Sunshine Laws — Frequently Asked Questions
Nonprofit board meetings are often considered as private meetings that only the board and a few select staff attend. While this picture is true for most nonprofits, sunshine laws require some organizations to open their board meetings to anyone who wants to attend.
What are sunshine laws?
Sunshine laws, also called open meeting laws, are state laws that were written to provide transparency and accountability in government. The basic provision of the law requires public institutions to have meetings open to anyone. The laws provide detailed regulations about how meetings should be conducted and provisions for when and how the board can meet alone. While the primary purpose of these acts is to open government to the public, many of the state laws include some types of nonprofits into the provisions.
Which nonprofits are affected?
Because every state has its own laws, there is not a single rule that applies to all nonprofits. There are generally three different ways that nonprofits can fall under the sunshine laws.
- Nonprofits that receive or disburse state funds
- Nonprofits that perform a government function or have a government contract
- Nonprofits that have government officials on the board or whose board is appointed by government officials.
These are the main categories, but there are many variations, and in some states more than one of these categories apply. Nonprofits that receive public funding need to look closely at the laws specific to their state to determine whether they are applicable. The state Attorney General or Secretary of State’s office should have specific information. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Web site also has information specific to each state.
What is included in these laws?
Allowing anyone to attend your board meetings is not all that is required by these laws. While each state’s law includes different provisions and wording, the laws have many components. The major sections with examples follow:
- A basic statement of the law which provides definitions for the terms used. A meeting can be defined as a discussion between two or more people or defined as a quorum.
- Notification requirements for regular meetings. States can require seven days’ notice, three days’ notice, or notice of all the meetings at the beginning of the year.
- Requirements for location of the meeting. Meetings must be accessible to those with disabilities, and they must be in the area where the organization works.
- Regulations for recording minutes. Minutes must be taken and provided to the public within a reasonable time.
- Requirements for special and emergency meetings. Notification can be less than what is required for regular meetings, but only the specific topic that requires the meeting can be discussed.
- Allowances for closed meetings and executive sessions. The board must have an open meeting first, and can only discuss certain topics.
- Enforcement and punishment for violation of the law. Fines may be up to $1000, including attorneys’ fees, and all action taken can be voided.
Do all meetings have to be open?
Organizations that fall under the laws can have closed meetings for specific purposes. Standard allowances are for discussions with an attorney about court cases or potential court cases, personnel issues, certain financial issues such as the purchase of real estate, disciplinary action or student records, security arrangements, patient care issues, labor negotiations, or tax matters. There are other exceptions that are specific to each state. In addition, the board can get together privately for social purposes, retreats, or other situations that do not involve discussing organizational business.
What does this mean for nonprofits?
These laws can have a significant effect on nonprofits. Board meetings of most organizations in the country are closed, but those that must have their meetings in public need to be aware of several issues. The purpose of these laws is to increase accountability, and they generally succeed. When the public is watching, organizations are much more likely to consider how their actions will be perceived and how the actions could affect members of the community. These laws also require meetings to be planned in advance and to stay on topic. If the organization is relatively public, the media may attend to see what the board decides. How board members interact with each other can also be very important. While some board members may feel that nonprofits should not fall under these laws, that they are too restrictive, and that they hinder open discussion, it is important for nonprofits that fall under the laws to work within them.
201 Resource | Last updated: Oct 9, 2019