My question is about how US tax laws apply in a somewhat complex situation. You are not my lawyer and this is not legal advice, but I'm not finding any relevant IRS rules here at all and I know some must exist somewhere, so I'd appreciate any pointers, if only to understand better how to even think about this kind of situation.
So first, suppose I decide to hold an informal fundraiser to raise money for a charity -- for example, I pass the hat around my friends, telling them that it's to raise money for the United Way, and then I take that money and send it in to the United Way as a single donation. There's two ways you might think about this: option 1 is that I'm aggregating and passing through the money, but really it's never mine – I'm just acting as my friends' agent. Option 2 is that there are two separate transactions: first I'm taking in money as income, and then I'm donating it. In the latter case, we have a problem: now I owe extra income taxes, and will need to use some of the money to pay for those, instead of passing it on to the charity.
Question 1: I believe, but am not certain, that "option 1" is the more sensible way to think about this, and that I do not owe additional income taxes in this situation. Is this correct?
Okay, that's the simplified version – the real situation is a bit more complicated. A group of people have been working on a project that's in the public interest, but in a loosely organized way as individuals, without any kind of legal non-profit setup. One person then organizes a fundraiser to support this project, originally intending to handle it informally as an individual and just accept the income tax hit – but then the fundraiser is much (much) more successful than expected, and suddenly we're looking at thousands of dollars in taxes. This makes us realize that we really need to handle this project in a more organized way, and so we set up a fiscal sponsorship relationship with an existing 501(c)(3), who can now accept donations for this project.
Question 2: Is it possible for the person who ran the fundraiser to take the donations received last month, and pass them through to the non-profit, without taking an income tax hit along the way? This situation is similar to the one above, in that here everyone donating understood that they were donating to support a specific charitable project... it's just that at the time the donations were collected, the project didn't exist as a separate legal entity.
Edit: since it seems like my phrasing might have been confusing, here's another way to put it:
Scenario 1: I come up with an idea for a cool project, and I set out to make it happen as a regular individual. Some other people also think it's cool, so they donate money to me to help it happen. Think of like, your average Patreon. Here, this money is clearly personal income and I obviously owe income tax.
Scenario 2: I come up with the idea for a cool project, I pitch it to a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and they agree that to take it on as a project. Now if people want to donate money to make it happen, they can do that by giving the money to the non-profit, which lets the donors get a tax break and lets me avoid having to pay income tax (since the money is going to the non-profit, instead of going to me).
Actual scenario: Let's say we start out in Scenario 1, and then switch to Scenario 2. Can we take the money that was donated to me as an individual before I set up the relationship with the non-profit, and redirect it to the non-profit, so that I can avoid paying income tax on the money, and our donors get a tax break? Why or why not?