What Is a 501(c)(3) Organization?
Section 501(c)(3) is a portion of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code (IRC) and a specific tax category for nonprofit organizations. Organizations that meet Section 501(c)(3) requirements are exempt from federal income tax. While the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recognizes more than 30 types of nonprofit organizations, only those that qualify for 501(c)(3) status can say that donations to them are tax deductible.
Most of the organizations that may be eligible for 501(c)(3) designation fall into one of three categories: charitable organizations, churches and religious organizations, and private foundations. The rules outlined in Section 501(c)(3) are regulated by the U.S. Treasury through the IRS.
- Section 501(c)(3) is a portion of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code (IRC) and a specific tax category for nonprofit organizations.
- Organizations that meet the requirements of Section 501(c)(3) are exempt from federal income tax.
- While the IRS recognizes more than 30 types of nonprofit organizations, only organizations that qualify for 501(c)(3) status can say that donations to them are tax deductible.
- 501(c)(3) organizations must pay their employees fair market value wages.
- To receive its favorable tax treatment, the nonprofit organization must not deviate from its purpose or mission.
What Is a 501(C) Organization?
How a 501(c)(3) Organization Works
To be considered a charitable organization by the IRS, a group must operate exclusively for one of these purposes: charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, or preventing cruelty to children or animals.
Furthermore, the IRS defines “charitable” activities as “relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.”
Requirements of a 501(c)(3) Organization
To be tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3), an organization must not be serving any private interests, including the interests of the creator, the creator’s family, shareholders of the organization, other designated individuals, or other persons controlled by private interests. None of the net earnings of the organization can be used to benefit any private shareholder or individual; all earnings must be used solely for the advancement of its charitable cause.
A 501(c)(3) organization is also forbidden from using its activities to influence legislation in a substantial way, including participating in any campaign activities to support or deny any particular political candidate. It is typically not permitted to engage in lobbying (except in instances when its expenditures are below a certain amount).
People employed by the organization must be paid “reasonable compensation,” which is based on the fair market value that the job function requires.
Once an organization is categorized as a 501(c)(3), the designation remains as long as the organization exists unless it is revoked by the IRS.
To remain tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3), an organization is also required to remain true to its founding purpose. If an organization has previously reported to the IRS that its mission is to help less privileged individuals gain access to a college education, it must maintain this purpose. If it decides to engage in another calling—for example, sending relief to displaced families in poverty-stricken countries—the 501(c)(3) organization has to first notify the IRS of its change of operations to prevent the loss of its tax-exempt status.
While some unrelated business income is allowed for a 501(c)(3) organization, the tax-exempt charity may not receive substantial income from unrelated business operations. This means that the majority of the firm’s efforts must go toward its exempt purpose as a nonprofit organization. Any unrelated business from sales of merchandise or rental properties must be limited or the organization could lose its 501(c)(3) status. While the IRS doesn’t specify exactly how much is too much unrelated business income, the law firm of Hurwit & Associates, which specializes in representing nonprofits, estimates the amount at somewhere between 15% and 30%.
While organizations that meet the requirements of Section 501(c)(3) are exempt from federal income tax, they are required to withhold federal income tax from their employees’ paychecks and pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. They do not, however, have to pay federal unemployment taxes.
Organizations that meet the 501(c)(3) tax category requirements can be classified into two categories: public charities and private foundations. The main distinction between these two categories is how they get their financial support.
A public charity is a nonprofit organization that receives a substantial portion of its income or revenue from the general public or the government. At least one-third of its income must be received from the donations of the general public (including individuals, corporations, and other nonprofit organizations).
If an individual donates to an organization that the IRS considers to be a public charity, they may qualify for certain tax deductions that can help them lower their taxable income. Generally, the total amount of donations to a tax-exempt public charity that an individual can claim is limited to 50% of their adjusted gross income (AGI). However, there is no limitation on donations to qualified charitable organizations, such as a 501(c)(3).
A private foundation is typically held by an individual, a family, or a corporation and obtains most of its income from a small group of donors. Private foundations are subject to stricter rules and regulations than public charities. All 501(c)(3) organizations are automatically classified as private foundations unless they can prove they meet the IRS standards to be considered a public charity. The deductibility of contributions to a private foundation is more limited than donations for a public charity.
To apply for tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3), most nonprofit organizations are required to file Form 1023 or Form 1023-EZ within 27 months from their date of incorporation. The charitable organization must include its articles of incorporation and provide documents that prove that the organization is only operating for exempt purposes.
However, not all organizations that qualify for the tax category need to submit Form 1023. For example, public charities that earn less than $5,000 in revenue per year are exempt from filing this form. Even though it is not required, they may still choose to file the form to ensure that donations made to their organization will be tax deductible for donors.
Advantages and Disadvantages of a 501(c)(3) Organization
The 501(c)(3) status offers a myriad of benefits to the designated organizations and the people they serve. For starters, 501(c)(3) organizations are exempt from paying federal income and unemployment taxes, and patrons who donate to them are allowed to claim a tax deduction for their contributions.
To help with funding and further their mission, these organizations are eligible to receive government and private grants. To qualify, the organization must have a mission aligned with the purpose of the grant and a need for it. In addition, 501(c)(3) organizations often receive discounts from retailers, free advertising by way of public service announcements, and food and supplies from other nonprofit organizations designed to help in times of need.
A 501(c)(3) could be the lifelong dream of its founder; however, once established as a 501(c)(3), it no longer belongs to its founder. Rather, it is a mission-oriented organization belonging to the public. To maintain its favorable tax treatment, it must operate within the confines of the law pertaining to 501(c)(3) organizations.
Because the organization serves the public, it must operate with full transparency. Therefore, its finances, including salaries, are available to members of the public and subject to their review.
Exempt from federal taxes
Contributions are tax deductible
Eligible for government and private grants
Does not belong to those who created it
Restricted to specific operations to receive tax exemptions
Financial information is publicly accessible
Example of a 501(c)(3) Organization
The American Red Cross, established in 1881 and congressionally chartered in 1900, is one of the United States’ oldest nonprofit organizations. Its mission statement says that the Red Cross “prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.” Since its inception, its goal has been to serve members of the armed forces and provide aid during disasters.
Located in 191 countries, the Red Cross operates the largest network of volunteers in the world. This 501(c)(3) organization is segmented into three divisions: the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which include the American Red Cross, aim to relieve human suffering globally by empowering subordinate organizations to operate within their nation’s borders to provide disaster relief, education, and other related services. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies provides global humanitarian aid during peacetime, such as assisting refugees. The International Committee of the Red Cross provides humanitarian relief for people affected by war or other armed conflicts.
People who itemize their tax deductions can contribute to the Red Cross and claim the amount donated as a deduction. Taxpayers who use the standard deduction may still claim up to $600 of their 501(c)(3) contributions as a tax deduction in 2021.
The Bottom Line
501(c)(3) organizations are nonprofit groups with a dedicated mission. Most people are familiar with them as churches and charities, but they also include private foundations. As long as they operate to support their mission, they receive favorable tax treatment, such as avoiding federal income and unemployment taxes.
How Do You Start a 501(c)(3)?
To create a 501(c)(3), you must define the type of organization and its purpose or mission. Before selecting a name, search to ensure that it is not taken. If available, secure the name by registering it with your state. Otherwise, secure the name when filing the articles of incorporation. The articles of incorporation must be filed with the state in which it will be organized and according to the state's rules for nonprofit organizations.
After filing, apply for the 501(c)(3) IRS exemption (Form 1023) and state tax exemption for nonprofit organizations. Upon completion, create your organization’s bylaws, which specify how the organization will be structured and governed. Finally, appoint and meet with your board of directors.
How Much Does It Cost to Start a 501(c)(3)?
The costs associated with creating a 501(c)(3) vary according to the needs of the organization. However, some costs can be approximated. For example, filing the articles of incorporation with the state typically costs about $100. The IRS Form 1023 filing fee is $600. However, for organizations that expect less than $50,000 in annual earnings, Form 1023 EZ can be filed for $275.
How Long Does It Take to Get a 501(c)(3) Determination Letter?
A determination letter is sent after applying for the 501(c)(3) exemption. The IRS will only say that “applications are processed as quickly as possible” and “are processed in the order received by the IRS.” However, it does provide a list of 10 tips that can shorten the process.
Anecdotally, the website BoardEffect, which offers software designed “to make the work of their boards of directors easier, more efficient and more effective,” says it can take as little as two to four weeks if you can file Form 1023-EZ. However, those who must (or choose) to file Form 1023 will likely wait for anywhere from three to six months to get their letter, while in some cases the wait can be as long as a year.
Do You Need to Be a Corporation to Get a 501(c)(3)?
According to the IRS, to qualify for the 501(c)(3) status, the organization must be formed “as a trust, a corporation, or an association.”
What Is the Difference Between a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4)?
A 501(c)(3) organization is a nonprofit organization established exclusively for one of the following purposes: charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, or preventing cruelty to children or animals. These organizations are mostly prohibited from engaging in lobbying. Alternatively, 501(c)(4) organizations, which are also nonprofit, are social welfare groups and allowed to engage in lobbying.