How to Start a Nonprofit

IRS StayExempt Tutorial: Learn what it takes to become a 501(c)(3) organization recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt.

At the National Council of Nonprofits we don't assist individuals that are seeking to start a nonprofit, yet one of the most common questions we receive is, "How do I start my own nonprofit?" By researching the process, we hope that many of your questions will be answered. We recommend you confer with an attorney or CPA familiar with the law of tax-exempt organizations in your state. Many state associations of nonprofits offer workshops on this topic or have published guidance either on their website or in booklet form to help founders of nonprofit organizations with basic start-up issues. While we offer resources here for informational purposes only; none of the information is intended as legal advice, but we hope you will educate yourself and your nonprofit's board to ensure that the newly forming nonprofit is in compliance with all federal, state, and local regulations governing the establishment and operations of a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.

Step 1: Research

This section will help you ask the right questions before embarking on this process, such as is there an existing nonprofit that we can collaborate with instead of creating yet another nonprofit?

As helpful background, the Foundation Center's GrantCraft offers an overview of the process of starting a nonprofit with links to additional resources.

Step 2: Key questions to ask before getting started

Once you have done research and determined that a new nonprofit organization is necessary, ask these six basic questions.

Step 3: Know what the state requirements are

Laws and regulations on starting a nonprofit organization vary from state to state.

Step 4: The federal/IRS process: application for tax-exemption

The IRS application process can be daunting. We offer links to the federal forms nonprofit's file with the IRS to apply for tax-exemption.

Step 5: Ongoing Compliance

In addition to federal filings, you will need to file various state forms and establish plans, policies, and procedures for the new nonprofit organization.

Where to find assistance

Resources to assist you in this process include: