How to Start a Nonprofit in Maryland: A Complete Guide

How to Start a Nonprofit in Maryland

Starting a nonprofit organization in Maryland offers a unique opportunity to make a lasting impact on the community. Navigating the process requires understanding state-specific regulations and guidelines. This guide will provide a concise roadmap to successfully launch and manage your nonprofit in the Old Line State.

1 – Define Your Mission

In Maryland, where community involvement and state pride run deep, a mission statement becomes the backbone of any nonprofit organization. It’s more than just words; it’s a commitment to the community and a declaration of purpose. A mission statement should resonate with the diverse population of Maryland, capturing the spirit of the Free State and speaking to the unique needs and aspirations of its residents.

How to Craft a Mission Statement

  1. Reflect on Maryland’s Values: Think about Maryland’s rich history, cultural diversity, and geographical variety. Incorporate these elements into your mission to make it truly reflective of the state.
  2. Be Specific: Given Maryland’s diverse communities, from the bustling streets of Baltimore to the serene shores of Chesapeake Bay, pinpoint who and where you intend to serve.
  3. Keep it Short: A mission statement should ideally be one to two sentences, capturing the essence of your organization succinctly.
  4. Focus on the ‘Why’ and ‘How’: Delve into the unique challenges and opportunities in Maryland and detail how your nonprofit seeks to address them.
  5. Inspire Action: Motivate Marylanders to join your cause by making an emotional connection. Highlight the difference they can make right in their home state.
  6. Be Realistic: While it’s great to aspire, ensure your mission is grounded in what you can feasibly achieve within Maryland’s context.
  7. Ensure Alignment: Your mission must reflect the values prevalent in Maryland communities and meet the expectations of local stakeholders.

Examples of Effective Mission Statements

  1. Chesapeake Bay Foundation: “To save the Bay, and keep it saved, through education, advocacy, litigation, and restoration.”
  2. Maryland Food Bank: “Leading the movement and nurturing the belief that together we can improve the lives of Marylanders by ending hunger.”
  3. Maryland Center for Arts and Culture: “To celebrate Maryland’s unique cultural heritage and foster artistic expression, education, and appreciation within our community.”

In crafting a mission statement for a Maryland-based nonprofit, it’s crucial to tap into the heartbeat of the state, and understand its unique challenges and potential. Use the examples above as a springboard for inspiration, ensuring that your mission is both rooted in Maryland and broad enough to inspire a wide-reaching impact.

2 – Laws and Regulations

Like every state, Maryland has its own specific regulations governing nonprofits. Nonprofits are primarily regulated at the state level, where incorporation takes place. In Maryland, the State Department of Assessments and Taxation (SDAT) oversees the registration and operation of nonprofit corporations. Additionally, nonprofits operating in Maryland must be aware of and comply with pertinent federal laws, especially in areas such as taxation and employment.

Maryland Nonprofit Corporation Law

The foundational legal framework for nonprofits in Maryland is provided by the “Maryland Nonprofit Corporation Law” (Maryland Annotated Code, Corporations and Associations Article, Title 5). This law defines the procedures and requirements for the establishment, management, and dissolution of nonprofit organizations in the state.

Key elements of the Maryland Nonprofit Corporation Law include:

  1. Formation: To establish a nonprofit in Maryland, you must submit articles of incorporation to the SDAT. Essential details such as the nonprofit’s name, the purpose of the organization (which must meet 501(c)(3) criteria if pursuing this status), and details about the registered agent must be included.
  2. Board of Directors: The law necessitates a minimum of one director, though a nonprofit’s bylaws can stipulate a higher number. The law further delves into the responsibilities, roles, and decision-making procedures of the board.
  3. Bylaws: Each nonprofit in Maryland is required to formulate bylaws to guide its internal operations. While there’s no mandate to file bylaws with the state, they must be retained in the organization’s official records.
  4. Membership: Maryland law permits nonprofits to have members but doesn’t make it mandatory. If a nonprofit opts for membership, the associated rights and obligations should be detailed in the bylaws.
  5. Reporting: Maryland nonprofits must annually submit a Personal Property Return to the SDAT, updating essential details about the organization, its officers, and the registered agent.

Key Regulations and Legal Requirements

Besides the Maryland Nonprofit Corporation Law, nonprofits in Maryland must adhere to other crucial regulations:

  1. Tax Exemption: Nonprofits aiming for federal tax-exempt status need to forward Form 1023 or 1023-EZ (for smaller organizations) to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). For state tax exemption, nonprofits must apply through the Comptroller of Maryland.
  2. Charitable Solicitation: If a nonprofit plans to solicit charitable donations in Maryland, it must be registered with the Office of the Secretary of State. Some exceptions exist, so it’s advisable to consult the Secretary of State’s office or legal resources to determine if registration is necessary.
  3. Employment Laws: Maryland-based nonprofits with employees must adhere to both state and federal employment regulations. This encompasses tax withholdings, unemployment insurance tax obligations, adherence to minimum wage standards, and non-discrimination principles.
  4. Licenses and Permits: A nonprofit’s activities might necessitate specific licenses or permits. For instance, if fundraising involves selling merchandise, a vendor’s license could be required.

Successfully navigating Maryland’s regulatory environment for nonprofits requires diligence and a keen understanding of both state and federal requirements. Given that these laws and regulations might evolve, it’s pivotal for nonprofits to periodically revisit their compliance status and engage with legal experts when needed.

3 – Choose a Name

The name of your nonprofit stands as a reflection of its mission, values, and purpose. It serves as the first touchpoint for many—be it donors, beneficiaries, or the general public—and thus, sets the tone for their perception and interaction with your organization. As such, selecting a name that embodies your ethos, while being memorable and relatable, can bolster your branding, build credibility, and enhance outreach and engagement.

Legal Requirements and Restrictions

Under the Maryland Nonprofit Corporation Law, the chosen name of your nonprofit must be easily distinguishable from the names of other entities registered in the state of Maryland. This ensures that there is no confusion between entities operating within the state.

Additionally, the name must incorporate terms or their recognized abbreviations such as “Corporation”, “Incorporated”, “Company”, “Limited” or the like (e.g., “Corp.”, “Inc.”, “Co.”, or “Ltd.”). These indicators highlight the corporate nature of your organization.

Furthermore, there may be restrictions on the use of certain words or phrases, especially those that suggest the organization operates as a bank, or trust, or implies affiliations with state or federal agencies. Acquiring permissions may be necessary if such terms are integral to your desired name.

To ascertain the availability of your preferred name, you can utilize the name search feature on the Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation (SDAT) website.

Tips for Brainstorming and Finalizing a Name:

  1. Simplicity Matters: Opt for a name that is straightforward, easy to remember, and free from convoluted acronyms or potentially misleading numbers/words.
  2. Evoke Your Mission: The name should either directly state or subtly hint at your organization’s central mission or services.
  3. Audience Resonance: Ponder upon the demographics and interests of your core audience. A name that aligns with their values and resonates with their beliefs can prove more effective.
  4. Availability Checks: Beyond state records, ensure that your desired name, especially as a web domain, is available. This facilitates a cohesive online presence.
  5. Gather Feedback: Engage various stakeholders—board members, potential donors, beneficiaries—and gather their insights on the name’s appeal and potential interpretations.
  6. Future-Proofing: As your nonprofit might evolve, scale, or diversify its operations, pick a name that doesn’t limit future opportunities or geographical expansions.

In essence, the naming process is both strategic and creative. It’s not just about adhering to legal prerequisites but also about crafting an identity that stands the test of time and truly embodies the heart of your nonprofit’s mission in Maryland.

4 – Create Bylaws

Bylaws serve as the constitutional blueprint of a nonprofit, delineating the internal structure, processes, and governance protocols. This foundational document underpins the organizational framework, ensuring smooth operations and fortifying its adherence to both its mission and legal mandates.

The intrinsic value of bylaws extends across:

  • Guided Governance: They map out the navigation path for the board of directors, elucidating processes for meetings, decision-making, and general management.
  • Legal Adherence: Bylaws act as a guardrail, ensuring the nonprofit remains within the confines of both federal and Maryland state laws while delineating the board’s fiduciary duties.
  • Conflict Mitigation: They provide systematic avenues for dispute resolution and decision-making, preempting potential internal conflicts.
  • Organizational Shield: Clear governance structures insulate the nonprofit and its board members from potential legal adversities.
  • Transparency Emblem: Comprehensive bylaws amplify trustworthiness, showcasing the nonprofit’s commitment to transparency, governance excellence, and accountability to stakeholders.

Crucial Components of Bylaws

While the essence of bylaws can differ based on the nonprofit’s scale, mission, and operational design, the core elements generally include:

  • Organizational Name: Echoing the name specified in the articles of incorporation.
  • Stated Purpose: A reaffirmation of the mission and the purpose articulated in the articles of incorporation.
  • Membership: If the nonprofit includes members, this section delineates rights, induction and exit protocols, meeting standards, and voting processes.
  • Board of Directors: Comprehensive details on board composition, tenures, roles, responsibilities, elections, and meeting dynamics.
  • Officers’ Charter: A delineation of officer roles (such as Chairman, Secretary, CFO), their duties, and the election or appointment mechanism.
  • Committee Mandate: If the nonprofit envisages committee structures, this section details their purpose, formation, powers, and boundaries.
  • Conflict of Interest Framework: A robust policy to navigate situations where a board or staff member’s personal/business interests might collide with the nonprofit’s objectives.
  • Bylaw Amendment Protocols: Processes to modify, revise, or update bylaws.
  • Dissolution Blueprint: Stipulated procedures for organizational wind-up, detailing asset distribution, and aligning with IRS prerequisites for tax-exempt entities.

Bylaw Drafting Best Practices

  • Legal Collaboration: Engage a legal expert proficient in Maryland’s nonprofit regulations to ensure the bylaws are compliant, cohesive, and comprehensive.
  • Stakeholder Involvement: Draw insights from the board, employees, volunteers, and other significant stakeholders, fostering an inclusive and tailored bylaw design.
  • Precision and Clarity: Ambiguity is a foe in bylaws. Prioritize clarity, using unambiguous terminology and defining processes distinctly.
  • Adaptive Design: Strive for a balance between structure and adaptability. While bylaws should offer clear protocols, they must also cater to the organization’s evolving needs.
  • Periodic Reassessment: As the nonprofit matures, its operational dynamics may shift. Institute a regular (e.g., biennial) review of the bylaws to ensure their continued relevance and efficacy.

Bylaws sculpt the backbone of a nonprofit’s operations in Maryland. Their judicious design and regular assessment cement the organization’s foundational governance, operational efficiency, and legal resilience.

5 – Form a Board of Directors

A board of directors is pivotal for the sound governance and success of a nonprofit organization. Entrusted with crucial legal and ethical duties, the board takes decisions on behalf of the organization and closely monitors its activities. Here are the compelling reasons for having a board:

Why Having a Board is Essential

  • Legal Requirement: In Maryland, nonprofits are legally mandated to have a board of directors, much like in many other states.
  • Governance: The board undertakes strategic leadership roles, ensures the organization stays true to its mission, and is instrumental in major decision-making processes.
  • Stewardship: Entrusted with the assets of the nonprofit, the board ensures fiscal accountability, and responsible asset utilization, and plays a significant role in fundraising endeavors.
  • Accountability: The board keeps the nonprofit accountable to its foundational mission, its benefactors, and the larger public.
  • Risk Management: By discerning potential risks and introducing policies to address them, the board ensures smooth operations.

Criteria for Board Composition

  • Composition: While Maryland law requires a minimum of one director for nonprofits, best practice dictates having at least three directors to facilitate comprehensive decision-making and foster diverse viewpoints. Ideally, board members should possess varied skills and expertise aligned with the nonprofit’s mission.
  • Roles: Typically, a board consists of a Chair or President, a Vice-Chair or Vice-President, a Secretary, and a Treasurer. The Chair spearheads the board and guarantees its effective functioning, the Vice-Chair aids the Chair and is often the successor, the Secretary handles meeting minutes and maintains official records, and the Treasurer is entrusted with the nonprofit’s fiscal management.
  • Duties: Board members bear significant legal and fiduciary responsibilities. This includes the duty of care (acting in the nonprofit’s best interest), the duty of loyalty (prioritizing the nonprofit over personal interests), and the duty of obedience (guaranteeing compliance with legal directives and organizational objectives). Board members must actively engage in strategic planning, shaping policies, fundraising, financial scrutiny, and in the recruitment and assessment of the executive director.

Best Practices for Board Member Selection

  • Criteria Definition: Understand the skills, experience, and diversity needed on your board to adequately support the nonprofit’s mission and objectives. This might encompass expertise in diverse fields like finance, legal matters, fundraising, marketing, or domain-specific knowledge.
  • Recruitment Strategy: Develop a systematic approach to recruitment, possibly involving applications, nominations, interviews, and a rigorous vetting process. Be transparent about board service expectations.
  • Passion is Key: While expertise is crucial, it’s paramount to onboard members who resonate with your mission and can dedicate significant time and resources.
  • Diversity is Crucial: A heterogeneous board can offer varied perspectives, experiences, and insights, enriching decision-making and more adequately representing your target community.
  • Verification and Background Checks: This is vital, especially if board members are privy to financial details or sensitive data.
  • Induction and Training: On being inducted, board members should undergo a comprehensive orientation to familiarize them with their roles and duties.

Establishing a proficient, dedicated, and diverse board of directors is foundational to the robust governance and growth of your nonprofit in Maryland. Shouldering significant legal and ethical duties, the board serves as the strategic compass guiding the organization.

6 – File Articles of Incorporation

In Maryland, the Articles of Incorporation is a pivotal document that establishes your nonprofit as a legal entity. Filing this document with the Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation is the foundational step for any nonprofit organization seeking legal recognition within the state.

Steps to Draft and Lodge the Articles

  1. Drafting the Document: Before anything else, you need to ensure your Articles contain all the required elements. Considering the importance of this document, it might be prudent to consult with a legal expert specializing in Maryland’s nonprofit regulations to draft it accurately.
  2. Submit for Filing: After crafting the Articles, the next step is to file them with the Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation.
  3. Await Confirmation: Once you’ve submitted your Articles, the state will review them. Upon satisfactory assessment, the department will approve them, officially conferring your organization’s status as a legal entity.

Crucial Elements to Include in the Articles

Per Maryland’s regulations, specific details need to be part of your Articles of Incorporation:

  • Organization’s Name: Ensure the chosen name adheres to Maryland’s naming conventions and is distinct from existing entities.
  • Registered Agent and Address: Clearly identify the individual or entity designated to receive official communications and legal documents for your nonprofit. The agent must have a valid Maryland address.
  • Purpose Statement: Describe the main goals and objectives of your nonprofit. If seeking 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status from the IRS, the purpose needs to comply with their criteria.
  • Membership Provisions: Clearly indicate whether your nonprofit will have members.
  • Directors: Depending on the state requirements, you might need to list the initial board of directors or specify the method by which they’ll be selected.
  • Provisions for Asset Distribution Upon Dissolution: Describe the method for asset distribution if the nonprofit dissolves. For nonprofits desiring 501(c)(3) status, the IRS typically requires a statement ensuring assets will only be distributed to other tax-exempt entities.
  • Incorporator(s): Detail the person(s) responsible for filing the Articles, including names and addresses.
  • Duration: Specify if your nonprofit has a predetermined lifespan or if it’s intended to exist indefinitely.

Given that regulations and procedures can evolve, it’s wise to periodically check the Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation website or consult with an attorney familiar with Maryland nonprofit law to stay updated.

7 – Obtain an Employer Identification Number (EIN)

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) provides a unique nine-digit number to businesses operating across the United States, known as the Employer Identification Number (EIN) or Federal Tax Identification Number. It functions as an identifier for tax-related matters, similar to how an individual’s social security number operates. For nonprofits in Maryland, possessing an EIN is indispensable for activities like opening bank accounts, applying for tax-exempt status, and submitting tax returns.

Step-by-Step Guide

  1. Determine Your Eligibility: Before applying for an EIN online, ensure that you meet the IRS’s prerequisites. A valid Taxpayer Identification Number (be it a Social Security Number, EIN, or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number) is mandatory for the application process, and you’re allowed to apply for just one EIN each day.
  2. Familiarize Yourself with the Online Application: It’s essential to note that the online application process must be completed in one go; pausing and resuming later isn’t an option. After 15 minutes of inactivity, the session will time out.
  3. Apply Online: Navigate to the IRS website and engage with the EIN Assistant tool. The online method is the preferred route, with the added benefit of instantly receiving your EIN upon finishing the application.
  4. Provide the Necessary Details: This phase will require details about your Maryland nonprofit, such as its official name, the name of the responsible party, and a mailing address. Additionally, specifics about the type and expected activities of your nonprofit will be solicited.
  5. Finalize the Application: After inputting the required details, cross-check your responses, make amendments if needed, and submit the form.

Actions to Take Post EIN Acquisition

  • Bank Account Setup: With your EIN in hand, most banks in Maryland will allow you to open a business account.
  • Apply for 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Status: If your aim is to get your nonprofit recognized as a tax-exempt entity in Maryland, the EIN will be a requisite for filling out IRS Form 1023 or 1023-EZ (the Application for Recognition of Exemption).
  • Submission of State and Federal Returns: Employ the EIN for all tax documentation, inclusive of the federal Form 990 and Maryland state tax submissions or exemption requests.
  • Incorporate the EIN in Formal Documents: Always include your nonprofit’s EIN in official paperwork, like contracts or grant applications.
  • Maintain Correspondence with the IRS: For any future interactions with the IRS, your EIN will serve as the primary identifier.

In summation, your EIN acts as a pivotal identifier for your Maryland nonprofit, akin to how a personal social security number functions for an individual. Safeguard it diligently, but ensure it’s accessible for formal transactions or necessary document submissions.

8 – Apply for Tax Exemption

Nonprofit organizations in Maryland designed for public benefit can seek tax-exempt status from the IRS and Maryland. This status exempts them from corporate income tax on relevant earnings. Most nonprofits aim for the 501(c)(3) status, allowing tax-deductible donations for contributors.

Procedure to Obtain Federal Tax Exemption

  1. Check Eligibility: Confirm if your organization qualifies for the 501(c)(3) status. You must form and operate it exclusively for exempt objectives as the IRS outlines, and none of its earnings should go to any private individual or shareholder.
  2. Compile Your Application: Complete IRS Form 1023, “Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code,” or Form 1023-EZ, the “Streamlined Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.” Smaller nonprofits might be eligible to use the abbreviated 1023-EZ form.
  3. Gather Relevant Documents: This includes the EIN of your nonprofit, foundational documents such as the Articles of Incorporation, and organizational bylaws. Additionally, a detailed description of the proposed activities, financial data, and more will be needed.
  4. Submit the Application: Use the IRS’s platform to submit your application and pay the associated fee digitally.
  5. Wait for the IRS’s Decision: After submission, the IRS will assess your application and might request additional information. Upon approval, they will send a determination letter acknowledging your nonprofit’s tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3).

Process for Maryland State Tax Exemption

  • Sales and Use Tax Exemption: Nonprofits in Maryland can apply for exemption from state sales and use tax for purchases related to their charitable mission. To seek this exemption, organizations must apply through the Comptroller of Maryland. Proper forms and documentation are needed to demonstrate the nonprofit’s qualifying activities.
  • Property Tax Exemption: Nonprofits that utilize properties solely for their tax-exempt purpose can apply for a property tax exemption in Maryland. This application process varies by county and usually requires submission to the local county’s tax assessment office.
  • Income Tax Exemption: After the IRS has recognized a nonprofit as tax-exempt, the organization automatically gains exemption from Maryland’s corporate income tax. However, you must submit a copy of the IRS determination letter to the Maryland Comptroller’s Office to ensure this recognition.

Achieving tax-exempt status is crucial for nonprofits, as it provides not only financial benefits but also makes the organization more enticing to potential donors. Always consult with a knowledgeable professional or attorney to ensure you correctly fill out and file all documents.

9 – Obtain Necessary Licenses and Permits

Like their for-profit counterparts, nonprofits in Maryland may also require various licenses and permits to legally operate within the state. The type and number of licenses depend on your nonprofit’s activities. They also hinge on employee numbers and your locality.

Common Licenses and Permits

  • Business License: Certain cities or counties may require a business license for entities conducting operations within their boundaries.
  • Charitable Solicitation Registration: If your nonprofit intends to solicit donations in Maryland, you must register with the Maryland Secretary of State.
  • Professional Fundraiser Registration: Their registration with the state becomes imperative if you employ a professional fundraiser.
  • Building Permit: Undertaking construction or renovation projects will typically necessitate a building permit from the relevant local government.
  • Health Permits: Engaging in food preparation or distribution mandates a health permit.
  • Employment-Related Permits: Having employees requires adherence to employment regulations, encompassing workers’ compensation insurance, unemployment insurance tax, and more.

Procedure to Acquire These Licenses and Permits

  • Business License: Contact your respective city or county administrative office to discern if a business license is necessary and the procedure for its procurement. This usually means completing an application and submitting a fee.
  • Charitable Solicitation Registration: To obtain this registration, you’ll need to fill out the appropriate forms with the Maryland Secretary of State. These forms solicit information concerning your nonprofit and its financial dealings.
  • Professional Fundraiser Registration: Registering a professional fundraiser requires a distinct process. This involves filling out the requisite forms and supplying any requested supplemental documentation.
  • Other Licenses and Permits: Engage with the relevant state or local department. Clarify the process for any additional permits your nonprofit might need.

Maintaining Compliance

After procuring the needed licenses and permits, it’s paramount to keep up with any continued requirements:

  • Renewals: Some licenses and permits have an expiration and necessitate regular renewal. Always be cognizant of these renewal dates to prevent potential lapses.
  • Reporting: Certain licenses or permits may entail periodic reports or record-keeping obligations.
  • Updates: Any major shifts in nonprofit operations, address, or other salient information might require you to modify your license or permit details.
  • Regulatory Adherence: Familiarize yourself with any regulations pertinent to your licenses or permits and guarantee that your nonprofit complies.

Overseeing the various licenses and permits for your nonprofit can be intricate, but it’s a fundamental facet of operating within legal bounds in Maryland. Always consider obtaining advice from a professional or legal counsel to ensure complete compliance.


Embarking on the journey of starting a nonprofit in Maryland is a rewarding endeavor. Each phase, from articulating your mission to securing the appropriate licenses and permits, is crucial in starting a nonprofit that can make a profound difference in your community.

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