Hey, All Those Cat Videos Have Helped Nonprofits Serving Animals!

catOne of the biggest questions currently on the minds of nonprofit development staff is, “How do we effectively use the Internet and social media to get our message out?” (See Nolo’s articles on Nonprofit Fundraising for more on this topic generally.)

Sometimes, just getting heard amid all the noise is nigh on impossible. Email open rates, for example, reportedly declined 4% from 2012 to 2014, such that only 13 people out of the hundred on your list will so much as view what the email contains. (Poof! Gone.)

So, let’s take a moment to celebrate some actual good news, an indicator that there is a way through the noise, or at least a benefit to the volume of what can be found online: According to Terrence Petty of the Associated Press, “Cat adoptions leap with help of Internet.” That is, the popularity of cute cat videos (hey, did you see the one with the German weather broadcaster?) have not only helped nonprofits place cats for adoption, but have RAISED THE LEVEL OF ADOPTIONS OVERALL, as people develop a greater sense of affinity with felines.

No comprehensive statistics yet exist, but one study cited by Petty found a 111% rise in cat placements. (What happened to the cats who weren’t placed? Uh oh, better not ask that.) Equally significant are the anecdotal accounts of shelters who have successfully used the Internet to place cats who were elderly or otherwise hard to find adopters for.

Okay, but not every nonprofit helps something that’s cute and easily videotaped. But surely this is also a reminder of the importance of visuals in our ADD-addled world. I’ll be every nonprofit can, with a little creativity, come up with some visuals.

Home Mortgage Debt Forgiveness Exclusion Extended

A discharge of indebtedness generally results in the recognition of gross income.  Under the “mortgage forgiveness exclusion” which otherwise applied to debt discharged before January 1, 2014, any discharge associated with “qualified principal residence indebtedness” was excluded from gross income up to $2 million of debt on a joint return.  The debt must have been used to acquire, construct, or substantially improve the taxpayer’s principal residence, or to refinance the debt and must have been secured by the residence.

Under the recent “2014 Tax Increase Prevention Act,” the exclusion will apply for an additional year – to debt discharged before January 1, 2015.

Ways and Means Introduces Tax Reform Measure

On December 11, Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) officially introduced HR 1, the “Tax Reform Act of 2014.”  A few of the interesting provisions which would affect individuals, as embodied in this first tax reform volley, about which we will expect to hear more from the new Congress, are:

  • Consolidate the present seven individual tax brackets to 3: 10%, 25% and 35%
  • Repeal the personal exemption.
  • Change the personal residence exclusion by requiring use of such for 5 out of the previous 8 years, and imposing a phaseout for higher income taxpayers.
  • Reduce the $1 million debt cap to $500,000 for the mortgage interest deduction.
  • Allow charitable deductions for contributions made between January 1 and April 15 of the year following the tax year in question.
  • Repeal the personal casualty loss deduction.
  • Repeal the deduction for medical expenses.
  • Repeal the 2% floor for miscellaneous itemized deductions.
  • Repeal the alternative minimum tax.

Wondering What Your Real Estate Agent Does All Day?

If asked to guess what tasks a real estate agent spends time on, one might answer, “driving around to properties,” “preparing marketing materials,” or more cynically, “rounding up new clients.” But such answers overlook the significant amount of time that a high-quality agent spends on crucial background research, studying the local real estate market and how its ups and downs affect each home’s worth.

htbh5_1_1Here’s how Daniel Stea, a broker/attorney in Berkeley, California (and one of the newest advisers to Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, recently out in its 5th edition) explains it:

“I spend a great deal of my day simply talking with buyers and sellers, as well as evaluating properties for them. We‘re always running “comps.” Prospective buyers want to make sure they’re not paying too much; sellers want to make sure they’re not asking too little. We’re always looking at what other properties recently sold for, since that’s a key indication of where the market is currently at.

“Sure, many websites will give you real estate ‘comparables,’ but these are generally based on the average price per square foot of other properties that have recently sold—strictly objective criteria. But that’s just the starting point. It takes a human who has actually walked through all of those properties to start adding and subtracting for various subjective attributes such as location, condition, schools, and so on. That’s one of the values of what brokers bring to the table and why their services will always be in demand.

Also, beyond assessing dollar values, we try to help our buyers get a complete sense of a property’s strengths and weaknesses. Many times, for example, we advise them to park in front of the home they’re considering buying at 11:00 at night and roll down the windows. How does the neighborhood feel? Would you feel comfortable walking down that street? It’s all part of the calculation of both a home’s objective value and what it is subjectively worth to you, personally.”

NLRB Says Employees Have the Right to Use Work Email for Union Organizing and Other Protected Activities

Earlier this month, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that employees must be allowed to use their work emails for union organizing efforts and other protected activities under federal labor laws. In doing so, the NLRB reversed one of its previous decisions from 2007, which allowed employers to limit the use of work email to “business use” only. As of December 11, 2014, this is no longer the case.

As with many other NLRB decisions (including those on employees’ use of social media), the ruling will affect union and non-union employees alike. The NLRB has long held that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects not only employees who are in unions or actively organizing unions, but also non-union employees who get together to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment. For example, non-union employees have the right to talk about their dissatisfaction with their pay, or their concerns about workplace safety, without fear of being fired or disciplined by their employers.

While employees already  have the right to have these discussions through other means (such as in person or through personal emails), the NLRB’s new ruling extends that right to company email. Employees may now use work emails to have these discussions, as long as they happen during “non-working time,” such as rest breaks, meal periods, and the time before and after established work hours.

The NLRB set some limitations on its ruling.  First, the new rule applies only to employees who are given access to work email by their employers. It does not require employers to give work emails to employees who don’t already have them. Second, employers can continue to monitor email communications for legitimate business reasons, provided they tell employees that their emails will not be private. However, employers cannot change their monitoring practices to detect protected activities or discipline employees for engaging in protected activities.

The NLRB also created a limited exception to its rule in special circumstances. Employers may limit the use of work email to business use only where such a rule is necessary to maintain productivity or discipline. However, the NLRB was quick to point out that this exception would be the “rare case.”

Following the NLRB’s decision, employers will need to revise their Employee Handbook policies to remove any requirement that work email be used for business use only. Instead, employer policies should state that employees are permitted to use work emails to communicate with each other about union activities or the terms and conditions of their employment, but only on non-working time.