Bestseller! New Edition!

How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation

A Step-by-Step Guide to Forming a 501(c)(3) Nonprofit in Any State

Form a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit in your state

Start and run a nonprofit in your state with this complete guide. Get step-by-step instructions for obtaining federal 501(c)(3) tax exemption and qualifying for public charity status with the IRS. Plus, learn how to:

  • complete an IRS Form 1023 or 1023-EZ tax-exemption application
  • prepare articles of incorporation
  • write the bylaws of your nonprofit
  • Product Details
  • You’ve got a cause you care about—now you just need the legal status that will help your organization raise money and work for that cause. Here, you’ll find all the forms and information you need to create a tax-exempt nonprofit for your group.

    Learn how to form a nonprofit corporation in any state and gain 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status with the IRS. We provide step-by-step instructions for both IRS Form 1023 and the streamlined Form 1023-EZ federal tax-exemption application. This edition covers the new required onlinefiling for the for the Form 1023.

    With this book you can:

    • choose a legal name
    • prepare articles of incorporation
    • create your bylaws
    • obtain federal and state tax-exempt status
    • prepare minutes of the organizational meeting
    • establish a corporate records book, and
    • handle postincorporation filings and tasks.

    This edition is completely updated to reflect the latest changes in the law, and includes contact information for finding updated state-specific instructions. You'll also get information on new online services and options related to forming your nonprofit. Plus, all the forms you need are included in this complete guide.

    What are you waiting for? Incorporate your nonprofit and pursue your worthy cause!

    Are you a California resident? Check out How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation in California.


    "This clearly written book contains step-by-step instructions on how to form a non-profit corporation in any state." -Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine

    "Scads of tax and legal considerations, with forms and state rules." -Businessweek

    "A useful resource to help you get underway is How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation..." -Paul & Sarah Edwards Entrepreneur Magazine

    Number of Pages
    Included Forms


    Corporate Forms

    • Incorporation Checklist
    • Application for Reservation of Corporate Name
    • Articles of Incorporation
    • Articles Filing Letter
    • Bylaws
    • Waiver of Notice and Consent to Holding of First Meeting of Board of Directors
    • Minutes of First Meeting of Board of Directors

    IRS Forms and Publications and Tax Articles

    • Form 1023: Application for Recognition of Exemption (with Notice 1382)
    • Instructions for Form 1023
    • Form SS-4: Application for Employer Identification Number
    • Instructions for Form SS-4
    • Form 5768: Election/Revocation of Election By an Eligible Section 501(c)(3) Organization
    • To Make Expenditures To Influence Legislation
    • Publication 557: Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization
    • Publication 4220: Applying for 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Status
    • Publication 4221-PC: Compliance Guide for 501(c)(3) Public Charities
    • Publication 4221-PF: Compliance Guide for 501(c)(3) Private Foundations
    • Publication 1828: Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations
    • IRS Revenue Procedure 75-50
    • IRC Section 4958, Taxes on Excess Benefit Transactions
    • IRS Regulations Section 53.4958-0, Table of Contents
    • Public Charity or Private Foundation Status Issues Under IRC §§ 509(a)(1)–(4), 4942(j)(3), and 507
    • Disclosure, FOIA and the Privacy Act
    • Update: The Final Regulations on the Disclosure Requirements for Annual Information Returns and Applications for Exemption
    • Education, Propaganda, and the Methodology Test
    • Election Year Issues
    • Lobbying Issues
    • Private School Update
    • UBIT: Current Developments
    • Intermediate Sanctions (IRC Section 4958) Update
    • IRS Revenue Ruling 2007-41 Political Campaign Prohibition Guidance
    • Internal Revenue Bulletin (IRB 2008-18) with T.D. 9390 Final Regulation changes to Section 4958 regulations

    How to Locate Incorporation Resources Online

    Information and Tear-Out Forms

    • Incorporation Checklist
    • Special Nonprofit Tax-Exempt Organizations
    • Application for Reservation of Corporate Name
    • Articles of Incorporation
    • Articles Filing Letter
    • Bylaws (including Membership Provisions and Adoption of Bylaws clause)
    • Waiver of Notice and Consent to Holding of First Meeting of Board of Directors
    • Minutes of First Meeting of Board of Directors
    • IRS Form 1023: Application for Recognition of Exemption
    • IRS Form SS-4: Application for Employer Identification Number
    • IRS Form 5768: Election/Revocation of Election by an Eligible Section 501(c)(3) Organization To Make Expenditures To Influence Legislation
  • About the Author
    • Anthony Mancuso

      Anthony Mancuso is a California corporations and limited liability company expert. A graduate of Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, Tony is an active member of the California State Bar, writes books in the fields of corporate and LLC law, and has studied advanced business taxation at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. He has also been a consultant for Silicon Valley EDA (Electronic Design Automation) and other technology companies. He is currently employed at Google.

      Tony is the author of many Nolo books on forming and operating corporations (both profit and nonprofit) and limited liability companies. Among his current books are The Corporate Records Handbook, How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation, Form Your Own Limited Liability Company, and LLC or Corporation? His books have shown businesses and organizations how to form a corporation or LLC for decades. Tony is also a licensed helicopter pilot and guitarist.

  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction

    Part I: How Nonprofit Corporations Work

    1.  Is Nonprofit Incorporation Right for You?

    • Is Your Group a Nonprofit That Can Use This Book?
    • Benefits of the Nonprofit Corporation
    • The Disadvantages of Going Nonprofit
    • How Nonprofits Raise, Spend, and Make Money
    • Your Path to Nonprofit Status
    • Where Should You Incorporate?

    2.  Legal Rights and Duties of Incorporators, Directors, Officers, Employees, and Members

    • How Many People Are Needed to Form a Nonprofit Corporation?
    • Incorporators and Their Role as Promoters
    • Directors
    • Officers
    • Employees
    • Membership Nonprofits

    3.  Requirements for Section 501(c)(3) Tax Exemption

    • Section 501(c)(3) Organizational Test
    • Valid Purposes Under Section 501(c)(3)
    • Other Requirements for 501(c)(3) Groups
    • Information for Specific Questions About Your Group’s Activities

    4.  Public Charities and Private Foundations

    • The Importance of Public Charity Status
    • How to Qualify for Public Charity Status
    • Private Foundations

    5.  Other Tax Benefits and Reporting Requirements

    • Federal and State Tax Deductions for Contributions
    • Federal Estate and Gift Tax Exemptions
    • Federal Unrelated Business Income Tax
    • State Corporate Income Tax Exemptions
    • Other State Taxes
    • State Solicitation Regulations
    • State Nonprofit Corporate Report Requirements

    PART 2: Incorporating Your Nonprofit

    6.  Choose a Name and File Your Articles of Incorporation

    • View Materials From Your Secretary of State
    • Choose a Corporate Name
    • Check Name Availability
    • What to Do When There’s a Name Conflict
    • Reserve Your Corporate Name
    • Perform a Name Search
    • Protect Your Name
    • Prepare Your Articles of Incorporation
    • File Your Articles of Incorporation

    7.  Prepare Your Bylaws

    • Choose a Membership or Nonmembership Structure
    • Purpose and Scope of Our Bylaws
    • Prepare Your Bylaws
    • Prepare Membership Provisions

    8.  Apply for Your Federal 501(c)(3) Tax Exemption

    • Getting Started
    • Do You Need to File Form 1023?
    • Prepare Your Tax Exemption Application
    • Filling Out the Schedules
    • Assemble and Mail Your Application to the IRS
    • What to Expect From the IRS
    • The Federal Determination Letter

    9.  Final Steps in Organizing Your Nonprofit Corporation

    • Obtain State Corporate Income Tax Exemption
    • Set Up a Corporate Records Book
    • Prepare the Minutes of Your First Board of Directors Meeting
    • Place Minutes and Attachments in Corporate Records Book
    • Issue Membership Certificates
    • File Fictitious or Assumed Business Name Statement
    • Apply for a Federal Nonprofit Mailing Permit
    • Apply for Property Tax Exemptions
    • File an Initial Corporate Report Form
    • Register With the Attorney General
    • Comply With Political Reporting Requirements
    • Prepare Assignments of Leases and Deeds
    • File Final Papers for Prior Organization
    • Notify Others of Your Incorporation

    10.  After Your Corporation Is Organized

    • Piercing the Corporate Veil—If You Want to Be Treated Like a Corporation, It’s Best to Act Like One
    • Federal Corporate Tax Returns
    • State Corporate Tax Returns and Reports
    • Federal and State Corporate Employment Taxes
    • Employee Income Tax Returns
    • Sales Tax Forms and Exemption From Sales Tax
    • Licenses and Permits
    • Workers’ Compensation
    • Private Insurance Coverage
    • Dissolving a Nonprofit Corporation

    11.  Lawyers and Accountants

    • Lawyers
    • Legal Research
    • Accountants and Tax Advice


    A: Using the Downloadable Forms and Other Online Material

    • Editing RTFs
    • List of Forms

    B: How to Locate Incorporation Resources Online

    • How to Find Your State’s Corporate Filing Office Website
    • How to Find Your State’s Tax Office Website
    • How to Find Your State’s Corporation Law Lookup Website

    C: Information and Forms

    • Incorporation Checklist
    • Application for Reservation of Corporate Name
    • Articles of Incorporation
    • Articles Filing Letter
    • Bylaws (including Membership Provisions and Adoption of Bylaws clause)
    • Waiver of Notice and Consent to Holding of First Meeting of Board of Directors
    • Minutes of First Meeting of Board of Directors
    • Instructions for IRS Form 1023-EZ (Revised January 2018); Streamlined Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code
    • IRS Form 1023 (Revised December 2017); Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code


  • Sample Chapter
  • Chapter 1
    Is Nonprofit Incorporation Right for You?

    Deciding to form a nonprofit corporation will be a big step for you and the members of your group. It will involve more paperwork and government forms, on both the state and federal level, than anyone will like; and you’ll have to conduct your business within the legal framework of various state and federal laws. Fortunately, there are big payoffs to all this work and attention, including the ability to attract donors and grant funds, obtain real and personal property tax exemptions and special nonprofit mailing rates, avoid corporate income taxes, and shield officers and directors from legal liability. Before starting down the path of nonprofit incorporation, however, you’ll want to learn a little more about who can form a nonprofit and the consequences of doing so. In this chapter, we’ll explain:

    • the kinds of groups that can—and can’t—form a nonprofit using this book
    • the benefits you’ll enjoy as a nonprofit—and some of the disadvantages to choosing this route
    • how nonprofits can raise start-up funds and earn money, should they wish to do so
    • the process you’ll go through (following the instructions in this book) to incorporate and obtain your tax-exempt status, and
    • for those considering incorporating in another state, considerations to bear in mind before doing so.

    Is Your Group a Nonprofit That Can Use This Book?

    For-profit corporations can usually be formed for “any lawful purpose” under state statutes. Nonprofit corporations, on the other hand, generally must be established to accomplish one or more specific purposes that benefit either the public at large, a segment of the community, or a particular membership. While it may be easy for your group to incorporate as a nonprofit in your state, this is only the first hurdle. The next important step is to obtain tax-exempt status under state and federal tax statutes. To do this, your group must meet specific-purpose requirements contained in state and federal tax statutes.

    References to IRS Articles and Materials

    There are references in the book to IRS articles and materials that you can download from Nolo’s website. To access this material from the Nolo website, use the link provided in Appendix A. Some of this material includes articles and information made available by the IRS on its website as part of its Exempt Organizations Continuing Professional Education Technical Instruction Program, which regularly publishes articles for tax-exempt organizations. The IRS has the following statement on its website regarding this material: “These materials were designed specifically for training purposes only. Under no circumstances should the contents of these articles be used or cited as authority for setting or sustaining a technical position.”

    In other words, use this material to learn about IRS tax issues, but don’t expect to be able to rely on it if you end up in a dispute with the IRS. Nolo includes this material as a convenience to the reader and as an alternative to directing you to the IRS website. This material is taken from the exempt organization tax law training articles available from the IRS website at (enter “EO Tax Law Training Articles” in the search box at the top of the main website page, then follow the links to “Exempt Organizations Continuing Professional Education Articles” main page, where you’ll find a link to an alphabetical index of the articles, “Exempt Organizations CPE Topical Index”).If you are interested in one of the issues, you should check the IRS website for any updated articles or information on your topic.

    If you plan to incorporate your nonprofit in California and want additional information about incorporating there, see How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation in California, by Anthony Mancuso (Nolo).

    This book has been written specifically for nonprofit corporations that want to qualify for federal income tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. This means that your nonprofit corporation must be formed for religious, charitable, scientific, literary, and/or educational purposes. There are other types of groups—labor unions, chambers of commerce, social and recreational clubs, fraternal societies, credit unions, farmers’ ­co-ops, and legal service organizations, to name a few—that may be eligi­ble for tax-exempt status under other sections of the Internal Revenue Code. (For a list of organizations that can qualify for tax-exempt status under a subsection of 501(c) other than Subsection (3), see IRS Publication 557, Chapter 4, Other Section 501(c) Organizations). These groups often have more leeway to provide direct financial benefits to their members, but they don’t receive the same tax benefits as a 501(c)(3) group. If you are planning on forming one of these non-501(c)(3) nonprofits, this book can help acquaint you with the process of doing so. It will not, however, guide you step-by-step through the process of preparing articles of incorporation and bylaws for your group or the tax exemption applications you will need for your nonprofit.

    If your group falls within one of the 501(c)(3) purposes, however, you can rest assured that this book will help you step-by-step through the process of incorporating and obtaining tax-exempt status. First, we’ll help you create your corporate entity by showing you how to prepare and file articles of incorporation that meet your state’s corporate law requirements. Then we’ll show you how to obtain your state and federal nonprofit income tax exemptions for Section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

    Benefits of the Nonprofit  Corporation

    Now that you understand that this book is intended for nonprofit corporations organized for religious, charitable, scientific, literary, and/or educational purposes that want to qualify for a tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (and hopefully your nonprofit is among them), let’s look at the benefits you’ll enjoy as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit corporation. The relative importance of each of the following benefits will vary from group to group, but at least one of them should be very significant for your organization.

    If you finish this section and conclude that nothing here is very important for your group, you’ll want to consider whether it makes sense to incorporate at all. Many groups accomplish their nonprofit purposes just fine as unincorporated nonprofit associations, without formal organizational paperwork or written operational rules. If you can continue to accomplish your nonprofit purposes and goals informally, you may be happier staying small.

    Tax Exemptions

    Nonprofit corporations are eligible for state and federal exemptions from payment of corpo­rate income taxes, as well as other tax exemp­tions and benefits. At a federal corporate tax rate of 21%, it goes without saying—at least if you expect to earn a substan­tial amount of money (from services, exhibits, or performances, for example)—that you’ll want to apply for an exemption. In states with a corpo­rate income tax, a state income tax exemption is equally attractive, as are local, county, real property, and personal property tax exemp­tions. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 cover tax exemptions in detail.

    Get the help of a competent tax adviser as soon as you decide to incorporate. Make sure you choose someone experienced in the special field of nonprofit bookkeeping and reporting. Ask the adviser to help you (especially your treasurer) set up a good record-keeping system, which you can use to prepare your annual federal and state nonprofit tax forms and reports. Have the tax helper periodically review the system to be sure that you are maintaining your financial records properly and have filed your tax forms on time.

    Receiving Public and Private  Donations

    One of the primary reasons for becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation is that it increases your ability to attract and receive public and private grant funds and donations from sources such as:

    • Public sources. Tax-exempt government foundations (like the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), as well as private foundations and charities (such as the Ford Foundation, the United Way, or the American Cancer Society), are usually required by their own operating rules and federal tax regulations to donate their funds to only 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations.
    • Individual private donors can claim personal federal income tax deductions for contri­butions made to 501(c)(3) tax-exempt groups. At a donor’s death, a federal estate tax exemption is available for bequests made to 501(c)(3) groups.

    In short, if you plan to ask people to give you significant amounts of money in furtherance of your nonprofit purpose, you need to demon­strate to your donors that you have 501(c)(3) tax-­exempt status.

    Protection From Personal Liability

    Protecting the members of your group from personal liability is one of the main reasons for forming a corporation (either profit or nonprofit). Once you’re incorporated, directors or trustees, officers, employees, and members of a corporation usually won’t be personally liable for corporate debts or liabilities, including unpaid organizational debts and unsatisfied lawsuit judgments against the organization, as they normally would be if they conducted their affairs without incorporating. Creditors can go after only corporate assets to satisfy liabilities incurred by the corporation—not the personal assets (cars, homes, or bank accounts) of the people who manage, work for, or volunteer to help the nonprofit corporation.

    Example: A member of the audience sued a nonprofit symphony orchestra when the patron fell during a concert, claiming that the symphony (which also owned the concert hall) provided an unsafe ramp. The patron won a judgment that exceeded the orchestra’s insurance policy limits. The amount of the judgment in excess of insurance is a debt of the corporation, but not of its individual directors, members, managers, or officers. By contrast, had the orchestra been an unincorporated association of musicians, the principals of the unincorporated group could be held personally liable for the excess judgment amount.

    In a few situations, however, people involved with a nonprofit corporation may be personally liable for the corporation’s liabilities. Here are some major areas of potential personal liability:

    • Taxes. State and federal governments can hold the corporate employee who is respon­sible for reporting and paying corporate taxes personally liable for any unpaid taxes, penalties, and interest due for failure to pay taxes or file necessary returns (for example, the treasurer if the nonprofit board has given this officer full authority to pay all taxes as they become due). With proper planning, your nonprofit corporation should be tax exempt, but you still have to file federal and state informational returns and annual reports to the secretary of state and state attorney general, as well as pay employee withholding and other payroll taxes and taxes on income unrelated to your nonprofit purposes. IRS penalties for delinquent tax payments and returns are substantial, so keep this exception to limited liability in mind—particularly if you will be the treasurer or a board member who specifically approves the payment of taxes on behalf of your corporation.
    • Dues. Members of a nonprofit corporation are personally liable for any membership fees and dues they owe the corporation. In most cases, this is a minor obligation because dues are normally set at modest amounts.
    • Violations of statutory duties. Corporate directors are legally required to act respon­sibly (not recklessly) when managing the corporation. They may be held personally financially liable if they fail to act responsibly. Personal liability of this sort is the exception, not the rule. Generally, as long as directors attend meetings and carry out corporate responsibilities con­scientiously, they should have little to worry about: The corporate limited liability shield insulates directors from all but the most reckless and irresponsible decisions.
    • Intermingling funds or other business dealings. A nonprofit corporation must act so that its separate existence is clear and respected. If it mixes up corporate funds with the personal funds of those in charge, fails to follow legal formalities (such as failing to operate according to bylaws, hold directors’ meetings, or keep minutes of meetings), or risks financial liability without sufficient backup in cash or other assets, a court may disregard the corporate entity and hold the principals responsible for debts and other liabilities of the corporation. In legalese, this is known as piercing the corporate veil. Piercing the veil is the exception, not the rule, and only happens when a court decides that it is necessary to prevent a gross injustice or fraud perpetrated by the founders or principals of a corporation.
    • Private foundation managers. If the nonprofit corporation is classified as a private foun­dation, foundation managers can be held personally liable for federal excise taxes asso­ciated with certain prohibited transactions. They may also be held personally liable for penalties and interest charged for failing to file certain tax returns or pay required excise taxes. (As explained in Chapter 4, a private foundation is a 501(c)(3) corporation that does not qualify as a public charity. You’ll see that most 501(c)(3) nonprofits qualify as public charities and are not subject to the private foundation requirements.)
    • Loans. When a nonprofit corporation takes a loan to cover its operating costs or buys property subject to a mortgage, banks and commercial lending institutions some­times insist on the personal guarantee of its direc­tors or officers. If the directors or officers agree to personally guarantee the loan or mortgage, the protection that they would normally enjoy as a result of their organi­zation’s corporate status goes away. It is some­what unusual for nonprofit direc­tors or officers to sign a personal guaran­tee. Obviously, if they do, they will be liable to repay the loan if the corporation cannot do so.

    Separate and Perpetual Legal  Existence

    A corporation is a legal entity that is separate from the people who work for it. Again, one benefit of this separate existence is that corpo­rate liabilities are not the liabilities of the managers, officers, or members of the corpo­ration (known as the corporate characteristic of limited liability). Another benefit is that this corporate legal person is, in a sense, immortal; the nonprofit corporation continues to exist as a legal entity despite changes in management or other corporate personnel caused by the resignation, removal, or death of the people associated with it. It may, of course, be dissolved or drastically affected by the loss of key people, but its inherent perpetual existence makes it more likely that the group’s activities will continue, an attractive feature to the private or public donor who prefers funding activities that are organized to operate over the long term.

    Does Incorporation Make Sense for Your Group?

    A senior citizens’ botany club began as an informal organization. Initially, six members took a monthly nature walk to study and photograph regional flora. Everyone chipped in to buy gas for whoever drove to the hike’s starting point. Recently, however, membership increased to 15 and the group decided to collect dues from members to pay the increased expenses—gas money, guidebooks, maps, and club T-shirts—associated with more frequent field trips. To avoid mixing club monies with personal funds, a treasurer was designated to open a bank account on behalf of the organization. Several people suggest that it is time to incorporate the club.

    Does incorporation make sense at this time? Probably not. There is no new pressing need to adopt the corporate form or to obtain formal recognition as a tax-exempt nonprofit. Most banks will allow an unincorporated group with­out a federal Employer Identification Number or IRS tax exemption to open up a non–interest-bearing account. However, should the club decide to seek funding and contributions to spear­head a drive to save open space in the community, it might be a good idea to incorporate.


    Employee Benefits

    Another benefit of the nonprofit corporation is that its principals can also be employees and, therefore, eligible for employee fringe benefits not generally available to the workers in unincorporated organizations. These benefits include group term life insurance, reimburse­ment of medical expenses, and coverage by a qualified corporate employee pension or retirement income plan.

    Formality and Structure

    The formal corporate documents—the articles, bylaws, minutes of meetings, and board resolutions—that you’ll prepare as a nonprofit will actually be quite useful to your organization. They’ll outline the group’s purposes, embody its operating rules, and provide structure and procedures for decision making and dispute resolution. This is important for any collective activity, but for nonprofit groups it is vital, especially if the board includes members of the community with diverse interests and viewpoints. Without the clear-cut delegation of authority and specific operating rules in the articles and bylaws, running the organization might be a divisive, if not futile, affair.

    Miscellaneous Benefits

    Additional advantages are available to non­profits that engage in particular types of activities or operations. These benefits can be helpful, and in some cases are critical, to the success of a nonprofit organization. Here are examples of some of the benefits available to certain types of tax-­exempt nonprofits:

    • Your nonprofit may qualify for exemptions from county real and personal property taxes.
    • 501(c)(3) organizations receive lower postal rates on third-class bulk mailings.
    • Many publications offer cheaper classified advertising rates to nonprofit organizations.
    • Nonprofits are the exclusive beneficiaries of free radio and television public service announcements (PSAs) provided by local media outlets.
    • Many stores offer lower membership rates to nonprofit employees.
    • Nonprofit employees are often eligible to participate in job training, student intern, work-study, and other federal, state, and local employment incentive programs (where salaries are paid substantially out of federal and state funds).
    • 501(c)(3) performing arts groups are qualified to participate in the performance programs sponsored by federally supported colleges and universities.
    • Certain 501(c)(3) educational organizations are eligible for a tax refund for gasoline expenses (for example, in running school buses).

    The Disadvantages of Going  Nonprofit

    If your group has come together for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt purposes, and if reading about the benefits of becoming a nonprofit above prompted a “Wow! We would really like to be able to do that!” then chances are you’ve decided to tackle the rules and forms necessary to establish your status as a legal nonprofit. Before jumping in, however, take a minute to read the following descriptions of some of the hurdles and work you’ll encounter along the way, especially if you have been operating informally (and successfully) without financial or employee record keeping or controls. If any of the following appear insurmountable to you, think again about incorporating.

    Official Paperwork

    One disadvantage in forming any corporation is the red tape and paperwork. You’ll begin by preparing initial incorporation documents (articles of incorporation, bylaws, and minutes of the first meeting of the board of directors) and an IRS tax exemption application. Although this book will show you how to prepare your own incorporation forms and income tax exemption application with a minimum of time and trouble, the process will still take you a few hours. You and your compatriots must be prepared for some old-fashioned hard work.

    After you’ve set up your corporation, you’ll need to file annual tax and reporting returns with the state (the state tax or revenue office and the attorney general) as well as the Inter­nal Revenue Service. Also, you will need to regularly prepare minutes of ongoing corpo­rate meetings, and, occasionally, forms for amend­ing articles and bylaws. The annual tax reporting forms will require the implemen­tation of an organized bookkeeping system plus the help of an experienced nonprofit tax adviser as explained below. Fortunately, keeping minutes of these meetings is not all that difficult to do once someone volunteers for the task (typically the person you appoint as corporate secretary). Sample forms for amend­ing nonprofit articles are usually available from the state corporate filing office online (see Appendix B to locate the website address of your state’s corporate filing office).

    Annual nonprofit tax and information returns do present a challenge to a new group unfamiliar with state tax reporting forms and requirements. Other record-keeping and reporting chores, such as double-entry accounting procedures and payroll tax withholding and reporting, can be equally daunting. At least at the start, most nonprofits rely on the experience of a tax adviser, a bookkeeper, or another legal or tax specialist on the board or in the community to help them set up their books and establish a system for preparing tax forms on time. See Chapter 11 for recommendations on finding legal and tax professionals for your nonprofit.

    Incorporation Costs and Fees

    For nonprofit incorporators unwilling to do the job themselves, a main disadvantage of incorporating a nonprofit organization is the cost of paying an attorney to prepare the incorporation forms and tax exemption application. Putting some time and effort into understanding the material in this book can help you eliminate this added cost, leaving you with only the state and IRS filing fees. If you use IRS Form 1023-EZ, the streamlined federal tax exemption application, the total cost to form your tax-exempt nonprofit should be approximately $325 (for typical state incorporation fees and the IRS $275 streamlined tax exemption application fee). For nonprofits that use the longer Form 1023 application, the tax exemption application fee is $600. Check the IRS website ( to get the latest fee information.

    Time and Energy Needed to  Run  the Nonprofit

    When a group decides to incorporate, the legal decision is often part of a broader decision to increase not just the structure, but the overall scope, scale, and visibility of the nonprofit. With a larger, more accountable organization come a number of new tasks: setting up and balancing books and bank accounts, depositing and reporting payroll taxes, and meeting with an accountant to extract and report year-end figures for annual informational returns. Although these financial, payroll, and tax concerns are not exclusively corporate chores, you’ll find that most unincorporated nonprofits keep a low employment, tax, and financial profile and get by with minimum attention to legal and tax formalities.

    Example: A women’s health collective operates as an unincorporated nonprofit organization. It keeps an office open a few days a week where people stop by to read and exchange information on community and women’s health issues. The two founders donate their time and the office space and pay operating costs (such as phone, utilities, and photocopying) that aren’t covered by contributions from visitors. The organization has never made a profit, there is no payroll, and tax returns have never been filed. There is a minimum of paperwork and record keeping.

    The founders could decide to continue this way indefinitely. However, the founders want to expand the activities and revenues of the collective. They decide to form a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation in order to be eligible for tax-deductible contributions and grant funds from the city, and to qualify the group to employ student interns and work-study students. This will require them to prepare and file articles of incorporation and a federal corporate income tax exemption application. They must select an initial board of directors and prepare organizational bylaws and formal written minutes of the first board of directors’ meeting.

    After incorporation, the group holds regular board meetings documented with written minutes, sets up and uses a double-entry bookkeeping system, implements regular federal and state payroll and tax procedures and controls, files exempt organization tax returns each year, and expands its operations. A full-time staff person is assigned to handle the increased paperwork and bookkeeping chores brought about by the change in structure and increased operations of the organization.

    This example highlights what should be one of the first things you consider before you decide to incorporate: Make sure that you and your coworkers can put in the extra time and effort that an incorporated nonprofit organization will require. If the extra work would overwhelm or overtax your current resources, we suggest you hold off on your incorporation until you get the extra help you need to accomplish this task smoothly (or at least more easily).

    Restrictions on Paying Directors  and Officers

    As a matter of state corporation law and the tax exemption requirements, nonprofits are restricted in how they deal with their directors, officers, and members. None of the gains, profits, or dividends of the corporation can go to individuals associated with the corporation, including directors, officers, and those defined as members in the corpora­tion’s articles or bylaws. State self-dealing rules apply as well, regulating action by the board of directors if a director has a financial interest in a transaction.

    Officers and staff can be paid a reasonable salary for work they do for the corporation. State laws often provide for this type of compensation, and even if nothing is specified, it is permissible. Directors can also be paid for their expenses and time for attending directors’ meetings. In all cases, however, these payments should be reasonable. Lavish payments or ­undeserved payouts characterized as “salaries” or “compensation” can be challenged by the IRS and can lead to penalties and even a loss of tax exemption (see “Other Requirements for 501(c)(3) Groups” in Chapter 3).

    Restrictions Upon Dissolution

    One of the requirements for the 501(c)(3) tax exemption is that upon dissolution of the corporation, any assets remaining after the corporation’s debts and liabilities are paid must go to another tax-exempt nonprofit, not to members of the former corporation.

    Restrictions on Your Political  Activities

    Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code establishes a number of restrictions and limitations that apply to nonprofits. Here, we discuss a limitation that may be very significant to some groups—the limitation on your political activities. Specifically, your organization may not participate in political campaigns for or against candidates for public office, and cannot substantially engage in legislative or grassroots political activities except as permitted under federal tax regulations. (For more on this, see “Other Requirements for 501(c)(3) Groups” in Chapter 3.)

    Example: Society for a Saner World, Inc., has as one of its primary objectives lobbying hard to pass federal and local legislation that seeks to lessen societal dependency on fossil fuels. Since a substantial portion of the group’s efforts will consist of legislative lobbying, the group’s 501(c)(3) tax exemption probably will be denied by the IRS. Instead, the group should seek a tax exemption under IRC Section 501(c)(4) as a social welfare group, which is not limited in the amount of lobbying the group can undertake. Of course, the benefits of 501(c)(4) tax exemption are fewer too—contributions to the group are not tax deductible, and grant funds will be more difficult to obtain (see IRS Publication 557, Chapter 4, Other Section 501(c) Organizations).

    Oversight by the Attorney General

    Each state’s attorney general has broad power to oversee the operations of 501(c)(3) non­profits. The attorney general can take the corpo­ration to court to make sure it complies with the state corporation law. This usually doesn’t happen, however, unless an organization commits a serious offense (such as the founders’ diverting contri­butions for their personal use) and the organization is on the state attorney general’s enforcement division radar (through a complaint filed by a disgruntled group or a member of the public who feels aggrieved by the nonprofit’s actions or policies).

    Religious 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporations have wider flexibility in managing their internal affairs. A state attorney general is less likely to step in and sue a religious nonprofit to enforce compliance with state corporate laws, except in the most extreme and unusual cases of fraud or misappropriation by the principals of a religious-purpose nonprofit.

    How Nonprofits Raise, Spend, and Make Money

    Most nonprofits need to deal with money—indeed, being able to attract donations is a prime reason for choosing nonprofit status. Nonprofits can also make money. Nonprofit does not literally mean that a nonprofit corpo­ration cannot make a profit. Under federal tax law and state law, as long as your nonprofit is organized and operating for a recognized nonprofit purpose, it can take in more money than it spends in conducting its activities. A non­profit may use its tax-free profits for its operating expenses (including salaries for officers, directors, and employees) or for the benefit of its organization (to carry out its exempt purposes). What it cannot do under IRC Section 501(c)(3) is distribute any of the profits for the benefit of its officers, directors, or employees (as dividends, for example).

    This section explains how nonprofits raise initial funds and how they make money on an ongoing basis.

    Initial Fundraising

    Under state corporate statutes, a nonprofit corporation is not legally required to have a specified amount of money in the corporate bank account before commencing operations. This is fortunate, of course, because many beginning nonprofits start out on a shoestring of meager public and private support.

    So, where will your seed money come from? As you know, nonprofit corporations cannot issue shares, nor can they provide investment incentives, such as a return on capital through the payment of dividends to investors, bene­factors, or participants in the corporation (see “Corporation Basics,” at the beginning of this chapter). Nonprofits have their own means and methods of obtaining start-up funds. Obviously, the most common method is to obtain revenue in the form of contributions, grants, and dues from the people, organizations, and governmental agencies that support the nonprofit’s purpose and goals. Also, if you are incorporating an existing organization, the organization’s assets are usually transferred to the new corporation. These assets may include the cash reserves of an unincorporated group, which can help your corporation begin operations. You can also borrow start-up funds from a bank, although for newly formed corporations, a bank will usually require that incorporators secure the loan with their personal assets—a pledge most nonprofit directors are understandably reluctant to make.

    Often, of course, nonprofits receive initial and ongoing revenues from services or activi­ties provided in the pursuit of their exempt purposes (ticket sales, payments for art lessons or dance courses, school tuition, or clinic charges). Section 501(c)(3) nonprofits are allowed to earn this type of revenue under federal and state tax laws and still maintain their tax-exempt status.

    Making Money From Related Activities

    Many nonprofits make money while they further the goals of the organization. The nonprofit can use this tax-exempt revenue to pay for operating expenses (including reason­able salaries) and to further its nonprofit purposes. For example, an organization dedi­cated to the identification and preservation of shorebirds might advertise a bird-watching hike for which they charge a fee; the group could then use the proceeds to fund their bird rescue operations. What it cannot do with the money, however, is distribute it for the benefit of officers, directors, or employees of the corporation (as the payment of a patronage dividend, for example).

    Example: Friends of the Library, Inc., is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organized to encourage literary appreciation in the community and to raise money for the support and improvement of the public library. It makes a profit from its sold-out lecture series featuring famous authors and from its annual sale of donated books. Friends can use this tax-exempt profit for its own operating expenses, including salaries for officers and employees, or to benefit the library.

    Making Money From Unrelated Activities (Unrelated Income)

    Nonprofits can also make money in ways unrelated to their nonprofit purpose. Often this income is essential to the survival of the nonprofit group. This unrelated income, however, is usually taxed as unrelated business income under state and federal corporate income tax rules. While earning money this way is permissible, it’s best not to let unrelated business activities reach the point where you start to look more like a for-profit business than a nonprofit one. This can happen if the unrelated income-generating activities are absorbing a substantial amount of staff time, requiring additional paid staff, or producing more income than your exempt-purpose activities. If the unrelated revenue or activities of your tax-exempt nonprofit reach a substantial level, the IRS can decide to revoke the group’s 501(c)(3) tax exemption—a result your nonprofit will no doubt wish to avoid. (For more information, see “Other Require­ments for 501(c)(3) Groups” in Chapter 3.)

    Example: Many thousands of books are donated to Friends of the Library for its annual book sale, one of its major fundraising events. Although the sale is always highly successful, thousands of books are left over. Friends decides to sell the more valuable books by advertising in the rare and out-of-print books classified sections in various magazines. The response is overwhelming; soon, there are six employees cataloging books. In addition, Friends begins a business purchasing books from other dealers and reselling them to the public. Such a situation could attract attention from the IRS and prompt it to reconsider Friends’ 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

    Making Money from Passive Sources

    Although it’s not typical for the average nonprofit, a nonprofit corporation can make money from passive sources such as rents, royalties, interest, and investments. This income is nontaxable in some cases.

    Your Path to Nonprofit Status

    Nonprofit organizations first obtain nonprofit corporate status with the state corporate filing office—usually the corporations division of the secretary of state’s office. This is a simple formality accomplished by filing articles of incorporation. Then they go on to obtain a corpo­rate income tax exemption with the Inter­nal Revenue Service. Once the IRS exemption is obtained, a copy of the federal tax exemption determination letter is filed with the state tax or revenue office. This automatically qualifies the nonprofit for a state corporate income tax exemption (assuming the state imposes a corporate tax). In a few states, you must apply for a separate state nonprofit corporate income tax exemption.

    In sum, your path to nonprofit status is a usually a two-step process—first you incorpo­rate with the state, then you apply for tax-exempt recognition from the IRS. When you’re done with this book, you’ll have completed each of these steps, plus additional follow-up steps to make sure your corporation is off to a good legal and tax start.

    Where Should You Incorporate?

    Corporations formed in a particular state are known in that state as domestic corporations. When viewed from outside that state, these corporations are considered foreign. A foreign corporation that plans to engage in a regular or repeated pattern of activity in another state must qualify to do business there by obtaining a certificate of authority from the secretary of state. For example, a corporation formed in Nevada that intends to do regular business in California is a foreign corporation in California, and must qualify with the California Secretary of State.

    Incorporators who plan to operate in another state besides their home state might wonder whether it makes sense to incorporate in that other state. Maybe the incorporation fees or corpo­rate taxes are lower than those in the home state or the nonprofit ­statutes are more flexible. Then, the reasoning goes, one could qualify the corporation in the home state as a foreign corporation. As tempting as this end run may appear, it’s usually not worth it. This section explains why, and also advises you of out-of-state activities that you can engage in without worrying about qualifying in another state.

    Qualifying as a Foreign Corporation in Your Home State Will Cost You More

    The process of qualifying a foreign corporation to operate in your home state takes about as much time and expense as incorporating a domestic corporation in your home state. This means that you will pay more to incorporate out-of-state since you must pay the regular home state qualification fees plus out-of-state incorporation fees.

    Two Sets of Tax Exemptions

    Your corporation will still be subject to taxation in each state in which it earns or derives income or funds. If the state of incorporation, which we here assume is a “foreign” state, imposes a corporate income tax, then the nonprofit cor­po­ration will need to file for and obtain two state corporate tax exemptions—one for its home state (the state where the corporation will be active and qualify to do business) and one for the foreign state of incorporation. Similarly, double sales, property, and other state tax exemptions may often be necessary or appropriate.

    Two Sets of State Laws

    Your out-of-state corporation will still be subject to many of the laws that affect corpora­tions in your home state. Many state corporate statutes that apply to domestic corporations also apply to foreign corporations.

    Out-of-State Activities

    For the above reasons, most readers who flirt with the idea of incorporating in a state other than their home state would be well advised to skip it. This doesn’t mean, however, that you’ll have to trim all of your activities to stay within your home state. Fortunately, there are many things a nonprofit can do as a foreign corporation in another state without obtaining a certificate of authority from the secretary of that state. Here are some activities that can be done in most states without qualifying to do business there:

    • maintaining, defending, or settling any legal action or administrative proceeding, including securing or collecting debts and enforcing property rights
    • holding meetings of corporate directors or of the membership and distributing information to members
    • maintaining bank accounts and making grants of funds
    • making sales through independent contractors and engaging in interstate or foreign commerce
    • conducting a so-called isolated transaction that is completed within 30 days and is not one of a series of similar transactions, and
    • exercising powers as an executor, administra­tor, or trustee, as long as none of the activi­ties required of the position amount to transacting business.

    When Out-of-State Incorporation Makes Sense

    There may be a few of you for whom incorpor­ation in another state makes sense. If you plan to set up a multistate nonprofit with corporate offices and activities in more than one state (a tristate environmental fund for example), you may want to consider incorporating in the state that offers the greatest legal, tax, and practical advantages. To help you decide where to incorporate, go online to each state’s corporate filing office website (see Appendix B). Another approach is to check a nonprofit resource center library. For nonprofit library resources online, type “nonprofit resource libraries” into your browser—you’ll find a host of online libraries at your disposal. An experienced nonprofit lawyer or consultant can also help you determine which state is the most convenient and least costly to use as the legal home for your new nonprofit corporation.

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    DOWNLOAD FORMS - All forms in this book are accessible online. After purchase, you can find a link to the URL in Appendix A.

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13 Reviews
5 Star
4 Star
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1 Star

A Great Help!

By Steven A.

A Very Straight forward and practical guide with all tools and forms you need. The "Inside Track" for getting your Non-Profit up and running!

Posted on 2/21/2022

A Great Help!

By Steven A.

Very Straight forward practical guide with all tools and forms you need. The inide Track for getting your Non-Profit up and running!

Posted on 2/21/2022

Great guide!

By LaQuenta

This guide is much easier to understand and in my opinion the step-by-step instructions for the Form 1023 are much more clearer than the instructions given by the Internal Revenue Services.

Posted on 5/11/2021

Disappointed so far

By Michelle M.

I haven't used the entire book but so far I am disappointed. The sample incorporation document in the appendix is called articles of incorporation but the proper term in my state is certificate of formation. The form itself is less helpful than the free Form 202 on the state's website, and does not contain any of the specific language (such as restriction to a charitable purpose) that will be required if the corporation tries to get its federal tax exempt status.

Posted on 5/11/2021

Read THIS before signing anything

By Gail L.

I didn't realize the forms in the back would be PERFORATED for ease of use. What a deal. THAT should be advertised! The internet links are spot on for further reading. All information is current, timely, and well written. Thank you for putting this all together for our fledgling historical association.

Posted on 5/11/2021


By Omega A.

Very helpful and clear language

Posted on 5/11/2021

Great information

By Mateo L.

Great information, I recommend getting the digital copy as well.

Posted on 5/11/2021


By Anne S.

Just fine does the job of informing!

Posted on 5/11/2021


By Victoria-De'Jon J.

very helpful and thorough.

Posted on 5/11/2021

Nonprofit Necessities

By William R.

If you’re considering becoming a Nonprofit Corporation, then this book is a necessity for you. It will guide you step by step and will save you a lot of money that is very important in any startup company, church, ministry, etc. I highly recommend this book. It’s full of information that you may not think of and cannot afford to miss.

Posted on 5/11/2021


By Mabel B.

Great book, easy to read and understand. I followed the steps outlined and used the forms in the book. I received 501(c) 3 exempt status within 3 months of submitting application. I highly recommend this book.

Posted on 5/11/2021

The Whole Picture

By Kay B.

What NOLO has done for me is to keep me from going unprepared into things more complicated than I had any idea, and to take my time to create what I really want and is needed for our group. No one else I had consulted had really explained the whole picture. I really appreciate that knowledge!!

Posted on 5/11/2021

Just what I needed!

By Anonymous

I'm gradually putting together my non-profit with virtually no funding. I can't afford an attorney, so I went to NOLO. This book is exactly what I'm looking for! It's an easy ready, chock full of helpful information and forms. There are links to access updated forms, as well. I highly recommend this book!

Posted on 5/11/2021

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