501(c)(3) organization

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A 501(c)(3) organization is a corporation, trust, unincorporated association, or other type of organization exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of Title 26 of the United States Code. It is one of the 29 types of 501(c) nonprofit organizations [1] in the US.


501(c)(3) tax-exemptions apply to entities that are organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, literary, or educational purposes, for testing for public safety, to foster national or international amateur sports competition, for the prevention of cruelty to children, women, or animals. 501(c)(3) exemption applies also for any non-incorporated community chest, fund, cooperating association or foundation organized and operated exclusively for those purposes. [2] [1] There are also supporting organizations—often referred to in shorthand form as "Friends of" organizations. [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

26 U.S.C.   § 170 provides a deduction for federal income tax purposes, for some donors who make charitable contributions to most types of 501(c)(3) organizations, among others. Regulations specify which such deductions must be verifiable to be allowed (e.g., receipts for donations of $250 or more).

Due to the tax deductions associated with donations, loss of 501(c)(3) status can be highly challenging if not fatal to a charity's continued operation, as many foundations and corporate matching funds do not grant funds to a charity without such status, and individual donors often do not donate to such a charity due to the unavailability of the deduction.[ citation needed ]


The two exempt classifications of 501(c)(3) organizations are as follows:

Obtaining status

The basic requirement of obtaining tax-exempt status is that the organization is specifically limited in powers to purposes that the IRS classifies as tax-exempt purposes. Unlike for-profit corporations that benefit from broad and general purposes, non-profit organizations need to be limited in powers to function with tax-exempt status, but a non-profit corporation is by default not limited in powers until it specifically limits itself in the articles of incorporation or nonprofit corporate bylaws. This limiting of the powers is crucial to obtaining tax exempt status with the IRS and then on the state level. [11] Organizations acquire 501(c)(3) tax exemption by filing IRS Form 1023. [12] As of 2006 the form must be accompanied by a $850 filing fee if the yearly gross receipts for the organization are expected to average $10,000 or more. [13] [14] If yearly gross receipts are expected to average less than $10,000, the filing fee is reduced to $400. [13] [14] There are some classes of organizations that automatically are treated as tax exempt under 501(c)(3), without the need to file Form 1023:

The IRS released a software tool called Cyber Assistant in 2013, which was succeeded by Form 1023-EZ in 2014.

There is an alternative way for an organization to obtain status if an organization has applied for a determination and either there is an actual controversy regarding a determination or the Internal Revenue Service has failed to make a determination. In these cases, the United States Tax Court, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, and the United States Court of Federal Claims have concurrent jurisdiction to issue a declaratory judgment of the organization's qualification if the organization has exhausted administrative remedies with the Internal Revenue Service. [19] [20]

Prior to October 9, 1969, nonprofit organizations could declare themselves to be tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) without first obtaining Internal Revenue Service recognition by filing Form 1023 and receiving a determination letter. [21] A nonprofit organization that did so prior to that date could still be subject to challenge of its status by the Internal Revenue Service. [21]

Tax-deductible charitable contributions

Individuals may take a tax deduction on a charitable gift to a 501(c)(3) organization that is organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition (but only if no part of its activities involve the provision of athletic facilities or equipment), or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals. [22]

An individual may not take a tax deduction on gifts made to a 501(c)(3) organization that is organized and operated exclusively for the testing for public safety. [23]

In the case of tuition fees paid to a private 501(c)(3) school or a church school, the payments are not tax-deductible charitable contributions because they are payments for services rendered to the payee or the payee's children. [24] [25] [26] The payments are not tax-deductible charitable contributions even if a significant portion of a church school's curriculum is religious education. [27] [28] For a payment to be a tax-deductible charitable contribution, it must be a voluntary transfer of money or other property with no expectation of procuring financial benefit equal to the transfer amount. [29]

Before donating to a 501(c)(3) organization, a donor may wish to consult the searchable online IRS list of charitable organizations to verify that the organization qualifies to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions. [30]

Consumers may file IRS Form 13909, with documentation, to complain about inappropriate or fraudulent (i.e., fundraising, political campaigning, lobbying) activities by any 501(c)(3) organization. [31]

Most 501(c)(3) must disclose the names and addresses of certain large donors to the Internal Revenue Service on their annual returns, but this information is not required to be made available to the public, [32] unless the organization is a private foundation. [33] Churches are generally exempt from this reporting requirement. [34]


All 501(c)(3) organizations must make available for public inspection its application for tax-exemption, including its Form 1023 or Form 1023-EZ and any attachments, supporting documents, and follow-up correspondence with the Internal Revenue Service. [35] The same public inspection requirement applies to the organization's annual return, namely its Form 990, Form 990-EZ, Form 990-PF, Form 990-T, and Form 1065, including any attachments, supporting documents, and follow-up correspondence with the Internal Revenue Service, with the exception of the names and addresses of donors on Schedule B. [35] [36] Annual returns must be made publicly available for a three-year period beginning with the due date of the return including any extension of time for filing. [35] [36]

The Internal Revenue Service provides information about specific 501(c)(3) organizations through its Tax Exempt Organization Search online. [37] [38]

A private nonprofit organization, GuideStar, provides information on 501(c)(3) organizations. [39] [40]

ProPublica's Nonprofit Explorer provides copies of each organization's Form 990 and, for some organizations, audited financial statements. [41]

Open990 is a searchable database of information about organizations over time. [42]

Limitations on political activity

Section 501(c)(3) organizations are prohibited from supporting political candidates, as a result of the Johnson Amendment enacted in 1954. [43] Section 501(c)(3) organizations are subject to limits on lobbying, having a choice between two sets of rules establishing an upper bound for their lobbying activities. Section 501(c)(3) organizations risk loss of their tax-exempt status if these rules are violated. [44] [45] An organization that loses its 501(c)(3) status due to being engaged in political activities cannot subsequently qualify for 501(c)(3) status. [46]


Churches must meet specific requirements to obtain and maintain tax-exempt status; these are outlined in "IRS Publication 1828: Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations". [47] This guide outlines activities allowed and not allowed by churches under the 501(c)(3) designation. [47]

In 1980, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia recognized a 14-part test in determining whether a religious organization is considered a church for purposes of the Internal Revenue Code.

  1. A distinct legal entity;
  2. A recognized creed and form of worship;
  3. A definite and distinct ecclesiastical government;
  4. A formal code of doctrine and discipline;
  5. A distinct religious history;
  6. A membership not associated with any other church or denomination;
  7. A complete organization of ordained ministers ministering to their congregations;
  8. Ordained ministers selected after completed prescribed courses of study;
  9. Literature of its own;
  10. Established places of worship;
  11. Regular congregations;
  12. Regular religious services;
  13. Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young;
  14. Schools for the preparation of its ministers.

Having an established congregation served by an organized ministry is of central importance. [48] Points 4, 6, 8, 11, 12, and 13 are also especially important. Nevertheless, the 14-point list is a guideline, it is not intended to be all-encompassing, and other relevant facts and circumstances may be factors. [48] Although there is no definitive definition of a church for Internal Revenue Code purposes, in 1986 the United States Tax Court said that "A church is a coherent group of individuals and families that join together to accomplish the religious purposes of mutually held beliefs. In other words, a church's principal means of accomplishing its religious purposes must be to assemble regularly a group of individuals related by common worship and faith." [49] [50] The United States Tax Court has stated that, while a church can certainly broadcast its religious services by radio, radio broadcasts themselves do not constitute a congregation unless there is a group of people physically attending those religious services. [51] A church can conduct worship services in various specific locations rather than in one official location. [52] A church may have a significant number of people associate themselves with the church on a regular basis, even if the church does not have a traditional established list of individual members. [52]

To qualify as a tax-exempt church, church activities must be a significant part of the organization's operations. [53] [54]

An organization whose operations include a substantial nonexempt commercial purposes, such as operating restaurants and grocery stores in a manner consistent with a particular religion's religious beliefs does not qualify as a tax-exempt church. [55]

Political campaign activities

Organizations described in section 501(c)(3) are prohibited from conducting political campaign activities to intervene in elections to public office. [56] The Internal Revenue Service website elaborates on this prohibition: [56]

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.

Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.

On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) favor one candidate over another, (b) oppose a candidate in some manner, or (c) favor a candidate or group of candidates, constitute prohibited participation or intervention.


Since section 501(c)(3)'s political-activity prohibition was enacted, "commentators and litigants have challenged the provision on numerous constitutional grounds," such as freedom of speech, vagueness, and equal protection and selective prosecution. [57] Historically, Supreme Court decisions, such as Regan v. Taxation with Representation of Washington , suggested that the Court, if it were to squarely examine the political-activity prohibition of § 501(c)(3), would uphold it against a constitutional challenge. [57] However, some have suggested that a successful challenge to the political activities prohibition of Section 501(c)(3) might be more plausible in light of Citizens United v. FEC . [58]


In contrast to the prohibition on political campaign interventions by all section 501(c)(3) organizations, public charities (but not private foundations) may conduct a limited amount of lobbying to influence legislation. Although the law states that "no substantial part" of a public charity's activities can go to lobbying, charities with large budgets may lawfully expend a million dollars (under the "expenditure" test), or more (under the "substantial part" test) per year on lobbying. [59]

The Internal Revenue Service has never defined the term "substantial part" with respect to lobbying. [60]

To establish a safe harbor for the "substantial part" test, the United States Congress enacted §501(h), called the Conable election after its author, Representative Barber Conable. The section establishes limits based on operating budget that a charity can use to determine if it meets the substantial test. This changes the prohibition against direct intervention in partisan contests only for lobbying. The organization is now presumed in compliance with the substantiality test if they work within the limits. The Conable election requires a charity to file a declaration with the IRS and file a functional distribution of funds spreadsheet with their Form 990. IRS form 5768 is required to make the Conable election. [61]

Foreign activities

A 501(c)(3) organization is allowed to conduct some or all of its charitable activities outside the United States. [62] [63] A 501(c)(3) organization is allowed to award grants to foreign charitable organizations if the grants are intended for charitable purposes and the grant funds are subject to the 501(c)(3) organization's control. [64] Additional procedures are required of 501(c)(3) organizations that are private foundations. [63] [65]

Allowance of tax-deduction by donors

Donors' contributions to a 501(c)(3) organization are tax-deductible only if the contribution is for the use of the 501(c)(3) organization, and that the 501(c)(3) organization is not merely serving as an agent or conduit of a foreign charitable organization. [64] The 501(c)(3) organization's management should review the grant application from the foreign organization, decide whether to award the grant based on the intended use of the funds, and require continuous oversight based on the use of funds. [64]

If the donor imposes a restriction or earmark that the contribution must be used for foreign activities, then the contribution is deemed to be for the foreign organization rather than the 501(c)(3) organization, and the contribution is not tax-deductible. [64]

The purpose of the grant to the foreign organization cannot include endorsing or opposing political candidates for elected office in any country. [64]

Foreign subsidiaries

If a 501(c)(3) organization sets up and controls a foreign subsidiary to facilitate charitable work in a foreign country, then donors' contributions to the 501(c)(3) organization are tax-deductible even if intended to fund the foreign charitable activities. [64] [66]

If a foreign organization sets up a 501(c)(3) organization for the sole purpose of raising funds for the foreign organization, and the 501(c)(3) organization sends substantially all contributions to the foreign organization, then donors' contributions to the 501(c)(3) organization are not tax-deductible to the donors. [64]

Related Research Articles

A nonprofit organization (NPO), also known as a non-business entity, not-for-profit organization, or nonprofit institution, is a legal entity organized and operated for a collective, public or social benefit, in contrast with an entity that operates as a business aiming to generate a profit for its owners. A nonprofit is subject to the non-distribution constraint: any revenues that exceed expenses must be committed to the organization's purpose, not taken by private parties. A wide array of organizations are nonprofit, including most political organizations, schools, business associations, churches, social clubs, and consumer cooperatives. Nonprofit entities generally seek approval from governments to be tax-exempt, and some may also qualify to receive tax-deductible contributions, but an entity may incorporate as a nonprofit entity without securing tax-exempt status.

Charitable trust

A charitable trust is an irrevocable trust established for charitable purposes and, in some jurisdictions, a more specific term than "charitable organization". A charitable trust enjoys a varying degree of tax benefits in most countries. It also generates good will. Some important terminology in charitable trusts is the term ‘corpus’ which refers to the assets with which the trust is funded and the term ‘donor’ which is the person donating assets to a charity.

Charitable contribution deductions for United States Federal Income Tax purposes are defined in section 170(c) of the Internal Revenue Code as contributions to or for the use of certain nonprofit enterprises.

Tax exemption is the reduction or removal of a liability to make a compulsory payment that would otherwise be imposed by a ruling power upon persons, property, income, or transactions. Tax-exempt status may provide complete relief from taxes, reduced rates, or tax on only a portion of items. Examples include exemption of charitable organizations from property taxes and income taxes, veterans, and certain cross-border or multi-jurisdictional scenarios.

Charitable organization Nonprofit organization with charitable purpose

A charitable organization or charity is an organization whose primary objectives are philanthropy and social well-being.

United States non-profit laws relate to taxation, the special problems of an organization which does not have profit as its primary motivation, and prevention of charitable fraud. Some non-profit organizations can broadly be described as "charities" — like the American Red Cross. Some are strictly for the private benefit of the members — like country clubs, or condominium associations. Others fall somewhere in between — like labor unions, chambers of commerce, or cooperative electric companies. Each presents unique legal issues.

Center for Responsive Politics Government watchdog group based in the US

The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) is a non-profit, nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C., that tracks the effects of money and lobbying on elections and public policy. It maintains a public online database of its information.

A 501(c) organization is a nonprofit organization in the federal law of the United States according to Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c) and is one of over 29 types of nonprofit organizations exempt from some federal income taxes. Sections 503 through 505 set out the requirements for obtaining such exemptions. Many states refer to Section 501(c) for definitions of organizations exempt from state taxation as well. 501(c) organizations can receive unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, and unions.

In the United States, a donor-advised fund is a charitable giving vehicle administered by a public charity created to manage charitable donations on behalf of organizations, families, or individuals. To participate in a donor-advised fund, a donating individual or organization opens an account in the fund and deposits cash, securities, or other financial instruments. They surrender ownership of anything they put in the fund, but retain advisory privileges over how their account is invested, and how it distributes money to charities.

Bob Jones University v. Simon, 416 U.S. 725 (1974), is a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States holding that Bob Jones University, which had its 501(c)(3) status revoked by the Internal Revenue Service for practicing "racially discriminatory admissions policies" towards African-Americans, could not sue for an injunction to prevent losing its tax-exempt status. The question of Bob Jones University's tax-exempt status was ultimately resolved in Bob Jones University v. United States, in which the court ruled that the First Amendment did not protect discriminatory organizations from losing tax-exempt status.

Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax forms are forms used for taxpayers and tax-exempt organizations to report financial information to the Internal Revenue Service of the United States. They are used to report income, calculate taxes to be paid to the federal government, and disclose other information as required by the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). There are over 800 various forms and schedules. Other tax forms in the United States are filed with state and local governments.

Association law is a term used in the United States for the law governing not-for-profit corporations under various tax codes. This includes charitable organizations, which are generally classified under 501(c)3 in the IRS Tax Code, professional societies, guilds and trade associations, which are classified under 501(c)6, and homeowner associations, which are classified under 501(c)4. There are other classification types, but these are the primary ones.

Private foundation Type of charitable organization

A private foundation is a charitable organization that, while serving a good cause, might or might not qualify as a public charity by government standards. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest private foundation in the U.S. with over $38 billion in assets. Most private foundations are much smaller. Out of the 84,000 private foundations that filed with the IRS in 2008, Approximately 66% have less than $1 million in assets, and 93% have less than $10 million in assets. In aggregate, private foundations in the U.S. control over $628 billion in assets and made more than $44 billion in charitable contributions in 2007.

A foundation in the United States is a type of charitable organization. However, the Internal Revenue Code distinguishes between private foundations and public charities. Private foundations have more restrictions and fewer tax benefits than public charities like community foundations.

Form 990

Form 990 is a United States Internal Revenue Service form that provides the public with financial information about a nonprofit organization. It is often the only source of such information. It is also used by government agencies to prevent organizations from abusing their tax-exempt status. Certain nonprofits have more comprehensive reporting requirements, such as hospitals and other health care organizations.

Regan v. Taxation with Representation of Washington, 461 U.S. 540 (1983), was a case in which the United States Supreme Court upheld lobbying restrictions imposed on tax-exempt non-profit corporations.

Nonpartisanism in the United States is organized under United States Internal Revenue Code that qualifies certain non-profit organizations for tax-exempt status because they refrain from engaging in certain prohibited political activities. The designation "nonpartisan" usually reflects a claim made by organizations about themselves, or by commentators, and not an official category per American law. Rather, certain types of nonprofit organizations are under varying requirements to refrain from election-related political activities, or may be taxed to the extent they engage in electoral politics, so the word affirms a legal requirement. In this context, "nonpartisan" means that the organization, by US tax law, is prohibited from supporting or opposing political candidates, parties, and in some cases other votes like propositions, directly or indirectly, but does not mean that the organization cannot take positions on political issues.

The Johnson Amendment is a provision in the U.S. tax code, since 1954, that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Section 501(c)(3) organizations are the most common type of nonprofit organization in the United States, ranging from charitable foundations to universities and churches. The amendment is named for then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, who introduced it in a preliminary draft of the law in July 1954.

Form 1023 is a United States IRS tax form, also known as the Application for Recognition of Exemption Under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. It is filed by nonprofits to get exemption status.

A 501(h) election or Conable election is a procedure in United States tax law that allows a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to participate in lobbying limited only by the financial expenditure on that lobbying, regardless of its overall extent. This allows organizations taking the 501(h) election to potentially perform a large amount of lobbying if it is done using volunteer labor or through inexpensive means. The 501(h) election is available to most types of 501(c)(3) organizations that are not churches or private foundations. It was introduced by Representative Barber Conable as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1976 and codified as 26 U.S.C. § 501(h), and the corresponding Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations were finalized in 1990.


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