How to Start a Non-Profit Organization in Washington

Welcome to our Washington nonprofit resource guide! This free guide will help you understand how to start your nonprofit in Washington and become 501(c)(3) tax exempt. You will find step-by-step instructions and get answers to common questions like "what does it cost?" and "how many board members do I need?".

Option #1: Start your Washington nonprofit with help from a specialist.

Setting up a nonprofit is a lot of complex work. Fortunately there's an easier way. We're here to help you set up your nonprofit and stay compliant. Enjoy the following benefits of working with us:

  • Receive guidance from a specialist who has 10 or more years of nonprofit experience.
  • Benefit from our 100% approval rate and know that your 501(c)(3) application will be approved, guaranteed!
  • Eliminate over 100 hours of research and preparation. Let our experts speed through the process so you can focus on your mission.

When you sign up, we will schedule your initial consultation with a specialist usually within 1-2 business days.

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Option #2: Do-It-Yourself

If you're starting out with little or no funds, gaining professional assistance is rarely an option. In that case, you may want to commit to researching the process and filing government applications on your own. This route is not for the faint of heart but is certainly achievable if you work diligently. The following step-by-step guide should help you as you undertake this process.

1 Confirm a New Nonprofit is Necessary

As you begin, take a moment to consider if you should start a new non-profit organization. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there were over 36,000 nonprofit organizations in Washington in 2009. To decide if a new nonprofit is necessary...

  • Research if an organization already exists in your area that serves your cause. By working together you avoid diluting the effect of fundraising dollars and volunteer hours available in your geography.
  • Consider fiscal sponsorship, in which an umbrella 501(c) organization incubates your charitable nonprofit. Fiscal sponsors permit your cause to receive tax-deductible donations and often handle administrative paperwork.
2 Understand the Benefits of Incorporating

This guide focuses on starting a nonprofit corporation, the traditional nonprofit legal structure. This legal structure has a few key benefits. First and foremost, the nonprofit corporation limits the liability of the organization's officers and directors. Second, the nonprofit corporation is familiar to donors and grant makers. Lastly, nonprofit corporations meet a wide range of IRS eligibility requirements, in particular those relating to the 501(c)(3) application.

3 Check Name Availability

The legal name of your nonprofit corporation may not conflict with any other registered name. Check availability of your desired name by conducting a name search.

Name Search:
Washington Secretary of State database search
Name Reservation:
4 Recruit Incorporators and/or Initial Directors
  • Identify the incorporators. These individuals will execute the articles of incorporation and submit them to the state. Washington requires a minimum of one incorporator.
  • Recruit initial directors for your nonprofit board of directors. Washington requires a minimum of one initial director.
5 Appoint a Registered Agent

Identify the nonprofit’s Washington registered agent. A registered agent is a legal appointee who is responsible for receiving legal notices for your nonprofit. Your registered agent must be physically located in Washington and maintain an office that is open during regular business hours.

We provide a convenient service to act as your Washington registered agent. As part of that service, our local office in Spokane, WA receives your legal documents and sends you notifications. You view your documents in your secure online account. Registered agent is included in our nonprofit formation service or you can sign up for this service separately.

Fast Facts

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

  • Washington Nonprofit Corporation - Articles of Incorporation
  • Bylaws
  • IRS Form SS-4: Obtain an EIN
  • IRS Form 1023: 501(c) Tax Exempt Application
  • IRS Determination Letter
  • Form BLS-700-028: Washington Business License Application, if applicable
  • URS Charitable Registration, if applicable
  • Washington Charitable Organization Registration

  • Incorporation: $30 by mail. $80 expedited by mail. $50 online.
  • 501(c): $400 or $850 IRS fee
  • Washington Business License Application: $19, if applicable
  • Washington Charitable Organization Registration: $60 ($0 if exempt)

  • Incorporation: ~2 months by mail. ~2-3 business days expedited by mail or online.
  • 501(c): ~3-6 months
6 File Washington Nonprofit Articles of Incorporation

File articles of incorporation to create your non-profit corporation.

Submit to:
Washington Secretary of State - Corporations Division
Washington Nonprofit Corporation - Articles of Incorporation
Washington Nonprofit Handbook
Filing Method:
Mail or online
$30 by mail. $80 expedited by mail. $50 online.
~2 months by mail. ~2-3 business days expedited by mail or online.
Washington Nonprofit Corporation Act
  • The IRS requires specific language in the articles of incorporation to qualify for 501(c)(3) federal tax exemption. Refer to IRS Pub 557 for guidance and sample language.
  • The Secretary of State will issue your Unified Business Identifier (UBI) which is your state id across state departments.
  • Nonprofit professional service corporations are an exception to the above instruction - they should be formed under RCW § 18.100.

An initial report is not required for nonprofit corporations (it is for profit corporations).

7 Establish Organization Records

Your filed articles of incorporation are the first document for your nonprofit corporate records. Your corporation will generate many other official records such as bylaws, meeting minutes, and your EIN.

Office supplies intended for a nonprofit corporation will help you stay organized and save time. Optionally, get a company record book, seal, and document templates.

Draft bylaws which is the governing document for the nonprofit. You will review and ratify them at your first board of directors meeting.

The Board should create and adopt a conflict of interest policy. This document is submitted to the IRS at the time they apply for 501(c)(3) tax exemption.

8 Hold First Meeting of the Directors

Hold the first meeting of the board of directors. At this meeting, the nonprofit should approve the bylaws, elect additional directors, appoint officers, and approve initial resolutions such as opening a company bank account. Keep minutes of this meeting.

9 Get a Federal Employer Identification Number (EIN)

Your nonprofit must obtain an EIN regardless of whether it will hire employees.

Submit to:
Internal Revenue Service
IRS Form SS-4
IRS Pub 1635: Understanding Your EIN
Filing Method:
Mail, phone, fax, or apply online with the IRS
Immediately online
The IRS website is only available during certain hours. Print your EIN before closing your session.
10 Get Washington State Tax Identification Numbers/Accounts

The Unified Business Identifier (UBI) issued to your nonprofit by the Secretary of State is also your organization's id with the Department of Revenue.

You must register with the Department of Revenue if you meet any of the following conditions:

  • Your business is required to collect sales tax.
  • Your gross income is $12,000 per year or more.
  • Your business is required to pay taxes or fees to the Department of Revenue.
  • You are a buyer or processor of specialty wood products.
Submit to:
Washington Department of Revenue
Washington Department of Revenue - Nonprofit Organizations Guide
Form BLS-700-028: Washington Business License Application
Filing Method:
Mail or online
~2 business days online. ~21 business days by mail.

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11 Apply for 501(c)

Applying for 501(c) tax exemption is often the most complex and time-consuming steps in setting up a nonprofit. It is also one of the most important, as obtaining a tax exemption is what is enables an organization to successfully raise funds, apply for grants, be exempt from IRS income tax, and enjoy a variety of other benefits exclusively available to nonprofits.

501(c) is the chapter of the Internal Revenue Code that regulates nonprofit organizations. Most nonprofits are 501(c)(3)s, including charities and foundations. There are a few forms used to apply for federal tax exemption. 501(c)(3) nonprofits apply using Form 1023 or Form 1023-EZ. Not all organizations however are eligible to file the streamlined Form 1023-EZ. Other types of nonprofits, including 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s, apply using Form 1024.

Seeking the help of a professional with this step is common. Choosing the right form to file is just one consideration. A great deal of expertise, time, and preparation goes into creating a successful application. The IRS estimates over 100 hours are spent on researching and preparing the application. If you're looking for professional assistance, check out our formation services to help you with your 501(c) application and the rest of the process. Our nonprofit specialists will help you from start to finish.

Submit to:
Internal Revenue Service
IRS Form 1023, IRS Form 1023-EZ, or IRS Form 1024
IRS Instructions for Form 1023, IRS Instructions for Form 1023-EZ, or IRS Instructions for Form 1024
IRS Pub 557: Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization
Filing Method:
$400 or $850
1023-EZ average: <1 month. 1023 average: 3-6 months.

The IRS will return a Determination Letter which officially recognized your exemption.

12 Apply for Washington Tax Exemption(s)

In Washington, nonprofit organizations are generally taxed like any other business. They must pay business and occupation (B&O) tax on gross revenues generated from regular business activities they conduct. They must pay sales tax on all goods and retail services they purchase as consumers, such as supplies, lodging, equipment, and construction services. In addition, nonprofit organizations must collect and remit retail sales tax on their sales of goods and retail services

Limited B&O and sales tax exemptions are provided for nonprofit fundraising activities, donations, and for certain types of organizations.

Washington Department of Revenue - Nonprofit Organizations Guide
More information:
Washington Department of Revenue
13 Register for Charitable Solicitation / Fundraising

Before soliciting any funds or hiring solicitors, you must complete your charitable organization registration in each state where you will raise funds.

If you need to register in many states, review our guide “Charitable Solicitation Registration using the Unified Registration Statement (URS)”. 39 states accept the URS, including Washington. Simply append the Washington Addendum to URS (see instructions).

To file only in Washington:

Submit to:
Washington Secretary of State - Charities Division
Charitable Organization Exemption Flow Chart
Washington Charitable Organization Registration
Washington Charitable Organization Registration Instructions and Suggested Guidelines to Complete the Solicitations Report
Filing Method:
$60 ($0 if exempt)
Exempt organizations may optionally register: form and instructions or file online.
14 Obtain Business Licenses & Permits

To run your business legally, you must obtain applicable licenses and permits. The easiest way to navigate the wide range of federal, state, and local requirements is to search by your business type and locality using the Small Business Administration Business License & Permit look-up tool.

* Ongoing Filings to Maintain Your Nonprofit

You must file federal and state tax returns. You must also file:

  • Washington nonprofit corporations are required to file a Nonprofit Annual Report ($10 state fee) with the Washington Secretary of State - Corporations Division. Filing is due by the last day of the incorporation anniversary month.
  • Washington business licenses must be renewed with the Department of Revenue Business License Service ($19 state fee).

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 IRS Form 1023-EZ!

  • "Harbor Compliance has done an outstanding, amazing and utterly brilliant job helping Reform It Now organize and obtain its 501(c)(3) status, quickly.
        In point of fact, Harbor Compliance had our 501(c)(3) determination letter in our hands 8 calendar days before your competitor had scheduled our initial consultation. Yes, that's right. They booked the consultation 30 days after we paid their fee, and you had us together with a consultant in less than a week (mostly because I had to get ready).
        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.

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We hope you enjoyed this guide. If you appreciated the expertise we provide for free, just imagine how great it will be when we work for you!

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This page was last fact-checked September 16, 2013.