An organization must have one or more specific purposes to qualify as tax-exempt. A 501(c)(3) organization (also known as a public charity) is one that is organized and operated exclusively for purposes that are:
• Testing for public safety
• Literary or educational
• Designed to foster national or international amateur sports competition, or
• For the prevention of cruelty to children or animals.
There are many kinds of organizations that fall under these categories. For example, organizations that provide relief to the poor, distressed or underprivileged; those that lessen neighborhood tensions; or those that defend human and civil rights usually qualify as charitable organizations. Educational organizations can be schools, museums, symphony orchestras, training for the unemployed, dance classes, and zoos.
Apply for an EIN
The first step is to apply for an EIN, there are a number of ways you can apply for an EIN. The fastest is to go to the IRS website or call our toll-free number and get an EIN you can use immediately. You can also fax your Form SS-4, Application for Employer Identification Number, and you’ll receive your EIN within 4 business days. or do it the old-fashioned way by completing Form SS-4 using the form’s instructions and mailing it to:
Internal Revenue Service Center
Attn: EIN Operation
Cincinnati, OH 45999
Visit the IRS website for more information
Next, you’ll need to gather your organizing documents. An organization can’t qualify for exempt status without an organizing document. To qualify for exemption under Section 501(c)(3), the organizing document must contain three provisions. See sample document.
By-laws are an organization’s internal operating rules. Federal tax law doesn’t require specific language in the by-laws of most organizations. However, state law may require you to have by-laws, so it is a good idea to contact your state to find out the specific requirements.
Organizational and Operational tests
All types of tax-exempt organizations must meet the Organizational and Operational tests
The Organizational Test is used to determine if the organization is
properly organized. To pass this test the organization must:
• Limit its purposes to one or more of the exempt purposes listed in Code section 501(c)(3)
• Not permit the organization to engage in a nonexempt activity and
• Assets of the organization must be permanently dedicated to an exempt purpose.
If you write your organizing documents correctly and include these provisions you need to have in your organizing documents, this test will be easy to pass.
The Operational Test
The operational test covers how your organization is actually operated. To pass the operational test, your organization must show that its principal activities will be to further its exempt purposes. Conversely, your organization has to limit the participation in certain kinds of
activities and absolutely refrain from others.
Though this test is conducted when you’re first applying for tax-exempt status, if the balance of your activities gets out of line after you receive your status, or your organization engages in prohibited activities, you can lose your tax-exempt status and be subject to both taxes and penalties.
Some prohibited activities including intervening in political campaigns.
If your organization openly endorses a candidate, that’s a prohibited activity. There are many other kinds of political (and other) activities that aren’t allowed which could possibly jeopardize your tax-exempt status such as unrelated business income, required discourses, and employment issues.
Public Charity versus Private Foundation
• Organizations providing medical or hospital care (including medical education and research)
Other Public Charities
• Organizations that receive significant public support
• Organizations that provide support to other public charities.
When an entity qualifies as a tax-exempt organization, the IRS presumes
it’s a private foundation unless it can show that it’s a public charity.
The main difference between a public charity and a private foundation is where the money comes from. Generally, a public charity has a broad base of support while a private foundation has very limited sources of support. There are also different tax rules – so, for example, public foundations are subject to excise taxes that aren’t imposed on public charities. There are more differences – there is more difference but for now, I will focus on public charities.
Some organizations automatically qualify as public charities based on the Code, so they’re called Statutory Public Charities. Some examples are churches, schools, and organizations providing medical or hospital care (including medical education and research).
These organizations still have to pass the Operational and Organizational tests. Or, if your organization receives significant public support or it provides support to other public charities, you may qualify that way. Otherwise, you’ll have to demonstrate you are a public charity by other means.