At least 10 state legislatures are considering bills to authorize low-profit limited liability companies (L3Cs) – all introduced in the last two and a half months:

Arizona; Senate Bill No. 1503       Arkansas; Senate Bill No. 5

Hawaii; Senate Bill No. 674         Indiana; Senate Bill No. 501

Kentucky; House Bill No. 110      Maryland; House Bill No. 552

Montana; House Bill No. 415       New York; Senate Bill No. 3011

Oregon; House Bill No. 2745      Rhode Island; Senate Bill No. 353  

These have the potential to more than double the number of states that authorize L3Cs. Currently eight states have authorized L3Cs: Illinois, Louisiana, Maine (effective July 1, 2011), Michigan, North Carolina, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming.

The L3C is a relatively new type of limited liability company, a hybrid which attempts to combine a charitable purpose with a profit-making motive. An L3C is not a nonprofit and is taxed on its profits like any other LLC. I have previously written about L3Cs, here.

Advocates of L3Cs suggest they will encourage investment by private foundations in L3C enterprises. Typical program-related investments (PRIs) made by private foundations in either for-profit or tax-exempt enterprises include equity investments and loans, on terms more favorable to the recipient than a market rate investment. The purpose of the investment must be to support the foundation’s charitable purpose. L3Cs are promoted as facilitating increased investment by private foundations, because the state statutes apply to L3Cs the Internal Revenue Code requirements for the recipient of a PRI made by a private foundation.IRC § 4944(c). The idea is that because L3Cs automatically apply those standards to L3Cs, private foundations will be more willing to invest in L3Cs.

L3Cs have generated a lot of interest in the non-profit and social enterprise community, and a fair amount of commentary is becoming available. The Vermont Law Review sponsored a symposium on L3Cs and other developments in social entrepreneurship in February 2010. (Vermont was the first state to authorize L3Cs.) Articles related to the Symposium were published in a symposium edition of the Vermont Law Review, Symposium, Corporate Creativity: The Vermont L3C and Other Developments in Social Entrepreneurship, 35 Vt. L. Rev. 1 (2010).

Two articles in the symposium edition caught my eye. The first was Program-Related Investments in Practice, 35 Vt. L. Rev. 53 (2010), by Luther M. Ragin, Jr., Chief Investment officer of the F. B. Heron Foundation. Heron has been an active PRI maker since 1997, and at the end of 2009 had $21 million in outstanding PRIs, in 38 separate transactions. Heron’s PRIs were made to a variety of organizations. Most were to non-profits, but 10 were equity or subordinated debt investments in limited partnerships, LLCs, and corporations.

The critical driver for Heron is not the legal form of the organization seeking capital. Heron has found that it can apply the PRI rules and reach positive decisions on PRIs to various types of for-profit entities as well as non-profits, provided the PRI serves a charitable purpose. (The two other PRI tests – no lobbying, and income from the PRI not being a significant purpose of the foundation’s decision to make the investment – must also be satisfied.)

The other article in the Symposium edition that jumped out was The L3C Illusion: Why Low-Profit Limited Liability Companies Will Not Stimulate Socially Optimal Private Foundation Investment in Entrepreneurial Ventures, 35 Vt. L. Rev. 275 (2010), by J. William Callison and Allan W. Vestal. The article nicely reviews the law of private foundations and PRIs. It then examines the L3C requirements of the state LLC laws and how they attempt to match the PRI requirements. The article concludes that the statutory form does not match well with the PRI requirements and that private foundations will still need to conduct the same due diligence they would conduct before making a PRI to a non-L3C entity.

The experience of the F. B. Heron Foundation buttresses Callison and Vestal’s analysis. The type of entity, and whether it is a for-profit or a non-profit, play little part in Heron’s decisions about making PRIs.

The article concludes with a discussion of why L3Cs are considered harmful. First, smaller, less well-advised foundations may unduly rely on the L3C status of the recipient when making a PRI rather than on their usual due diligence, resulting in non-compliance with tax requirements and possibly endangering the foundation’s charitable status. Second, in an L3C with profit-seeking participants, where the foundation makes a high-risk, low-return investment vis-à-vis the other investors, there is risk that the foundation may run afoul of the “private benefit” doctrine, which is intended to prevent tax-exempt organizations from conferring private benefit on private participants.

Callison and Vestal’s conclusion is succinct: without changes to federal PRI rules there is little or no value to the L3C structure, the existence of the L3C form is a dangerous trap for the unwary, and the form should be shelved.

The article makes a strong case for the states to stop adopting the L3C form, and for the states that currently authorize the L3C form to revise their LLC laws to delete the L3C authorizations.

Will careful legal analysis and commentary take the wind out of the sails of the L3C movement? It’s hard to say. Popular enthusiasms and fads take on a life of their own. And one of the drivers of the L3C movement is the laudable goal of increasing the flow of private foundation money to ventures with charitable purposes. But that goal appears to be blinding the L3C promoters and some state legislators to the legal realities – L3Cs don’t and won’t accomplish that goal unless and until the federal tax rules are changed, which appears unlikely.