Start Your Wisconsin Nonprofit

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How to Start a Nonprofit in Wisconsin

Welcome to our Wisconsin 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 38,000 nonprofit organizations in Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin. 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: Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) - Division of Corporate and Consumer Services - Corporations Bureau
    Name search

    Shall contain the word "corporation", "incorporated", "company" or "limited" or the abbreviation "corp.", "inc.", "co." or "ltd." or words or abbreviations of like import in another language. 
    Wisconsin Statutes §181.0401

  2. 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.

    Wisconsin director requirements:
    • Number: minimum 3
    • Qualifications: Individual. No residency requirement. No membership requirement.
    • Term: 1 year
    • Quorum: majority
    • Committee: minimum 3 directors
    Wisconsin officer requirements:
    • A president, a secretary, and a treasurer unless otherwise defined in articles or bylaws.
    • Two or more offices may be held by the same individual.
  3. 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 Wisconsin registered agent office is located in Appleton, WI. We offer registered agent service independently or as part of our nonprofit formation packages.

  4. 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:Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) - Division of Corporate and Consumer Services - Corporations Bureau

    Articles of Incorporation

    Filing Method:

    Mail or online.

    Agency Fee:



    ~4-7 business days


    Wisconsin Statutes 181.0202


    Submit original and one copy. The copy will be marked "FILED" and returned as evidence of filing. No certificate of incorporation is issued.

  5. File Initial Report

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

    Not required

  6. 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

    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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. Get Wisconsin State Tax Identification Numbers/Accounts

    Wisconsin offers a consolidated registration application for new business state tax registration.

    Submit to: Wisconsin Department of Revenue
    Guidance: Business Tax Registration Common Questions
    Form: Form BTR-101: Application for Business Tax Registration
    Filing Method: Mail, fax, or online
    Fee: $20
    Turnaround: ~15 business days
    Notes: Business Tax Registration (BTR) must be renewed after 2 years for a fee of $10.
  11. 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.
  12. 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 before January 1, 2025, 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 completes the initial filing and provides support for updating your information going forward. We will:

    1. Submit your beneficial ownership filings to FinCEN
    2. Handle initial filing, updates, and changes as needed
    3. Ensure compliance with BOI reporting requirements for $149 per year

    Order Now
  13. 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:

    Not required

    Upon obtaining your IRS Determination Letter, your organization is automatically exempt from Wisconsin corporation franchise and income taxes. No application or notification is necessary.

    More information: Wisconsin Department of Revenue

    To file to obtain Sales & Use Tax Exemption:

    Agency:Wisconsin Department of Revenue

    Form S-103: Application for Wisconsin Sales and Use Tax Certificate of Exempt Status

    Agency Fee:


  14. 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.

    Wisconsin Charitable Organization Registration

    Agency:Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) - Division of Corporate and Consumer Services - Charitable Organizations and Fund Raisers Section

    Wisconsin Statutes Ch.202; Wisconsin Administrative Code, Chapter RL 5

    Foreign Qualification is Prerequisite:No
    Exam Required?Not Set
    Registered Agent (Special Agency) Required?No

    Automatic Exemption

    Exemption Eligible Organizations:
    • A person that is exempt from filing a federal annual information return under section 6033 (a) (3) (A) (i) and (iii) and (C) (i) of the Internal Revenue Code
    • A candidate for national, state, or local office or a political party or other committee or group required to file financial information with the federal elections commission or a filing officer under s. 11.0102 (1)
    • Charitable organizations which do not intend to raise or actually receive contributions in excess of $25,000 during a fiscal year and all of their functions are performed by volunteers and no assets or income are paid to any officer or member of the charitable organization
      • If a charitable organization would otherwise be exempt under par. (a) 3., but it raises or receives more than $25,000, it shall, within 30 days after the date on which its contributions exceed this amount, register as required under sub. (1).
    • A fraternal, civic, benevolent, patriotic, or social organization that solicits contributions solely from its membership
    • A veterans organization incorporated under ch. 188 or chartered under federal law or the service foundation of such an organization recognized in the bylaws of the organization
    • A nonprofit, postsecondary educational institution accredited by a regional accrediting agency or association approved under 20 USC 1099b, or an educational institution and its authorized charitable foundations that solicit contributions only from its students and their families, alumni, faculty, trustees, corporations, foundations, and patients
    • A person soliciting contributions for the relief of a named individual if all contributions, without any deductions, are given to the named individual
    • A state agency, as defined in s. 20.001 (1), or a local governmental unit, as defined in s. 605.01 (1)
    • A private school, as defined in s. 118.165
    • Any corporation established by an act of the United States Congress that is required by federal law to submit to Congress annual reports, fully audited by the United States Department of Defense

    WI Stat § 202.12(5)

    Initial Registration


    Form 296: Charitable Organization Registration Application

    Filing Method:


    Agency Fee:



    4-6 weeks

    • Note the list of 17 attachments that first-time registrants must attach to the application. This includes disclosing contracts with professional fundraisers.
    • The Preseident and CFO must sign. Signatures must be notarized.
    • Some Wisconsin counties and municipalities may require charities that solicit in-person to register prior to fundraising.
    Before you Apply:

    Domestic Applicants:

    • Check the available exemptions to see if your charity is eligible for exemption from the full registration requirement.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • If you will foreign qualify in Wisconsin, obtain a certificate of good standing from your home state to submit during the foreign qualification process. The certificate cannot be more than 60 days old when filing foreign qualification documents.
    How to Apply:

    Domestic Applicants:

    1. File entity formation documents with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) - Corporation Section.
    2. Submit a Charitable Organization Registration Application and all required attachments to the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions - Division of Banking.

    Foreign Applicants:

    1. Determine whether or not your charity will need to foreign qualify based on your activity in Wisconsin. If not required, skip to number 3.
    2. File foreign qualification documents with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) - Corporation Section.
    3. Submit a Charitable Organization Registration Application and all required attachments to the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions - Division of Banking.
    Required Attachments:
    • IRS form 990
    • Audited financials (if applicable)
    • Charter/Articles of Incorporation/Agreement of Association/Instrument of Trust/other organizational instrument
    • Bylaws (unless organized as a trust)
    • IRS determination letter (or IRS form 1023 if exemption is pending)
    • List of officers and directors
    • List of persons with final custody of contributions
    • List of persons responsible for final distribution of contributions
    • List of states where you currently have a Charitable Organization license (met if provided on IRS 990)
    • Form #2252 or similar for officers/exec. personnel convicted of a misd./felony/pending charges (if applicable) 
    • Explanation statement for any denied/revoked registrations or pending proceedings  (if applicable)
    • Explanation statement if ever enjoined from soliciting contributions or any pending proceedings (if applicable)
    • Professional fundraiser or fundraising counsel contracts
    • Certificate of Incorporation (foreign applicants only) 
    • A certificate of good standing (foreign applicants only) 
    • List of other states where registered to solicit
    • Organizations ByLaws 
    • IRS Determination Letter regarding approval of 501(c)3 status if you are tax exempt. A state approval letter is also acceptable.
      • Provide IRS Form 1023 or 1023EZ if 501(c)3 status is pending

    Registration Renewal
    Charitable Registration Renewal

    Filing Method:


    Agency Fee:


    • Annually by July 31. An organization that files an initial registration on or after June 1 does not need to renew their registration until the following calendar year. If an initial registration is filed before June 1, renewal must be filed by July 31 of the same calendar year.
    • Renewals can be filed online as early as June 1.
    Due Date Extension:

    Wisconsin does not grant extensions for charitable organization registration.


    There is a $25 late fee.

    • There are two renewal filings for charitable organizations: charitable registration renewal and charitable organization annual report.
    • This annual renewal is different than the corporate annual financial report filed with DFI.
    • The renewal period closes September 30th. After this date, you must file a new initial registration.
    • You may not file for an extension of the due date.
    • A CPA audit is required for large nonprofits.
    Required Attachments:

    • List of officers and directors

    Registration Renewal
    Charitable Organization Annual Financial Report


    Annual Financial Reports may be filed on one of three forms that your firm can use based on qualifying factors.

    Filing Method:

    Mail or email

    Agency Fee:



    You must file an annual financial report within 12 months after the close of your fiscal year if you received >$5,000 in contributions.

    • There are two renewal filings for charitable organizations: charitable registration renewal and charitable organization annual report.
    Required Attachments:
    • IRS form 990
    • Audited financials (if applicable)
    • Form 1952 WISCONSIN – Supplement to Financial Report. 
    • A full list of the organization’s board of directors, officers and trustees. Please
      include the individual’s name, address and title. 
    • A list of states that have issued a license, registration, permit or other formal
      authorization to the organization to solicit contributions. 
    • If applicable: 
      •  An audited financial statement conducted according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles for an organization that has received $500,000 or more in contribution during its fiscal year; OR
      • A reviewed or audited financial statement conducted according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles for an organization which has received $300,000 - $499,999 in contributions during the fiscal year

    Change of Fiscal Year


    Form 1952 or Form 308

    Agency Fee:



    1-2 business days


    Submit the short year financials during the standard renewal process.


    Agency Fee:



    To close out your registration, send a letter including the charity name, FEIN, date of closure, and reason for closure in writing.

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

  15. 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.

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 Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin nonprofit.

  • Form 102: Articles of Incorporation - Nonstock Corporations
  • Bylaws
  • IRS Form SS-4: Obtain an EIN
  • IRS Form 1023: 501(c) Tax Exempt Application
  • IRS Determination Letter
  • Form BTR-101: Application for Business Tax Registration
  • Form S-103: Application for Wisconsin Sales and Use Tax Certificate of Exempt Status (CES)
  • URS Charitable Registration, if applicable
  • Form 296: Charitable Organization Registration Statement
  • FinCEN Beneficial Ownership Report

  • Incorporation: $35
  • 501(c): $275 or $600 IRS fee
  • Wisconsin business tax registration: $20
  • Wisconsin charitable registration: $15 ($0 if exempt)

  • Incorporation: ~4-7 business days
  • 501(c): 2 weeks to 3 months