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How To Start A Nonprofit In California

To start a nonprofit corporation in California, begin by filing nonprofit articles of incorporation with the California Secretary of State. California currently charges a $0 base filing fee, a price drop from $30 that will last until June 30, 2023, though fees may be higher depending on the filing options you choose. California will incorporate three types of nonprofit corporations: public benefit, mutual benefit, and religious corporations, each with their own forms and requirements for the articles of incorporation. This web page assumes you are forming a nonprofit public benefit corporation.


California Nonprofit Filing Options

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Download the California nonprofit articles of incorporation. Fill out the form and submit to the state.

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CA Nonprofit Articles of Incorporation Requirements

To incorporate a California nonprofit (public benefit corporation), you must complete and file nonprofit articles of incorporation with the California Secretary of State. See the document below and click on any number to see what information is required in the corresponding section.

1. Corporate Name

Your nonprofit’s name should be distinguishable from the names of other organizations on record with the California Secretary of State, and the name can’t suggest a purpose different from that described in your nonprofit Articles of Incorporation. You can mail a Name Availability Inquiry Letter to the Secretary of State’s office to find out if your nonprofit’s name is available, and you can reserve a name (for a $10 fee) for up to 60 days.

2. Business Address

You’ll then need to list a physical address for your nonprofit corporation. If you hire Northwest, you may list our California street address in place of yours.

3. Service of Process

This section asks for the name and California street address of your nonprofit’s registered agent. This is the address where the state will deliver services of process (lawsuits and legal notifications) on behalf of your nonprofit. You can list yourself, a willing associate, or a registered agent service like Northwest. When you hire Northwest, you will list our California street address here.

4. Purpose Statement

The three distinct nonprofit Articles provided by the State of California (for public benefit, mutual benefit, and religious corporations) provide slightly different statements of purpose and different instructions. If your nonprofit is a mutual benefit or religious corporation, don’t alter the statement of purpose, as it appears on the form, in any way. If your nonprofit is a public benefit corporation, you’ll check a box identifying your general purpose as “public” and “charitable” and then write in a more specific statement of purpose.

5. Additional Statements

This is another section where the Articles differ for mutual benefit, public benefit, and religious nonprofits in California. For mutual benefit corporations, you’re asked to provide a more specific statement of purpose (just a sentence), and the state provides the rest. If your nonprofit is a religious corporation or public benefit corporation, the state’s forms provides language recommended by the IRS for obtaining 501(c)(3) federal tax-exempt status.

6. Signature of Incorporator(s)

California asks for your Articles to be signed “by each incorporator,” but your incorporator does not need to be an officer, director, or member of your nonprofit. When you hire Northwest to form your nonprofit corporation, we will be your incorporator.

How Much Does It Cost to Incorporate a California Nonprofit?

The base state filing fee for California nonprofit Articles of Incorporation is currently $0, a nice temporary perk that will last until June 30, 2023. The ordinary price was $30. Additionally, California requires nonprofits to submit an Initial Statement of Information within 90 days of incorporating with the state, which comes with a $20 fee of its own.

How Long Does It Take to Start a California Nonprofit?

Currently, the state processing time for California nonprofits is around 12 business days.

Does a California Nonprofit Need a Registered Agent?

Yes, your nonprofit corporation needs a California registered agent. You can do the job yourself, but we don’t recommend it. A registered agent is the person or business authorized to accept services of process (lawsuits) on behalf of your nonprofit, and a registered agent must be available every day during normal business hours at a physical location listed on your Articles of Incorporation. That’s a tough commitment, particularly if you need to hold meetings, travel to meet with potential donors, solicit contributions door to door, or otherwise manage and grow your nonprofit on a daily basis. Your registered agent’s physical California address also gets listed publicly on your nonprofit’s Articles of Incorporation. Put your own address down and you’ll receive loads of junk mail and have to deal with unwanted solicitors showing up at your door.

Northwest can help. When you sign up for our registered agent service, you can replace your physical California address with ours, and we’ll be the ones waiting day after day for services of process from the state. You get to keep your privacy, in other words, and you gain the freedom to manage your nonprofit how you want and where you want. And if we ever do receive legal notices on your behalf, we’ll scan them and send them to you on the day we receive them.


Get a Federal Employer Identification Number (EIN)

A federal employer identification number (FEIN or EIN) is a must for any new nonprofit. You will need an EIN to apply for federal and/or state tax exemptions, to open a bank account in your nonprofit’s name, and more generally to navigate your nonprofit’s finances on a day to day basis.

After the State of California approves your nonprofit’s Articles of Incorporation, you can apply for an EIN online with the IRS. Or you can save yourself the time and trouble, add our convenient EIN service when you hire Northwest, and let us deal with the IRS.


Hold Your Organizational Meeting & Adopt Bylaws

California requires nonprofits to adopt bylaws, but the state doesn’t require your nonprofit to submit them along with your other public filings. Instead, bylaws operate as the agreed-upon rules that help your nonprofit’s directors, officers, or members steer the organization along a unified, cohesive path. Bylaws answer questions about how directors become directors, how long their terms last, who is in charge of what, and how many members have to be present to vote. Your nonprofit should ratify its bylaws at its first official meeting—either before or shortly after filing your California nonprofit Articles of Incorporation. And make sure to have that meeting (and adopt your bylaws) before applying for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status with the IRS.

At Northwest we appreciate the significance of corporate bylaws, so we provide a free template for writing nonprofit bylaws to help our clients get started. Why? Because we want you coming back year after year for our registered agent service, and that means your nonprofit needs to start strong and stay strong. Your success, in other words, is our success.


Apply for Federal and/or State Tax Exemptions

To obtain federal tax-exempt status, your California nonprofit must apply directly to the IRS by submitting an Application for Recognition of Exemption. This is a lengthy, difficult process in which the IRS examines your nonprofit’s history, purpose, organizational documents, and finances to determine if your nonprofit corporation is organized exclusively to pursue one or more exempt purposes recognized by the IRS. Currently the IRS recognizes more than two dozen different types of exempt organizations, but most nonprofits, including religious corporations and most public benefit corporations, apply for 501(c)(3) federal tax-exempt status for public charities and private foundations.

If your nonprofit manages to obtain federal tax-exempt status, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically exempt from California state taxes, and it’s also possible for your nonprofit to qualify for state tax exemptions without obtaining federal tax-exempt status. If your nonprofit is already a 501(c)(3) organization, file California’s Form 3500A (“Submission of Exemption Request”) with the California Franchise Tax Board. If your nonprofit hasn’t qualified for federal tax-exempt status, file Form 3500 (“Exemption Application”) instead. For more information, visit our guide to California state tax exemptions.


Register for State Tax Accounts, Licenses, or Permits

Does a California nonprofit need a business license?

Yes, your California nonprofit will need a business license, but licenses are issued by the city or county where your nonprofit is registered (not by the state). Fees and deadlines vary widely, and in some cities your nonprofit won’t have to pay the business license tax if you present proof of your nonprofit status (though you’ll typically still need the license itself).

Should my California nonprofit register as a charity?

If your nonprofit intends to solicit and collect donations, hold property for charitable reasons, or in any way operate like a charity, you will need to register as a California charity with the California Registry of Charitable Trusts. The registration fee varies depending on the size and nature of your nonprofit, but you must register within 30 days after your nonprofit begins operation (including receiving any contributions of value). There is a $25 registration fee.

You’ll need to renew this charity registration with the CA Registry of Charitable Trusts by the 15th day of the 5th month after the end of your nonprofit’s accounting period. The renewal fees vary depending on your nonprofit’s gross annual revenue:

Gross Annual Revenue Fee
Less than $25,000 $0
$25,000 – $100,000 $25
$100,001 – $250,000 $50
$250,001 – $1 million $75
$1,000,001 – $10 million $150
 $10,000,001 and $50 million $225
 More than $50 million $30



Open a Bank Account for Your California Nonprofit

To open a bank account for your California nonprofit, you will need to bring the following items with you to the bank:

  • A copy of your California nonprofit articles of incorporation
  • A copy of your nonprofit’s bylaws
  • Your California nonprofit’s EIN

It’s wise to call your ahead of time to check its requirements. Some banks may require you to bring a resolution authorizing you to open a bank account in your nonprofit’s name (particularly if your nonprofit has several directors and/or officers).


California Initial & Biennial Statements of Information

Within 90 days of incorporating your nonprofit, you’ll need to pay a $20 filing fee and submit the California Statement of Information to the Secretary of State’s office. This report updates your nonprofit’s contact and membership information for the state. After you submit the first report, you will submit a California Statement of Information every other year by the end of your nonprofit’s anniversary month, and pay a $20 fee each time.

If you don’t want to bother keeping up with the deadline or filling out this document yourself, pay an additional fee when you hire Northwest, and sign up for our Statement of Information Compliance service.