How To Register a Non-Profit Organization


Setting up a nonprofit organization is a complicated process, but it’s also one that can be done by anyone. If you have an idea for a social change organization and want to register with your state and federal governments, then this guide will walk you through the steps of creating an official non-profit corporation. Here’s what we’ll cover:

Form a Plan and Budget for Your Non-profit

You’ll also need to create a plan for your organization. This is especially important if you plan to fundraise, as most non-profits are required to raise funds in order to stay open. It’s worth noting that the government does not require charities and nonprofits to have 501(c)(3) status, but it does make it easier for them when they do. The following items should be included in your initial business plan:

  • Executive summary
  • Mission statement
  • Goals & objectives
  • Marketing plan (if applicable)

Choose a Name For your Nonprofit

It’s important to choose a name for your organization that is easy to spell and remember. You should also avoid choosing a name that is already in use by another organization or closely resembles the name of another registered nonprofit. If you don’t want your organization’s name to contain potentially offensive words or phrases, make sure it doesn’t include those things either.

For example, the word “foundation” may be confusing because some organizations use it in their names while others do not; “foundation” might also be confused with “funds,” so if you’re thinking about using this word in your nonprofit’s name, make sure there won’t be any confusion between what kind of foundation (or funds) your nonprofit provides—and whether or not they are soliciting donations from the public at all times.

Determine What Type of Nonprofit Structure Is Right For You

Two types of nonprofit organizations are:

  • Nonprofit corporation: Founded as a corporation, its articles or certificate of incorporation will specify the purposes for which it was created, as well as its governing body and the powers granted to it by law. It must also have minimum operating funds, which may be obtained through donations and grants.
  • Nonprofit association: An organization formed by members who share a common interest in furthering an objective or purpose, such as promoting education in science or providing financial assistance to low-income individuals with breast cancer. This type does not have legal status until incorporated by filing articles of incorporation with the secretary of state’s office in your state (or equivalent agency). It can also be converted from a public charity into a private foundation if you want to expand your scope beyond what is permitted under IRS rules for public charities.

Create Nonprofit Bylaws

Nonprofit bylaws are the rules that govern an organization. They’re distinct from articles of incorporation, which are filed with the state. Bylaws may be written or unwritten, but they should always be available to members and the public.

Bylaws provide information about how an organization will be run (e.g., how decisions are made), who can hold office and what those officers’ duties are, where meetings will be held and when they will occur, how much money officers can receive for their services, and whether members can vote on issues electronically or in person at meetings.

Assign Board Members, Officers and Directors to the Organization

Non-profit organizations need to have a board of directors, officers and other leaders. These people are responsible for the organization’s activities and finances.

The board of directors consists of at least three members but can be as many as 15 people (or more) depending on how many people can be accommodated by your non-profit’s management structure. The number of directors may vary depending on the size and complexity of your organization, so consider consulting with an attorney if you are unsure what is best for your situation.

Board members should have experience in leadership roles that complement each other. They should also be willing to devote time to helping with decisions regarding issues such as budgeting, hiring employees and raising funds for programs or services provided by your non-profit organization.

Apply for Federal Tax-Exempt Status with the IRS

The first step in registering your non-profit organization is to apply for federal tax-exempt status with the IRS. If your organization is organized as a corporation, trust or partnership (including limited liability companies and limited partnerships), you will need to file Form 1023 with the IRS. If it is organized under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and has charitable purposes, it will be classified as a public charity.

If you also want to be tax-exempt in more than one state or country, you must file Form 5768 with each state or country’s secretary of state or similar official.

If your non-profit wants to engage in international activities, such as conducting educational programs outside of the United States or providing grants for relief efforts abroad, it may qualify for exemption from federal income tax under IRC section 501(c)(3). In order to qualify for this type of exemption from federal income tax under IRC section 501(c)(3), organizations must establish that their purpose will not conflict with any other existing foreign charities; that they have no substantial part engaged in carrying on propaganda; and that they do not participate in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate running for public office

Secure State-Level Tax Exemption

Your next step is to secure state-level tax exemption. You will need to file an application with the state tax commission and pay appropriate fees, which vary by location.

The good news is that your organization has a good chance of being granted tax exemption status, but it’s not automatic. The process may take several weeks or months depending on how busy the agency is at any given time and whether you file during peak times of year (like July and January).

Register With The Secretary of State Office in your Home State

To register your non-profit organization with the state, you will need to file certain documents with the secretary of state office in your home state. The filing requirements vary by state and some states may require additional steps beyond what is described here.

You should also check with your own attorney for specific information about registering in your particular state.

Most states require that you submit a copy of articles of incorporation (or similar document) along with a fee for registration as a nonprofit corporation or not-for-profit organization. In addition, many states also require an application for tax exemption from federal income taxes and/or from sales tax collections on income earned while operating in one or more locations throughout their borders. Some states may charge nominal fees for these matters; others do not charge any fees at all.

File an Annual Report with Your State Office

Once you have completed these steps, you will be ready to file an annual report with your state office. This is a requirement for non-profit organizations and it must be filed with the state where your organization is located. The report should include information such as:

  • The purpose of the organization
  • Its assets and liabilities
  • Names and addresses of officers, directors and staff members
  • Amounts received in donations or contributions

Register to do Business in Each State Where you Operate

Registering with a secretary of state can be done online, and it only costs about $50 per state. However, you’ll need to fill out some paperwork and wait for the secretary of state’s office to review and approve your application before you’re officially registered. This process can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months depending on how busy their offices are and how quickly they work through their backlogged submissions.

When all of this is done, though, you’ll be able to legally do business in each state where you operate (or intend to). You’ll also have an address where people can send payment or donations if they choose—which means that other non-profits won’t have any excuse not to give your organization money. But there’s still one more step: registering with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization so that donors can deduct contributions when filing taxes next year.

These steps will help you set up a legal non-profit organization that you can use to begin raising money and changing hearts, minds and lives.


Once you’ve registered your non-profit, you can begin raising money and changing hearts, minds and lives.

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