Balance Sheet Insolvency and Contribution Revenue in Public Charities

Tatiana Homonoff, Thomas Luke Spreen, and Travis St.Clair
Revise and Resubmit at Journal of Public Economics.

Using Form 990 data reported by public charities, we document significant bunching of nonprofits at near-zero net assets, the threshold for insolvency. Bunching occurs despite the fact that creditors cannot force nonprofit organizations into involuntary bankruptcy in the same manner as for-profits. We show that the extent of bunching is greater among organizations that rely more heavily on contribution revenue, and that by inflating their net assets, bunching organizations are able to increase their contribution revenue relative to firms that report negative net assets. Charitable donors appear to use the net assets threshold as heuristic for a charity’s financial health; nonprofit managers, in turn, respond to the preferences of their donors.