorrectly). By using your fiscal sponsor account at Links to take in your income, pay your vendors and reimburse you against your receipts, you don't have to worry about income tax (unless you pay yourself a fee of more than $599).

Wrapped up with that, you’re going find out all the different kinds of tax-deductible things that are part of your art practice. A lot of artists don’t realize that there’s quite a long list of things that they can deduct because they are often independent contractors.

It’s nice to know someone is looking at your money and helping you manage donations.

In my work as director of Chicago Dancemakers Forum, there was a situation with one of our grantees who was not fiscally sponsored. She received her grant directly, then paid out her artists through the grant money. She didn’t realize when it came to tax time that she would need to give those artists tax paperwork.

Exactly! We would generate that. Come tax time, we send out tax-deductible donation letters for our fiscally sponsored artists in the same way we send letters to our donors and supporters. We have great administrative support for all of that. We do this because our own director at Links Hall was fiscally sponsored by an out-of-town organization that didn't provide that service; they simply served as a conduit for grants and donations. She learned about 1099s and the wild fluctuations in income and expenses the hard way. Links isn’t anybody’s personal accountant, but it’s nice to know someone is looking at your money and helping you manage donations.

Check the sponsor’s Form 990 online to make sure they have cash assets.

Are there any drawbacks to fiscal sponsorship?

I think it depends on the artist or company. One could become overly reliant on being fiscally sponsored as opposed to becoming a 501(c)(3). If you’re at a certain maturity level, it might be time to incorporate. Also, if a donor is writing a check, they’re writing it to Links Hall not to the artists, so the artists have to be prepared to explain to their donors what fiscal sponsorship is, as opposed to being their own not-for-profit.

Regardless of the fiscal sponsor, artists should check out the sponsor’s Form 990s online to make sure they have cash assets. Because there is risk to an artist fiscally sponsored by an organization that isn't financially healthy. You trust a fiscal sponsor to hold your money safe for your project (and not to spend it on the their own operations). Sometimes fiscal sponsors have betrayed that trust, and that just sucks for everyone.

Are there any drawbacks in terms of applying for grants? Can you only apply as an individual?

You can apply for all the grants that are available to individual artists. You yourself are not a 501(c)(3); you’re not an organization. You cannot apply for organizational grants. However, some grants require fiscal sponsorship, such as Map Fund, Met Life New Stages for Dance and Driehaus Individual Grants. Increasingly, individual donors are giving from donor-advised funds which require the recipient of funds to have 501(c)(3) status or fiscal sponsorship.

You also offer insurance through the fiscal sponsorship program.

In talking to our lawyers and our insurance provider, they made it very clear that artists who were fiscally sponsored also needed to be insured. This is really helpful because, oftentimes, you’re going to have a performance at a location that doesn’t necessarily provide coverage. This is really great for site-specific artists who often are scrambling to find insurance. Links gets a discounted rate on insurance because it has a group plan. We are then able to offer this reduced price—about ten percent of the premium— to the artists through our fiscal sponsorship program.

What are the timelines and costs involved in fiscal sponsorship?

Through fiscal sponsorship, you are able to build a personal relationship with us.

Applications are on a rolling basis. We get three or four requests monthly. Of those that apply, we accept about three; they do have to qualify within the guidelines of being a performance art project.
The fiscal sponsorship committee tries to meet once a month, but if there’s a grant deadline coming up—a MAP deadline or DCASE grants—we’ll make sure we’re meeting around the time artists need a fiscal sponsor.

To participate in the program there is a $50 annual fee due for individual artists or $100 for a collective at the time the application is accepted (and the anniversary of that date for the duration of the project). Links Hall takes five percent of all grants and donations processed through Links Hall. Fiscal sponsor fees typically range between five and seven percent.

We’re one of the few local organizations offering fiscal sponsorship to performing artists. Usually artists have to go through Fractured Atlas in New York or other organizations that are not based in Chicago or Illinois. To have Links Hall provide this service is really great because you know you are dealing with a local organization. We keep the lines of communication open; if you want to stop by the office, you can.

Through fiscal sponsorship, you are able to build a personal relationship with us. Even if you have never heard of Links Hall, or if you are in a completely different art form such that your path doesn’t intersect that much with us, our fiscal sponsorship program is an introduction and an open door to collaboration.

Published by CAR_Dance on Tue, 03/18/2014 - 5:58pm
Updated on Tue, 07/15/2014 - 6:38pm