Starting a Non-Profit

Last Modified: 06/22/2021

Starting a non-profit is a way to help others and serve the community. In a “corporation not for profit,” the primary goal of the corporation is to benefit the community, not to make a profit. This does not mean that non-profits cannot make money. Instead, the money that is made is reinvested back into the business itself. Profits are used to engage in activities that fulfill the organization’s mission, pay for reasonable salaries of its employees, and pay operating expenses.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recognizes many types of non-profit organizations. The most common type is a 501(c)(3) corporation, which is formed for religious, charitable, scientific, literary, or educational purposes and is eligible for federal and state tax exemptions. Typical 501(c)(3) non-profit corporations include churches and religious organizations, private foundations, and political organizations, among others.

If you are thinking about starting a non-profit organization, CLSMF can help you prepare articles of incorporation, guide you through the process of applying for tax exempt status, and assist with other legal requirements.  

If you already have an established non-profit, CLSMF can help you with contracts and other legal issues. 

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Organizations that meet the requirements of IRS Code section 501(c)(3) are exempt from federal income tax as charitable organizations. Every exempt charitable organization is classified as either a public charity or a private foundation.  

In general, public charities are organizations that (1) are churches, hospitals, or qualified medical research organizations affiliated with hospitals, schools, colleges and universities; (2) have an active program of fundraising and receive contributions from many sources, including the general public, governmental agencies, corporations, private foundations, or other public charities; (3) receive income from the conduct of activities in furtherance of the organization’s exempt purposes’ or (4) actively function in a supporting relationship to one or more existing public charities.

Private foundations, in contrast, typically have a single major source of funding (usually gifts from one family or corporation rather than funding from many sources). The primary focus of most foundations is to award grants to other charitable organizations and to individuals, rather than the direct operation of charitable programs. 

In general, no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status. If the organization’s purpose is to improve civic welfare and you intend to engage in substantial lobbying, the appropriate action may be to seek 501(c)(4) designation. Each year, you will be required to report amounts spent on lobbying activities to the IRS, as part of your Form 990 filing process. More about the Form 990 is provided later in this article. Speak to an attorney before making a decision between 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) non-profit structure. More information is available at


When you form a non-profit corporation, you will need to choose a business name that is unique from other business names already on file with the Florida Department of State. You may conduct an online name search.  

The name for a non-profit corporation must include the word “corporation,” “company,” or “incorporated,” or the abbreviation “Corp.,” “Inc.,” or “Co.,” or the designation “Corp,” “Inc,” or “Co,” to indicate that it is a corporation instead of a natural person, partnership, or other entity.  

In Florida, a non-profit corporation may be formed by filing articles of incorporation with the Florida Department of State, Division of Corporations. If you do not have an attorney to assist you with drafting your articles, form articles are available online here.

Under Florida law, a non-profit is required to have a board of directors consisting of three or more individuals who typically serve on a volunteer basis. These individuals should be identified prior to filing the non-profit’s articles with the State.

You will need a registered agent and an incorporator for your non-profit. A “registered agent” is a business or individual designated to receive service of process, such as the summons and complaint in a lawsuit, when a business entity is a party in a legal action. In non-profits, the registered agent is often the Executive Director or Chief Executive Officer, or even the President of the Board of Directors. An “incorporator” is a person who forms a corporation.

You must pay a fee to file articles of incorporation, and an additional fee to designate a registered agent. You may also choose to obtain a certified copy of the filed articles or a certificate of status at an additional charge. These optional documents may be useful if you plan to apply for a loan or grant. Information on all relevant fees can be found here. 

A Federal Employer Identification Number (EIN), also known as a Federal Tax Identification Number, is a number used to identify a business, much like a social security number is used to identify a person. Your non-profit will need an EIN if you intend to apply for tax exempt status with the IRS. 

You apply for an EIN through the IRS. The easiest way to apply is online. There is no cost and the number is issued immediately.   

Depending on the type of service(s) provided by the non-profit, you may need to apply for one or more professional or occupational licenses. For businesses regulated by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), you may apply online through the DBPR website

You may also need licenses from your local city or county, so be sure to research that before doing any business. 

Information about the benefits and limitations of tax-exempt organizations is available on the IRS website.

You will need to apply with the IRS if you wish to obtain tax exempt status for your non-profit corporation. To do so you will complete either a Form 1023 or Form 1023-EZ. Most new non-profits qualify to use Form 1023-EZ. To determine which form is appropriate for you, review the eligibility worksheet attached to Form 1023-EZ.

Florida provides an exemption from sales tax for sales to 501(c)(3) organizations. To be eligible for the exemption, a non-profit must obtain a sales tax exemption certificate from the Florida Department of Revenue.

If the non-profit will have employees, you may need to pay reemployment taxes to the Florida Department of Revenue. 

If the non-profit is going to purchase or acquire property, you should contact your local property appraiser to apply for a property tax exemption. 

After you form a non-profit, you will need to file annual reports with the State of Florida and pay an annual filing fee. 

To keep its 501(c)(3) status, an organization must be careful not to do anything that would cause it to lose its exempt designation from the IRS. Factors that may lead to loss of 501(c)(3) status include too much lobbying, too much unrelated business income, not filing an annual 990 tax information form with the IRS or failing to achieve the organization’s original purpose. For more information, visit


Starting a non-profit requires careful planning. Before starting a non-profit, consider your corporation’s ability to gain and maintain 501(c)(3) status with the IRS. 

It is best to speak with an attorney and a tax professional before you form a non-profit.

Speak to a business management professional to create business and financial plans for your non-profit.

Before the non-profit is allowed to raise money through donations or grants, it must register with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and renew annually.

The non-profit will need to file annual reports with the Florida Secretary of State, Division of Corporations, and potentially renew annually with other agencies.  See this webpage for more information:

You may need to enter into leases or other contracts governing the activity of your business. It is best to speak to an attorney before signing any documents.

In Florida, non-profit corporations are governed by the Florida Not for Profit Corporations Act. Whether a non-profit can qualify for tax exempt status is a question of federal tax law. For more information, see

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