IRS Rules for Corporate Sponsorship of WordCamps

To ensure the WordPress Foundation’s compliance with IRS rules, we have been talking to our lawyers to better understand what we can and can’t do for WordCampWordCamp WordCamps are casual, locally-organized conferences covering everything related to WordPress. They're one of the places where the WordPress community comes together to teach one another what they’ve learned throughout the year and share the joy. Learn more. sponsors.

As a non-profit, the WordPress Foundation can, without being taxed, accept any payment — which may be money or in-kind payment of property or services — as long as there is no expectation that the sponsor will receive a “substantial return benefit,” as defined by IRS regulations.

The main “substantial return benefit” that concerns WordCamps is centered around what the IRS considers advertising for our sponsors. The IRS’s definition of advertising is broader than we previously realized. Our lawyers provided us with this “plain English” definition:

“The regulations define advertising as any message or material, regardless of how it’s published or disseminated, that promotes or markets the sponsor’s trade or business or any of its services, facilities, or products. It includes any message that contains qualitative or comparative language, price information or indications of savings or value, an endorsement, or an inducement to buy, sell, or use any company, service, facility or product. A single message that contains both advertising and a corporate sponsorship acknowledgment will be treated as advertising.”

This is where we may have been making mistakes in the past, allowing sponsors to make statements at WordCamps or on WordCamp websites – or making them ourselves – that in some way promoted or endorsed that sponsor’s products or services.

To ensure that we don’t make these mistakes in the future, the Foundation’s lawyers have helped us update our sponsorship agreement to reflect the IRS rules around how we can recognize corporate sponsors. Moving forward, we’ll ask all WordCamp sponsors to sign this agreement.

Here is the proposed revision for plan.wordcamp.org’s sponsorship page, which we hope will make clear how the IRS says we can recognize WordCamp corporate sponsors:

As a non-profit, the WordPress Foundation can, without tax complications, accept any corporate sponsorship payment — which may be money or in-kind payment of property or services — as long as there is no expectation that the sponsor will receive a “substantial return benefit” as defined by the IRS.

The acknowledgment/recognition we can give our sponsor without providing a substantial return benefit includes publishing the sponsors’:

  • Name
  • Name(s) of product lines
  • Logos and slogans (as long as they don’t contain qualitative or comparative descriptions of their products, services, facility or company)
  • Locations
  • Telephone numbers
  • Home page URLURL A specific web address of a website or web page on the Internet, such as a website’s URL www.wordpress.org (no other links allowed)
  • Value-neutral descriptions, including displays or visual depictions, of their product lines or services

We can not provide what the IRS considers advertising for our sponsors. The IRS’s definition of advertising is:

“The regulations define advertising as any message or material, regardless of how it’s published or disseminated, that promotes or markets the sponsor’s trade or business or any of its services, facilities, or products. It includes any message that contains qualitative or comparative language, price information or indications of savings or value, an endorsement, or an inducement to buy, sell, or use any company, service, facility or product. A single message that contains both advertising and a corporate sponsorship acknowledgment will be treated as advertising.”

Can we still do sponsor blog posts? What can we put in them that won’t make the IRS freak out? What is value-neutral language, anyway?

We can thank our sponsors as often as we want, and we can talk about their services and products with value-neutral descriptions. Sponsors can talk about their participation in and love for the WordPress project and WordCamp as well as what their employees do for WordPress and WordCamp.

Using value-neutral language means we can’t publish:

  • Pricing info
  • An inducement to buy, which is promotional by nature, including discount or promo codes
  • Any expression of personal views, subjective, comparative, or qualitative language (such as “the first name in WordPress hosting” or “the best ecommerce pluginPlugin A plugin is a piece of software containing a group of functions that can be added to a WordPress website. They can extend functionality or add new features to your WordPress websites. WordPress plugins are written in the PHP programming language and integrate seamlessly with WordPress. These can be free in the WordPress.org Plugin Directory https://wordpress.org/plugins/ or can be cost-based plugin from a third-party”)
  • Any language comparing one business to that of another or suggesting a business is better than another (such as “award winning” or “recognized by”)
  • Calls to action (“visit,” “call,” “go to,” “join,” etc.)
  • Descriptions which cannot be proven in a court of law

Can a sponsor announce a new product at WordCamp?

Sure, but only as an announcement — not with promotional language (see above regarding value-neutral language). Anything that promotes or markets a sponsor’s products or services must be published or announced on the sponsor’s media streams/site, not via WordCamp’s site, newsletter, email, or social media. Also, WordCamp can only link to a sponsor’s home page; not a special page made just for WordCamp attendees.

Can a sponsor publish or provide discount or coupon codes for WordCamp attendees?

Sponsors can provide discounts or coupon codes via their own media streams or website(s), but not via WordCamp’s site, newsletter, email, social media, or swag.

What about sponsor tables?

If your venue allows a WordCamp to provide sponsor tables, that’s just fine. The purpose of sponsor tables at a WordCamp is to answer attendee’s questions about the sponsor’s company. Unfortunately, activity at sponsor tables can no longer include the promotion or marketing of products — only provide information.

Sponsor displays at a WordCamp can only feature value-neutral descriptions. Organizers, ask sponsors to send you a picture of their booth/table/displays before they bring them to the event. If a sponsor shows up with something that you think does not meet the above expectations, take a picture and send it to your WordCamp CentralWordCamp Central Website for all WordCamp activities globally. https://central.wordcamp.org includes a list of upcoming and past camp with links to each. contact to assess whether we need to ask them to take down those displays or cover up the subjective, comparative, or qualitative language for the duration of the event.

Sponsor representatives at sponsor booths can answer questions about their company’s products, and can distribute materials (such as brochures) with factual, value-neutral, non-comparative/non-qualitative descriptions or listings of products/services. Sponsor representatives can sign up attendees for informational newsletters.

What if I’m not sure about the language in a company description, blog post, or sponsor display?

You can always ask WordCamp Central to review anything you think is questionable or on the fence. We understand this is more complex than it’s been in the past, and it might take a little more work to meet the IRS’s requirements.  We’re happy to help you discuss these issues with sponsors, or even to contact the sponsor directly with clarification.

WordCamp Central is currently engaged in explaining these rules to longtime and multi-event sponsors of WordCamps as well as organizers of WordCamps currently in planning. We’re still working out a few finer details of these IRS policies on marketing and promotion by attendees, and we’ll share our findings. If you have questions about these IRS regulations or anything above, please feel free to ask them in the comments.

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