How to Start a Nonprofit in California: Path to Success

How to Start a Nonprofit in California

Understanding how to start a nonprofit in California involves strategic planning and a few legal steps. Much like initiating a small business, establishing a charitable organization in California requires careful preparation. This guide will walk you through all the essential steps you need to embark on this journey.

10 Steps to Start a Nonprofit in California

1. Identifying the Need

The first step in starting a nonprofit is identifying a societal need that isn’t being met. This can range from hunger and homelessness to arts education or environmental conservation. Once you’ve identified the need, you can begin to formulate a plan on how your nonprofit can meet this need.

2. Planning your Nonprofit

Every successful nonprofit begins with a well-thought-out plan. Your plan should include your mission statement, your vision for the organization, the services you plan to offer, your target population, and your plans for funding your organization.

3. Assembling a Team

No person can run a nonprofit alone. Assembling a diverse team of individuals who are committed to your mission is critical. This team often becomes your initial Board of Directors. Board members guide the organization’s strategic direction, policies, and financial oversight.

4. Filing Articles of Incorporation

Incorporating your nonprofit begins by filing the Articles of Incorporation with the California Secretary of State. This document provides basic information about your non-profit organization and acts as a legal declaration of your nonprofit’s existence. There is a filing fee associated with this process.

5. Creating Bylaws

The bylaws are the rules and procedures your organization will follow. They will define how decisions are made, how the board of directors is chosen, and how meetings are held and documented. While California law does not require bylaws to be filed with the state, your nonprofit should keep a copy of its bylaws at its principal office.

6. Applying for a Federal Employer Identification Number (EIN)

Every nonprofit organization needs an EIN, which is the organization’s identification number with the Internal Revenue Service. You can apply for an EIN through the IRS’s website. It is free and can be obtained immediately online.

7. Applying for State Tax Exemptions

The next step is to file Form 1023, also known as the Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, with the IRS. This form is extensive and may require legal advice. Once the IRS has granted your tax-exempt status, you are also exempt from California state income tax. However, this is not automatic; you need to apply with the California Franchise Tax Board using Form 3500A.

8. Registering with the California Attorney General’s Office

Nonprofits must register with the California Attorney General’s Registry of Charitable Trusts within 30 days of receiving assets. This process requires filling out Form CT-1 and providing a variety of other information and documentation.

9. Obtaining Necessary Permits and Licenses

Depending on your nonprofit’s activities and where it’s located, you may need other permits and licenses. Check with your local and county governments to see what might be required.

10. Adhering to Annual Compliance Requirements

Finally, understand that running a nonprofit includes ongoing obligations, including federal and state filing requirements. You’ll need to file an annual information return with the IRS (Form 990), and California requires an annual report (Form RRF-1) and an annual renewal fee.

Do’s and Dont’s of Starting a Nonprofit in California


  1. Do Conduct a Needs Assessment: Before starting a nonprofit, make sure in-depth research is conducted to identify the gap and how your organization can help overcome that gap. Questionnaires and surveys can be a good start to the process along with observing public charities operating within the same area.
  2. Do Assemble a Strong Board: Your board of directors will be crucial in guiding your nonprofit’s mission and helping with fundraising efforts. Make sure to assemble a diverse and passionate team. In addition, be fully prepared at the first board meeting to come up with foolproof strategies to help your organization thrive.
  3. Do Develop a Detailed Business Plan: This should include your mission statement, long-term goals, strategies for achieving those goals, a fundraising plan, a marketing plan, and a budget.
  4. Do Understand Legal Requirements: Comprehend and follow all legal requirements for starting and maintaining a nonprofit in California. This includes incorporating your nonprofit, applying for tax-exempt status, and maintaining compliance with state and federal regulations.
  5. Do Consult with Experts: Seek out advice from attorneys, accountants, or consultants experienced in nonprofit law and management. They can provide essential guidance.


  1. Don’t Neglect Your Finances: Properly manage your nonprofit’s funds. Establish a budget and keep thorough records of all financial transactions. It is extremely important to keep track of all major and minor transactions to keep the entire system transparent. ​
  2. Don’t Ignore Fundraising: Raising money is vital for any nonprofit. Make sure you have a sound fundraising plan in place and consider multiple sources of revenue.
  3. Don’t Disregard Marketing and Public Relations: Even if your mission is noble, people can’t support you if they don’t know about you. Develop a solid marketing and PR strategy.
  4. Don’t Forget to File Required Reports: Nonprofits must file certain forms with the IRS and state agencies each year. Neglecting this responsibility can lead to penalties or loss of tax-exempt status.
  5. Don’t Skimp on Insurance: Obtain appropriate insurance for your nonprofit. This might include liability insurance, property insurance, and directors and officers insurance. Insurance is a huge source of security for a new nonprofit corporation striving to build a good standing in the area.
  6. Don’t Confuse Nonprofit with Non-Revenue: Just because an organization is tax-exempt doesn’t mean it shouldn’t generate income. A nonprofit needs income to support its mission and programs.
  7. Don’t Overlook the Importance of Volunteers: Volunteers are the lifeblood of many nonprofits. Treat them well and invest in their development and retention.

Remember, starting a nonprofit is more than just a noble endeavor. It requires dedication, patience, and an understanding of legal and financial guidelines as stated earlier. By keeping these do’s and don’ts in mind, you’ll be better equipped to successfully navigate the process of starting a nonprofit in California.

Nonprofit Bylaws in California

Nonprofit bylaws are a legal document that acts like a manual or “rule book” for how a nonprofit organization will be governed and run. In California, the bylaws are established by the organization’s board of directors when they first form the nonprofit. They provide clear procedures for handling internal affairs, provide guidelines for decision-making, and help resolve internal disputes.

Required Provisions in Bylaws According to California Law:

  1. Corporate Name and Purpose: This section outlines the official name of your nonprofit and its mission.
  2. Board of Directors: This should detail the number of directors, their qualifications, terms of office, duties, and the method of their selection and removal. California law requires that nonprofits have at least one director, though most have at least three.
  3. Meetings: This part specifies how often the Board of Directors meets (annually at minimum), how meeting notifications are sent out, what constitutes a quorum, how voting occurs, and rules about special meetings.
  4. Committees: If the nonprofit will have committees, the bylaws should specify the types of committees and their roles and responsibilities.
  5. Officers: This section outlines the officers’ roles, how they’re elected, their terms, and what happens if an officer needs to be replaced.
  6. Conflict of Interest Policy: California law requires a conflict of interest policy, which provides procedures for dealing with potential conflicts of interest among the directors and officers.
  7. Indemnification: The bylaws should include a clause stating that the organization will indemnify its directors, officers, employees, and agents to the fullest extent permitted by law.
  8. Amending Bylaws: Procedures for amending bylaws should be included, usually requiring a 2/3 vote of the Board.
  9. Dissolution Clause: This outlines what happens to the organization’s assets should the nonprofit dissolve. For 501(c)(3) nonprofits, the organization must distribute remaining assets for an exempt purpose, to the federal, state, or local government, or to another 501(c)(3).

It is crucial that the bylaws are comprehensive and comply with both state law and IRS requirements. They should also be reviewed and updated regularly as the organization grows and changes. Since the bylaws have legal significance, you should consider consulting with an attorney during the drafting process.

Benefits of Starting a Nonprofit in California

Starting a nonprofit organization in California can come with several benefits. Some of these include:

  1. Tax Exemption: Nonprofits can apply for federal and state tax-exempt status. If granted, the organization does not have to pay income tax on its earnings used toward the mission of the nonprofit. Additionally, sales tax exemptions may also be available.
  2. Tax-Deductible Donations: Organizations with 501(c)(3) status can offer tax deductions to their donors, which can encourage more donations.
  3. Eligibility for Public and Private Grants: Many federal, state, and private grants are only available to nonprofit organizations.
  4. Limited Liability: Incorporating the nonprofit provides limited liability protection. This means that the organization generally protects its directors or trustees from personal liability for its debts or liabilities.
  5. Perpetual Existence: Nonprofits can continue to exist even after the original founders leave the organization.
  6. Giving Back to the Community: Nonprofits can make significant contributions to the well-being of their communities and the individuals who live there.
  7. Public Service Opportunities: Nonprofits can offer volunteer opportunities and play a major role in providing public services that government agencies may not be able to fully address.
  8. Credibility: Obtaining nonprofit status can lend credibility to the organization, making it more likely to receive community and financial support.

However, it’s also important to remember that starting and running a nonprofit comes with its own challenges and responsibilities. These can include complex regulations, rigorous reporting requirements, and challenges with sustainable funding. Thus, you should weigh the significant benefits against the potential downsides before deciding to start a nonprofit.


Starting a nonprofit in California is a considerable task, but with a clear mission, a committed team, and a comprehensive understanding of the legal and financial requirements, it can be a rewarding way to serve your community. Always consult with a legal or financial advisor to ensure you are meeting all requirements. Your passion, paired with careful planning and dedication, will ensure your nonprofit’s success. Good luck!

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