How to Start a Non-Profit Organization in Washington

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

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?".

Did you know that setting up a nonprofit is different in every state? This guide is specific to Washington. If you are looking for a different state, please visit our Information Center.

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 Choose a legal structure

The most common legal structure for a nonprofit is a nonprofit corporation. Less common options include a B-Corporation, nonprofit LLC, L3C, unincorporated nonprofit association, and a trust. If you are undecided, learn about legal structures for nonprofits.

Washington's equivalent to a B-Corporation is a Social Purpose Corporations (SPC), which the state legislature approved in June 2012.

The rest of this article assumes you are creating a nonprofit corporation.

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. This individual or company receives notice of lawsuit and other legal service for the corporation.

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 Company 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 (potentially using a template) which is the governing document for the nonprofit. You will review and ratify them at your first board of directors meeting.

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)

Save money and build credibility by obtaining 501(c) federal income tax exemption. This is most difficult and costly step of setting up a nonprofit.

501(c) is the chapter of the Internal Revenue Code that defines nonprofit tax exemptions. Charitable, religious, and educational organizations seek exemption under 501(c)(3) and apply for recognition by filing Form 1023.

Submit to:
Internal Revenue Service
IRS Form 1023
IRS Instructions for Form 1023
IRS Pub 557: Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization
Filing Method:
$400 or $850
~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!

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