Start Your California Nonprofit

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How to Start a Nonprofit in California

Welcome to our California Nonprofit Startup Guide! If you’re passionate about helping others and have an idea to serve your community, starting a nonprofit is a great way to turn your vision into a reality. There are many different types of nonprofits - religious, educational, human service oriented, animal welfare, and more. What all nonprofits have in common is a focus on helping others and benefiting their community. You are genuinely committed to these goals so you are already well on your way!

According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there were over 191,000 nonprofit organizations in California in 2012. Before you start a new nonprofit, make sure you have identified an unmet need in your community and know that there are not any existing organizations serving your cause. If another organization exists, consider working together, as that may be a better way to make an impact in your community and use existing resources.

When you are ready to start your nonprofit, plan to incorporate and apply for 501(c)(3) status, as these are important steps to fully achieve your goals. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, you will be able to apply for grants and accept donations, be exempt from federal corporate income tax, and limit the liability of your organization’s officers and directors. Most importantly, you will gain credibility and legitimacy for your cause, instilling the public with confidence in your organization.

This guide will walk you through the basic steps to start your nonprofit in California. Let’s get started!

  1. Name Your Organization

    Your organization’s name establishes its brand and is also important for incorporating with the state. The legal name of your nonprofit corporation may not conflict with any other organization registered in the state. Make sure the name is available and meets state requirements.

    Name Search: California Secretary of State - Business Programs Division
    Name search

    Not required. 
    CCC §5122.a

  2. Choose a California nonprofit corporation structure

    California offers four corporate structures for nonprofit corporations.

    • Religious corporations are primarily or exclusively for religious purposes such as a church.
    • Public benefit corporations are those seeking IRS exemptions 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) and/or similar California state tax exemptions. These organizations are organized for charitable purposes, act as a civic league, or as a social welfare organization.
    • Mutual benefit corporations are other nonprofits that may or may not seek IRS and California tax exemptions. A mutual benefit corporation may not create the impression that the corporate purpose is public, charitable, or religious, nor create the impression that it is a charitable foundation.
    • Mutual benefit common interest development (CID) corporations are formed under the Davis-Stirling Common Interest Development Act to manage a common interest development (for example, a homeowner’s association). Common interest development associations can also be unincorporated.
  3. Recruit Incorporators and Initial Directors

    The incorporator is the person who signs the Articles of Incorporation for your nonprofit. You will need at least one, but can have more than one. Directors make up the governing body of your nonprofit corporation and are stakeholders in your organization’s purpose and success. You’ll want to identify three, unrelated individuals to meet IRS requirements. You will also want to be aware of any age or residency requirements.

    California director requirements:
    • Number: minimum 1
    • Qualifications: None. No residency requirement. No membership requirement.
    • Term: 1 year, 4 year maximum unless the corporation has no members, in which case 6 years is the maximum term
    • Quorum: majority
    • Committee: minimum 2 directors
    • No director may vote by proxy
    California officer requirements:
    • A corporation shall have a chair of the board, who may be given the title chair of the board, chairperson of the board, chairman of the board, or chairwoman of the board, or a president or both, a secretary, a treasurer or a chief financial officer or both, and any other officers with any titles and duties as shall be stated in the bylaws.
    • Elected by the board
    • Two or more offices may be held by the same individual, except the president may not also serve as secretary or treasurer.
  4. Appoint a Registered Agent

    A registered agent is responsible for receiving legal notices on behalf of your organization. The appointed registered agent must be physically located in the state and maintain an office that is open during regular business hours. As a nationwide registered agent, our service is designed to receive your legal documents and provide secure access to those documents through your online account. Our local California registered agent office is located in Sacramento, CA. We offer registered agent service independently or as part of our nonprofit formation packages.

  5. Prepare and File Articles of Incorporation

    Your nonprofit’s articles of incorporation officially mark the creation of your organization. They document where and when the organization was formed and capture other information necessary to verify its existence. While requirements for language vary from state-to-state, there are some basic provisions that the IRS will look for when you apply for 501(c)(3) exemption. It is important to customize the articles for your organization and make sure you meet the state and IRS requirements. Meeting these requirements from the start will help avoid having to make amendments later or risk getting your 501(c)(3) application rejected. Some states will also require you to publish your articles of incorporation, so be mindful of any deadlines and publishing instructions.

    Agency:California Secretary of State - Business Programs Division

    The state provides Articles of Incorporation for a Domestic Nonprofit Corporation templates. There are four templates available:


    1. Form ARTS-MU: Articles of Incorporation - Mutual Benefit Corporation
    2. Form ARTS-PB-501(c)(3): Articles of Incorporation - Public Benefit Corporation
    3. Form ARTS-RE: Articles of Incorporation - Religious Corporation
    4. Form ARTS-RE: Articles of Incorporation - Common-Interest Development Corporation
    Filing Method:

    Mail, in-person or online.

    Agency Fee:



    Current state processing times or pay for preclearance and expedite services


    California Corporations Code - Title 1: Corporations - Division 2: Nonprofit Corporation Law

    Original Ink:Not required
    Notarization Required?:Not required
  6. File Initial Report

    After filing articles of incorporation, you must file an initial report.

    Agency:California Secretary of State - Business Programs Division


    Filing Method:

    Mail, in-person, or online.

    Agency Fee:



    Online version is filed in 1 business day.


    You must file an initial report within 90 days of incorporation. 


    California Corporations Code section 6210 


    Failure to file this Statement of Information by the due date may result in the assessment of a $50.00 penalty. 

    • We recommend filing online.
    • Every domestic nonprofit corporation formed to manage a common interest development under the Davis-Stirling Common Interest Development Act (for example, a homeowners’ association) must also file a Statement By Common Interest Development Association (Form SI-CID) together with the biennial Statement of Information.
    • Original signatures are not required.
  7. Obtain an Employer Identification Number (EIN)

    This unique, nine-digit number is assigned by the IRS to identify your nonprofit. All types of nonprofits will apply for an EIN, not only those that hire employees. You will use your EIN to open a bank account, apply for 501(c)(3) status, and submit 990 returns to the IRS.

    Agency:Internal Revenue Service (IRS)

    IRS Form SS-4


    Applying for an EIN without a SSN/TIN:

    • Online applications are not accepted if an individual does not have a SSN/TIN.
    • Form SS-4 must be completed, signed, and faxed to the IRS, leaving the SSN/TIN field blank or adding the terminology "foreign" to that line item.
    • To follow up on the application, call the IRS and ensure they received the application. 
      • Depending on the agent you speak with, you may be able to obtain the EIN over the phone. The IRS may then fax the EIN documentation back to you.
    Filing Method:

    Mail, phone, fax, or online.

    IRS fee:



    Immediately online or by phone. 4 business days by fax. 4-5 weeks by mail.


    The IRS website is only available during certain hours. Print your EIN before closing your session. For additional guidance, see IRS Pub 1635: Understanding Your EIN.

  8. Store Nonprofit Records

    As you launch your nonprofit, you will receive a number of official documents. Organizing these documents in one place will save you headaches down the road. You will soon have numerous items to keep in your records including your EIN letter, bylaws, meeting minutes, 501(c)(3) determination letter, and more.

    A preview of our Records Manager software

    A great way to maintain necessary documentation is Records Manager, our software for storing records securely, tracking directors and officers, and getting notified of meetings.

  9. Establish Initial Governing Documents and Policies

    Your bylaws are the governing document for your nonprofit. They serve as your organization’s operating manual and should be consistent with your articles of incorporation and the law. When your Board of Directors meets for the first time, you’ll review and ratify the bylaws and they will be a roadmap for governance from there.

    At the same time, you’ll also want to create and adopt a conflict of interest policy. A conflict of interest is when someone in a key position in your nonprofit has competing interests and is making choices that could benefit themselves to the harm of the organization. Personal interests should be set aside and organizational interests prioritized. If a conflict of interest does arise, it should be disclosed immediately.

    Your application to the IRS for 501(c)(3) exemption will require that both the bylaws and the conflict of interest policy are approved and adopted. Once they’ve been adopted, safely store them in your Nonprofit Records Kit.

  10. Hold Organizational Meeting of the Board of Directors

    The initial organizational meeting of your Board of Directors will be incredibly productive. At this meeting you will approve the bylaws, adopt the conflict of interest policy, elect directors, appoint officers, and approve resolutions such as opening the organization’s bank account. Important decisions are being made so be sure to record them in the meeting minutes.

  11. Get California State Tax Identification Numbers/Accounts

    You will need to apply for a California Employer Identification Number if you will have employees.

    Submit to: State of California - Employment Development Department
    Filing method: Online
    Fee: $0

    To apply for a seller's permit (if your nonprofit collects sales tax on items sold), use tax account, and other permits and licenses:

    Submit to: California State Board of Equalization
    Filing method: Online at eReg
    Fee: $0

    Until your organization applies for and obtains California tax-exempt status, it is subject to franchise and income taxes. This includes $800 minimum franchise tax. You do not need to register with the Franchise Tax Board, but you may need to pay tax until you receive your exemption.

    Guidance: Introduction to Tax-Exempt Status
    More Information: State of California - Franchise Tax Board
  12. Apply for 501(c)

    Applying for 501(c) tax exemption can feel like the most daunting step in bringing your nonprofit dream into reality, but obtaining tax exemption comes with many benefits. You will be able to apply for grants and grow your fundraising success in addition to being exempt from IRS income tax. 501(c) is the chapter of the Internal Revenue Code that regulates nonprofit organizations. Like others, you may be most familiar with 501(c)(3) nonprofits, including charities and foundations. 501(c)(3) nonprofits apply using Form 1023 or Form 1023-EZ. Review the criteria for each application and make sure you meet the eligibility requirements set out by the IRS. Other types of nonprofits, including 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s, apply using Form 1024. After reviewing and approving your application, the IRS will return a Determination Letter officially recognizing your exemption.

    Completing the federal application for tax exemption is significantly easier with the assistance and support of a professional. Find someone with the expertise to ensure the correct application is being used and is completed accurately. A well-prepared application takes time, over 100 hours by IRS estimates, so put yourself on the path to success by finding a specialist to walk alongside you in the journey - from start to tax-exempt finish!

    Agency:Internal Revenue Service (IRS)

    IRS Form 1023IRS Form 1023-EZ, or IRS Form 1024


    IRS Instructions for Form 1023IRS Instructions for Form 1023-EZ, or IRS Instructions for Form 1024.  Also see guidance IRS Pub 557: Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization.

    Filing Method:


    Agency Fee:

    $275 for organizations filing Form 1023-EZ and $600 for organizations filing Form 1023.


    1023-EZ average: <1 month. 1023 average: 3-6 months.

    Tax-Exempt in 2 Weeks!

    Download the case study of how our client, Reform It Now, obtained 501(c)(3) tax exemption in only two weeks using the new IRS Form 1023-EZ!

    From filing the 1023EZ on August 1st to receipt of the determination letter on August 14th is, in my humble opinion, simply breathtaking and I dare say, ONLY Harbor Compliance could have achieved that.
    Dr. Bob A.Reform It Now, Inc.
  13. Report Beneficial Ownership Information to FinCEN

    As of January 1, 2024, millions of entities in the US need to report beneficial ownership information (BOI) to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) as part of the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA). Nonprofits without 501(c) tax exemption formed before that date must submit BOI by December 31, 2024, while those formed after must submit it within 30 days of formation. Once 501(c) tax exemption is granted, the organization may claim an exemption from BOI reporting requirements via an update filing to FinCEN. Our BOI Reporting Service includes up to four initial, updated, and corrected reports per year, ensuring the data you report to FinCEN is updated.

  14. Apply for State Tax Exemption(s)

    With your IRS Determination Letter in hand, make sure you familiarize yourself with your state’s requirements for recognizing your nonprofit’s tax-exempt status. This is an area where requirements vary state-by-state. Many states issue their own tax-exempt certificate that can be used for sales and use tax purposes, but it may require application and periodic renewal.

    To file to obtain exemption from state income tax:

    Agency:California Franchise Tax Board

    Form 3500: Exemption Application or Form 3500A: Submission of Exemption Request

    Agency Fee:

    $25 ($0 for exemption request)


    Use form FTB-3500a if you have received an IRS Determination Letter and form FTB-3500 if you have not.

    To file to obtain Sales Tax Exemption:

    Agency:California Department of Tax and Fee Administration

    Few nonprofits are eligible for sales tax exemption in California. Volunteer fire departments, veteran's organizations, qualifying youth organizations, religious organizations, and few others may be eligible for exemption. See the Sales and Use Taxes: Exemptions and Exclusions guide to see if your organization is eligible to apply for an exemption.

    Exemption from local property taxation, known as the Welfare Exemption, is available to qualifying organizations through a program jointly administered by the Board of Equalization and county assessors' offices in California.

    Guidance: California Tax Service Center - Nonprofit/Exempt Organizations
    More information: California State Board of Equalization

  15. Register for Charitable Solicitation (Fundraising)

    This is another area where laws differ from state to state, but most states require any nonprofit soliciting donations to register to do so on an annual basis. This means registering in the state prior to soliciting any resident of that state. Registering in your home state is essential, but you may also need to register other states depending on the scope of your organization.

    California Charitable Solicitation Registration

    Agency:California Attorney General - Registry of Charities and Fundraisers

    California Government Code § 12585; California Code of Regulations, Title 11 § 300

    Foreign Qualification is Prerequisite:Yes
    Registered Agent (Special Agency) Required?No

    One-Time Exemption Registration

    Exemption Eligible Organizations:
    • The United States, any state, territory, or possession of the United States, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or to any of their agencies or governmental subdivisions
    • A religious corporation sole or other religious corporation or organization that holds property for religious purposes, or to any officer, director, or trustee thereof who holds property for like purposes
    • A cemetery corporation regulated under Chapter 12 (commencing with Section 7600) of Division 3 of the Business and Professions Code
    • A committee as defined in Section 82013 that is required to and does file any statement pursuant to Article 2 (commencing with Section 84200) of Chapter 4 of Title 9
    • A charitable corporation or unincorporated association organized and operated primarily as a religious organization, educational institution, hospital, or a health care service plan licensed pursuant to Section 1349 of the Health and Safety Code
    • Educational institutions as defined by Section 10251 of the Corporations Code

    California Government Code § 12584


    If you believe you are exempt, submit a letter requesting exemption, a copy of the organization's founding document(s), and IRS determination letter for review. Exemptions are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. 

    Initial Registration


    Form CT-1: Initial Registration Form


    Initial Registration Guide

    Filing Method:


    Agency Fee:



    2-3 months

    Original Ink:Not required
    Notarization Required?:Not required
    • Your organization must register within 30 days of receiving assets (property, funds, etc) that are held in a trust.
    • Any authorized or director may sign. Signature need not be notarized.
    • Some California counties and municipalities may require charities that solicit in-person to register prior to fundraising.
    • Do not file a Form RRF-1 until the Initial Registration has been completed and approved. 
    Before you Apply:

    Domestic Applicants:

    • Check the available exemptions to see if your charity is eligible for exemption from the full registration requirement.
    • Appoint a registered agent to receive legal documents in California.
    • If your charity meets the audit threshold, obtain an audited financial report to submit with your registration application.
    • Look through the list of required attachments and make sure that you have each required document in hand before starting the registration application.

    Foreign Applicants:

    • Check the available exemptions to see if your charity is eligible for exemption from the full registration requirement.
    • Appoint a registered agent to receive legal documents in California.
    • If your charity meets the audit threshold, obtain an audited financial report to submit with your registration application.
    • Obtain a certificate of good standing from your home state (to be filed during the foreign qualification process). The certificate cannot be more than 6 months old when filing foreign qualification documents.
    • Look through the list of required attachments and make sure that you have each required document in hand before starting the registration application.
    How to Apply:

    Domestic Applicants:

    1. File formation documents with the California Secretary of State.
    2. File an exemption application with the California Franchise Tax Board to obtain a state tax exemption.
    3. Submit a completed Initial Registration Form and all required attachments to the California Attorney General - Registry of Charitable Trusts.

    Foreign Applicants:

    1. File foreign qualification documents with the California Secretary of State.
    2. File an exemption application with the California Franchise Tax Board to obtain a state tax exemption.
    3. Submit a completed Initial Registration Form and all required attachments to the California Attorney General - Registry of Charitable Trusts.
    Required Attachments:
    • Articles of Incorporation, Articles of Organization, Articles of Association, or Trust Agreement (if incorporated, submit endorsed/certified original Articles of Incorporation and any endorsed amended articles stamped by the state in which domiciled)
    • Bylaws
    • IRS determination letter
    • IRS form 1023
    • List of officers and directors
    • Fundraising professional contact information and registration numbers (if applicable)

    Registration Renewal


    Form RRF-1: Annual Registration Renewal Report

    Organizations that are not required to file and do not file IRS Form 990 or 990-EZ because they do not meet the revenue requirements must also file Form CT-TR-1: Annual Treasurer's Report.

    Filing Method:

    Mail or online.

    Agency Fee:

    The renewal fee is based on the registrant's total revenue for the prior fiscal year:


    • $25 for less than $50,000 total revenue
    • $50 for between $50,000 and $100,000 total revenue
    • $75 for between $100,001 and $250,000 total revenue
    • $100 for between $250,001 and $1,000,000 total revenue
    • $200 for between $1,000,001 and $5,000,000 total revenue
    • $400 for between $5,000,001 and $20,000,000 total revenue
    • $800 for between $20,000,001 and $100,000,000 total revenue
    • $1,000 for between $100,000,001 and $500,000,000 total revenue
    • $1,200 for greater than $500,000,000 total revenue
    • Annually 4 months and 15 days after the close of your organization's fiscal year. If your fiscal year closes December 31, then renewal is due May 15.
    • Renewals can be submitted as early as the day following the charity's fiscal year-end.
    Due Date Extension:

    Due dates are automatically extended for 6 months beyond the original due date, however, charities should file a copy of their IRS form 8868 when submitting their renewal if an IRS extension was granted.

    Original Ink:Not required
    Notarization Required?:Not required

    Failure to submit renewal on time can result in loss of tax exemption and assessment of minimum tax of $800, plus interest, and/or fines or filing penalties. The Attorney General will notify the California Franchise Tax Board to disallow your state tax exemption. Directors, trustees, officers, and return preparers are personally liable for these fees and penalties - you cannot use charitable assets to pay them, they must be paid out of pocket!

    • Any authorized or director may sign. Signatures do not need not to be notarized.
    • Online filing is available only for charities with a "Current" or "Current - Awaiting Reporting" status.
    Required Attachments:
    • IRS form 990 (Schedule B is no longer required and should be excluded)
    • Audited financials (if applicable)

    Change of Fiscal Year


    Form RRF-1: Annual Registration Renewal Report

    Agency Fee:



    File a Form RRF-1 for the partial-year (along with all required attachments). The renewal fee will be required based on the total revenue for the reporting period. 

    Supplemental Reporting
    Notification from Platform Charities

    Filing Method:


    Agency Fee:



    Within 30 days of entering into a partnership with a charitable fundraising platform, unless notification was already provided through the platform charity’s registration as a trustee/charity, or through registration of the partnering platform.


    11 CA ADC § 315

    • Every platform charity registered as a trustee/charity in California must file Form PL-3 with the Registry when the platform charity enters into a partnership with a charitable fundraising platform to facilitate solicitations on that charitable fundraising platform, unless: notification was already provided through the platform charity’s registration as a trustee/charity, or through registration of the partnering platform.
    • If a platform charity entered into a partnership with more than one charitable fundraising platform in the last 30 days, submit one Form PL-3 for all partnerships.



    Form RRF-1: Annual Registration Renewal Report

    Filing Method:

    Mail or online

    Agency Fee:

    $0-$300 depending on gross annual revenue.


    To close out your registration, file a final report with the required fee along with a letter explaining that you would like to cancel your registration. Domestic organizations must also submit proof of dissolution with Secretary of State and distribution of assets.

    To fundraise nationally or online, please see our Fundraising Compliance Guide. Our services manage your initial, renewal, and exemption filings in every state.

  16. Obtain Other Business Licenses & Permits

    Running your nonprofit corporation legally also means securing all applicable licenses and permits. The range of local, state, and federal requirements is wide. Access resources like the Small Business Administration Business License & Permit look-up tool and search by your business type and locality.

    In California:

    • Bingo is subject to state and local oversight. Apply for a bingo license in your city and/or county. The California Registry of Charitable Trusts ensures that the funds go towards charitable purposes.
    • Raffles require an additional filing and fee when filing your annual registration form with the Attorney General's Registry of Charitable Trusts.

Frequently Asked Questions

Some of our clients incorporate on their own and seek our professional assistance with the next steps. In such cases, we review the existing documentation and make any necessary changes. We’re happy to help at any point. Keep in mind, the earlier you enlist our expertise, the more time you’ll save and the greater success you'll experience in the end!

If you have an existing for-profit entity and are looking to transition to a nonprofit, we are very familiar with this situation and can help! Simply sign up for our professional formation services, and your specialist will review your existing entity and assist with the appropriate next steps.

You are not required to use an attorney. You can set up your nonprofit yourself but doing so requires a great deal of expertise and time. The IRS estimates the 501(c)(3) application takes over 100 hours in research and preparation. Enlisting the help of a professional greatly increases your likelihood of success and saves you time. With our professional formation services, your specialist prepares and files your applications for you with guaranteed approval. Take advantage of our track record of 100% IRS approval and get your nonprofit approved, guaranteed!

You’ve made it! You turned your passion into a legitimate nonprofit corporation exempt under IRS 501(c) and are benefiting your community. That solid foundation on which you built your organization requires ongoing maintenance. Investing in maintaining compliance with all of the government agencies is an ongoing responsibility and commitment needed to ensure your vision continues long into the future. Check out our compliance guide to learn more!

Once you have registered your nonprofit per the steps listed above, you will need to maintain compliance with all of the government agencies. Staying current with the IRS and state requirements is an ongoing responsibility. Continue reading our California nonprofit compliance guide to learn more!

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Fast Facts

Below is an overview of the paperwork, cost, and time to start an California nonprofit.

  • Articles of Incorporation, either:
    • Form ARTS-MU - Mutual Benefit Corp
    • Form ARTS-PB - Public Benefit Corp
    • Form ARTS-RE - Religious Corp
    • Form ARTS-CID - CID Corp
  • Form SI-100: Statement of Information
  • Bylaws
  • IRS Form SS-4: Obtain an EIN
  • IRS Form 1023: 501(c) Tax Exempt Application
  • IRS Determination Letter
  • Form FTB-3500: Exemption Application or Form FTB-3500a: Submission of Exemption Request
  • URS Charitable Registration, if applicable
  • FinCEN Beneficial Ownership Report

  • Incorporation: $30 by mail or $45 in-person + optional $250-$500 preclearance service + optional $350-$500 expedited filing service
  • Statement of information: $20
  • 501(c): $275 or $600 IRS fee
  • California FTB exemption: $25 ($0 for exemption request)
  • California charitable registration: $25