How to start a Non-Profit Organization – An essential Guide

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Learn everything you need to know about starting a non-profit organization, from legal requirements and tax-exempt status to funding and support. This comprehensive guide covers all the essential aspects of starting and operating a successful non-profit, with expert insights and practical tips to help you make a positive impact in your community.

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Have you ever wanted to make a difference in your community? Do you have a passion for a particular cause or issue and want to take action to address it? Starting a non-profit organization may be the answer. Non-profits can have a powerful impact on society, providing vital services and resources to those in need.

However, starting and operating a non-profit can be a complex and challenging process, with many legal and regulatory requirements to navigate. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover all the legal aspects you need to know to start a successful non-profit organization, from tax-exempt status and governance to fundraising and support.  So let’s dive right in. 

Who can start a non profit organization?

Anyone can start a non-profit organization as long as they have a clear mission and purpose for the organization that falls under the tax-exempt purposes defined by the IRS. This includes purposes such as charitable, educational, scientific, or religious purposes. However, starting a non-profit organization requires significant effort and resources, and it is important to have a solid plan and strategy in place before starting the process.

Some common steps to start a non-profit organization include:

  1. Defining the mission and purpose of the organization
  2. Choosing a name and checking for availability
  3. Recruiting a board of directors and officers
  4. Drafting and filing articles of incorporation with the state
  5. Drafting bylaws and other governing documents
  6. Applying for tax-exempt status with the IRS
  7. Registering with state and local authorities
  8. Developing a fundraising plan and securing funding sources
  9. Establishing policies and procedures for governance, finance, and operations
  10. Launching the organization and implementing programs and activities to achieve the mission.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a non profit organization?


  1. Mission-driven: Non-profit organizations exist to fulfill a specific mission or purpose, usually to benefit a particular cause or community. This focus on social impact can be a powerful motivator for staff, volunteers, and donors.
  2. Tax-exempt status: Non-profit organizations are eligible for tax-exempt status, which can provide significant financial benefits.
  3. Public trust: Non-profit organizations are often seen as trustworthy and reliable, which can help attract supporters and partners.
  4. Grant opportunities: Many non-profit organizations are eligible for grants and other funding opportunities that are not available to for-profit businesses.
  5. Volunteer base: Non-profit organizations often rely on volunteers to help achieve their mission, providing opportunities for community engagement and building a sense of belonging.


  1. Limited financial resources: Non-profit organizations often operate on a limited budget and rely on donations and grants to fund their activities. This can make it difficult to invest in long-term growth or sustain operations during lean times.
  2. Regulatory burden: Non-profit organizations are subject to a variety of legal and regulatory requirements, which can be complex and time-consuming to navigate.
  3. Limited compensation: Non-profit employees are generally paid less than their for-profit counterparts, which can make it difficult to attract and retain top talent.
  4. Donor dependency: Non-profit organizations are often reliant on a few large donors, which can create a power imbalance and limit their ability to pursue their mission.
  5. Limited control: Non-profit organizations are often subject to the priorities and preferences of their donors and stakeholders, which can limit their ability to make independent decisions.

Overall, non-profit organizations can be a powerful force for positive change, but they also face unique challenges and limitations that should be carefully considered before starting one.

Understanding Non-Profit Organizations

Before starting a non-profit organization, it’s important to understand what it is and how it differs from a for-profit business. A non-profit organization is a type of business that is created for charitable, religious, educational, or scientific purposes. Unlike for-profit businesses, non-profits are exempt from paying taxes on their income, as long as they meet certain requirements set by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Incorporating Your Non-Profit Organization

To create a non-profit organization, you must first incorporate it with the state in which you plan to operate. This involves filing articles of incorporation with the state government, which outlines the purpose, structure, and governing rules of your non-profit organization. It’s important to ensure that your articles of incorporation meet the state’s requirements for non-profit organizations. You can also do this online here.

Obtaining Tax-Exempt Status

Once your non-profit organization is incorporated, you’ll need to obtain tax-exempt status from the IRS. This involves filing Form 1023 or Form 1023-EZ, which provides information about your organization’s purpose, activities, and structure. The IRS will review your application and determine whether your organization meets the requirements for tax-exempt status. Obtaining tax-exempt status is crucial, as it allows your organization to receive tax-deductible donations.

How to apply for tax-exempt status with the IRS?

To apply for tax-exempt status with the IRS, a non-profit organization must complete and file Form 1023 or Form 1023-EZ, depending on the organization’s size and complexity.

Form 1023 is the standard application for tax-exempt status and is used by larger organizations with gross receipts exceeding $50,000 per year or assets exceeding $250,000. The form requires detailed information about the organization’s purpose, activities, governance, and finances, as well as supporting documentation such as financial statements, articles of incorporation, and bylaws.

Form 1023-EZ is a simplified application for smaller organizations with gross receipts of $50,000 or less and assets of $250,000 or less. The form requires less detailed information than Form 1023 but still requires documentation such as articles of incorporation and a statement of activities.

Both forms must be filed electronically through the IRS website, and a filing fee must be paid at the time of submission. The IRS will review the application and may request additional information or clarification before making a determination of tax-exempt status.

Complying with State and Federal Laws

In addition to obtaining tax-exempt status, non-profit organizations must also comply with state and federal laws. This includes filing annual reports with the state, maintaining accurate financial records, and complying with laws related to fundraising and charitable solicitations. It’s important to understand the laws that apply to your non-profit organization and to ensure that you are in compliance.

Governance and Management

Non-profit organizations are governed by a board of directors, which is responsible for making major decisions and overseeing the organization’s activities. It’s important to establish a strong governance structure for your non-profit organization, including bylaws that outline the rules and procedures for governing the organization. Additionally, non-profit organizations must comply with laws related to conflicts of interest and other ethical considerations.


Q: Can a non-profit organization make a profit? A: While non-profit organizations are not created for the purpose of making a profit, they can generate income through activities related to their charitable purposes. However, any profits must be used to further the organization’s mission and cannot be distributed to individuals.

Q: How long does it take to obtain tax-exempt status for a non-profit organization? A: The process of obtaining tax-exempt status for a non-profit organization can vary depending on the complexity of the organization and the backlog at the IRS. In general, it can take several months to a year or more to obtain tax-exempt status.

Q: Can non-profit organizations pay their employees? A: Yes, non-profit organizations can pay their employees, but they must comply with federal and state labor laws and ensure that compensation is reasonable and proportionate to the work performed. Non-profit organizations may also provide benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans.

Q: What is the difference between a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4) organization? A: A 501(c)(3) organization is a tax-exempt organization created for charitable, religious, educational, or scientific purposes. Donations to 501(c)(3) organizations are tax-deductible. A 501(c)(4) organization is a tax-exempt organization created for social welfare purposes. Donations to 501(c)(4) organizations are not tax-deductible.

Q: Can non-profit organizations engage in political activities? A: Non-profit organizations can engage in certain types of political activities, but there are restrictions and limitations. For example, 501(c)(3) organizations are prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity or endorsing candidates for public office. 501(c)(4) organizations can engage in some political activity but must primarily focus on social welfare purposes.

Q: Can non-profit organizations be sued? A: Yes, non-profit organizations can be sued like any other business or organization. Non-profit organizations should take steps to mitigate legal risk and protect themselves from potential lawsuits, such as by having strong governance policies and procedures, maintaining accurate financial records, and obtaining appropriate insurance coverage.


Starting a non-profit organization may be a lifelong dream or even a fulfilling experience, but it also requires careful planning and consideration of the legal aspects involved. By understanding the requirements for incorporating, obtaining tax-exempt status, and complying with state and federal laws, you can create a strong foundation for your non-profit organization. Remember to establish a strong governance structure and maintain accurate financial records to ensure the long-term success of your non-profit.

Further Reading:

Starting a Business? Here’s Your Step-by-Step Checklist to Ensure Success
Which Legal Structure is Right for Your Business? A Definitive Guide (incl. examples) 
Starting a Partnership: All Legal Aspects You Need to Know
Starting a Sole Proprietorship: Everything you need to know!
The Ultimate Guide to Starting an LLC
Starting a corporation – A brief guide

IRS: Tax Information for Charitable Organizations
National Council of Nonprofits: Nonprofit Advocacy Matters
Candid: Starting a Nonprofit
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