How to Start a Nonprofit in Michigan: A Guide to Success

How to Start a Nonprofit in Michigan

Starting a nonprofit in Michigan is a fulfilling way to contribute to a cause you care deeply about. The process, though rewarding, involves navigating specific laws, regulations, and procedures unique to the state. This guide will provide you with a clear roadmap to understand and undertake the necessary steps, from defining your mission to obtaining licenses and permits.

1 – Define Your Mission

Defining your mission is the cornerstone of starting a nonprofit organization. It provides direction, focus, and a clear vision that aligns everyone involved with the purpose of the organization. A well-defined mission acts as a compass, guiding all decisions, actions, and strategies, ensuring that the organization stays true to its core purpose.

In the context of a nonprofit, the mission is not just a statement; it’s a promise to the community you’re serving. It helps stakeholders, including donors, volunteers, and the community at large, understand what your organization does, who it serves, and how it intends to make a difference.

How to Identify the Needs Your Nonprofit Will Address

Identifying the needs your nonprofit will address begins with research and community engagement. Here’s a step-by-step approach:

  1. Assessment of Community Needs: Understand the community’s specific problems or needs through surveys, interviews, public records, and direct observations.
  2. Analyze Existing Services: Investigate other organizations and services already in place to avoid duplicating efforts.
  3. Engage with the Community: Collaborate with local stakeholders to understand their perspectives and needs better.
  4. Prioritize Needs: Evaluate the importance and urgency of different needs to focus your efforts effectively.

Crafting a Mission Statement that Reflects Your Values and Goals

An effective mission statement must be clear, concise, and reflect the core values and goals of the organization. Here’s a guideline on how to craft such a statement:

  1. Core Purpose: Begin with a clear description of what the organization seeks to accomplish.
  2. Values: Include the values that underpin the organization’s actions and decisions.
  3. Specificity: Make sure to outline the specific community or cause that the nonprofit will serve.
  4. Inspiration: Write it in a way that inspires action, reflecting the positive change the organization intends to bring.

Examples of Effective Mission Statements

Effective mission statements often follow the above guidelines. Here are some examples:

  1. Feeding America: “Our mission is to feed America’s hungry through a nationwide network of member food banks and engage our country in the fight to end hunger.”
  2. Habitat for Humanity: “Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities, and hope.”
  3. Michigan Environmental Council: “The Michigan Environmental Council leads Michigan’s environmental movement to achieve positive change through public policy solutions.”

These examples show clarity in purpose, a focus on values, specificity in targeting their audience, and a sense of inspiration that can motivate stakeholders.

2 – Laws and Regulations for Nonprofits in Michigan

Navigating both federal and Michigan-specific laws for nonprofits is a fundamental aspect of establishing and maintaining a compliant organization. Let’s delve into the overview, types of entities, registration and reporting requirements, and the importance of understanding this legal landscape.

Federal and Michigan-Specific Laws Governing Nonprofits

Federal Laws:

  • Tax Exemptions: Under the IRS, section 501(c)(3) provides tax-exempt status for qualifying nonprofits, making them exempt from federal income taxes.
  • Employment Laws: Federal labor laws, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), apply to nonprofits in areas like minimum wage, overtime, and child labor.

Michigan-Specific Laws:

  • Michigan Nonprofit Corporation Act: This governs the formation, operation, and dissolution of nonprofit corporations in Michigan.
  • Charitable Solicitations Act: This law regulates fundraising activities and requires registration and reporting for organizations that solicit donations.
  • State Tax Laws: Specific to Michigan, nonprofits may be eligible for exemptions from state sales, use, and property taxes.

Types of Nonprofit Entities and Their Legal Distinctions

In Michigan, there are several legal structures available for nonprofits, each with distinct legal and operational characteristics.

  1. Nonprofit Corporation: Offers liability protection for members and is the most common structure. Must comply with the Michigan Nonprofit Corporation Act.
  2. Unincorporated Nonprofit Association: Less formal and without the legal separateness from its members, it may be more suitable for small, community-based groups.
  3. Charitable Trusts: Often used for long-term endowments or gifts, it’s governed by trust laws.

Registration and Reporting Requirements


  • Incorporation: Filing Articles of Incorporation with the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) is essential for legal recognition.
  • Charitable Solicitation Licensing: Required for nonprofits engaged in fundraising.


  • Annual Reports: Must be filed with LARA to maintain good standing.
  • Federal Tax Returns: Required, even if exempt from federal income taxes, using IRS Form 990 or a related form.
  • State Tax Returns: May be required based on specific activities and exemptions.

Importance of Understanding the Legal Landscape

Compliance with both federal and Michigan laws is not just a legal obligation but also vital for maintaining public trust and organizational integrity. Understanding these laws helps:

  • Avoid Legal Pitfalls: Missteps in compliance can lead to penalties, loss of tax-exempt status, or even legal action.
  • Protect Reputation: Transparency and adherence to laws enhance credibility with donors, volunteers, and the community.
  • Facilitate Operations: A clear understanding of legal requirements smoothens daily operations, decision-making, and interactions with various stakeholders.
  • Promote Ethical Conduct: Embracing the legal framework promotes ethical behavior within the organization, aligning with the principles of social responsibility.

3 – Choose a Name

Choosing a name for your nonprofit organization is a crucial step that involves more than just creativity. The name represents the identity, mission, and values of the organization. In Michigan, there are specific guidelines, requirements, and procedures to follow in selecting and registering a name for a nonprofit. Here’s a detailed look:

1 – Guidelines for Selecting a Unique and Meaningful Name

  1. Reflect the Purpose: The name should resonate with the mission and vision of the organization. It can communicate the cause you’re supporting or the community you’re serving.
  2. Uniqueness: Make sure the name is distinctive to avoid confusion with other entities, particularly in the same field or geographic area.
  3. Consider Future Growth: Choose a name that won’t limit the organization’s activities or geographical reach in the future.
  4. Avoid Misleading Terms: The name should not imply a purpose or activity that is not aligned with the organization’s actual operations.
  5. Memorability: Opt for a name that is easy to remember, spell, and pronounce, as this aids in branding and outreach.

2 – Michigan-Specific Requirements and Restrictions

  1. Legally Required Words: In Michigan, a nonprofit corporation must include a corporate designator such as “Corporation,” “Incorporated,” “Limited,” or an abbreviation of one of these terms.
  2. Prohibited Words: Certain words may be restricted or prohibited, such as those that imply a governmental or educational affiliation without proper authorization.
  3. Compliance with Other Laws: The chosen name must not violate any trademarks or intellectual property rights.

3 – Searching for Name Availability

Before settling on a name, it is essential to check its availability to ensure no other entity in Michigan is using it. Here’s how:

  1. Online Search: Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) provides an online business name search tool that allows you to check the availability of a name.
  2. Consider Trademark Search: Conducting a search with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) can ensure the name does not infringe on any federal trademarks.

4 – Registering the Name

  1. Incorporation Process: When you file the Articles of Incorporation with LARA, the name gets registered as part of that process, provided it is available and meets all state requirements.
  2. Name Reservation (Optional): If you are not yet ready to incorporate, you may reserve the chosen name for a period of up to 180 days by filing a name reservation application with LARA and paying the required fee.

Choosing and registering a name for your nonprofit in Michigan is a thoughtful process that combines creativity with legal compliance. By adhering to guidelines, understanding Michigan-specific requirements, thoroughly searching for availability, and properly registering the name, you lay a strong foundation for your organization’s identity and legal standing.

4 – Create Bylaws

Bylaws are a vital legal document for a nonprofit organization, laying the groundwork for its governance and operation. They serve as an internal manual that guides how the organization will function, be governed, and make decisions. Creating bylaws is a foundational step in establishing a nonprofit, especially in Michigan. Here’s an in-depth look at what they are, why they’re essential, what should be included, how to draft them, and their role in governance and operation.

What Bylaws Are and Why They Are Essential

Bylaws are a set of rules and procedures that outline how an organization will operate. They act as a contract among members and provide guidance for virtually every aspect of organizational governance. Here’s why they are essential:

  • Legal Compliance: In many states, including Michigan, bylaws are legally required for nonprofit corporations.
  • Clear Guidelines: Bylaws provide clear procedures for decision-making, resolving disputes, and daily operations.
  • Transparency: They offer a transparent system that helps in building trust with stakeholders including members, donors, and regulatory authorities.

Key Elements That Should Be Included in the Bylaws

The bylaws of a nonprofit organization must be comprehensive, covering several key areas:

  1. Name and Purpose: This section includes the name of the organization and its mission.
  2. Membership: If applicable, detail the criteria for membership, rights, responsibilities, and procedures for termination.
  3. Board of Directors: Include the size, powers, responsibilities, election process, term lengths, meeting frequency, and procedures for removal and filling vacancies.
  4. Officers: Define the officers’ roles, duties, election or appointment process, and terms.
  5. Meetings: Specify how often meetings will take place, notice requirements, and quorum rules.
  6. Committees: Outline any standing or special committees and their functions.
  7. Conflict of Interest Policy: Include a policy to handle potential conflicts of interest.
  8. Amendment Procedures: Explain how the bylaws can be amended in the future.
  9. Dissolution Clause: This outlines how the organization’s assets will be distributed upon dissolution.

Legal Requirements

In Michigan, the drafting of bylaws for nonprofit organizations must be in compliance with the Michigan Nonprofit Corporation Act (Act 162 of 1982). The Act stipulates that bylaws should include provisions regarding the management of the business and regulation of the affairs of the corporation. While Michigan law does not mandate that bylaws be filed with the state, they must be kept at the nonprofit’s principal office.

The bylaws must outline procedures related to meetings, voting, quorums, and the appointment and duties of officers and directors. Michigan’s law also allows for flexibility in bylaw provisions unless specifically prohibited by law or the Articles of Incorporation.

If the organization will have members, you must also clearly state the details regarding their rights, responsibilities, and the conditions of membership within the bylaws.

Bylaws should also align with other state-specific requirements. Such as annual reporting obligations to the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), and adherence to Michigan-specific conflict of interest regulations.

The Role of Bylaws in Governance and Operation

Bylaws play a critical role in the governance and operation of a nonprofit organization:

  • Governance Framework: They establish the structure and rules for governance, ensuring consistency and fairness.
  • Operational Guide: Bylaws serve as a reference guide for daily operations and decision-making.
  • Dispute Resolution: They provide a framework for resolving internal disputes.
  • Compliance and Accountability: By adhering to bylaws, the organization demonstrates compliance with laws and accountability to stakeholders.

5 – Appoint a Board of Directors

The board of directors is fundamental to the governance and direction of a nonprofit organization. They are responsible for setting the organization’s mission and strategic goals, ensuring that everything aligns with the needs and values of the community served. Collaboratively working with staff and stakeholders, they help shape the vision and ensure that the organization adheres to its foundational principles.

Part of the board’s role involves financial oversight. They are responsible for:

  • Approving Budgets: Ensuring that the budget aligns with the mission and goals.
  • Monitoring Financial Statements: Regularly reviewing the organization’s financial health.
  • Compliance with Reporting Requirements: Following Michigan’s specific financial regulations and standards.

The board of directors also holds a significant legal responsibility. Ensuring legal compliance is not merely about adhering to state and federal laws but involves a deeper understanding of the broader legal landscape. This includes risk management, where the directors identify potential organizational risks and implement strategies to mitigate them.

Another key aspect of a board’s role is in hiring and evaluating executive staff. This includes:

  • Leading Searches for Key Roles: Crafting job descriptions, reviewing applications, and interviewing candidates.
  • Conducting Regular Evaluations: Providing feedback and support to executive staff to ensure alignment with the organization’s goals.

Legal Requirements for Board Composition

The legal composition of a nonprofit board in Michigan is carefully stipulated. A board must consist of at least three directors, with no specific residency requirements, and they must be at least 18 years old. Clear policies must be established to identify and manage conflicts of interest in accordance with legal and ethical standards within the state.

How to Select Board Members

Selecting the right board members is a critical task, involving several key steps:

  • Identifying Needs: Assessing the board’s current composition and identifying the skills or perspectives that are lacking.
  • Recruiting and Evaluating Candidates: Utilizing various channels to attract suitable candidates and conducting a robust evaluation to ensure alignment with organizational needs.
  • Onboarding and Training: Educating new members about the mission, bylaws, and culture of the organization, and providing ongoing training to enhance engagement.

Board Responsibilities and Oversight

Board responsibilities in a Michigan nonprofit are extensive, encompassing:

  • Strategic Planning: Leading in the formulation of long-term plans, reviewing, and adapting strategies to ensure alignment with changing circumstances.
  • Financial Management: Providing oversight on how financial resources are utilized, including conducting or overseeing annual financial audits if required.
  • Legal Compliance: Adapting to changes in Michigan laws that pertain to nonprofit organizations.
  • Fundraising and Performance Monitoring: Actively participating in fundraising, aligning with legal standards, and evaluating progress toward organizational goals.
  • Ethical Leadership: Promoting and adhering to high ethical standards within the organization and the broader community.

Through careful attention to these areas, nonprofit organizations in Michigan can form and sustain a board that provides robust support, oversight, and leadership. Balancing these responsibilities with compliance to Michigan’s specific legal requirements is vital for the successful governance and impact of a nonprofit organization.

6 – File Articles of Incorporation

Articles of Incorporation are the legal documents that officially form a nonprofit corporation. In Michigan, filing the Articles of Incorporation is a vital step in establishing a nonprofit, setting forth the basic governing structure of the organization, and complying with state law.

These documents provide essential information about the organization’s purpose, governance, and operation and serve as a record with the state, marking the official creation of the nonprofit entity.

Information Required in the Articles

The Articles of Incorporation typically include specific information, including:

  • Name of the Corporation: This must be unique and comply with Michigan’s specific naming guidelines.
  • Purpose: A clear statement defining the organization’s mission and the specific activities it will undertake.
  • Registered Agent and Office: Information about the registered agent in Michigan and the principal office address.
  • Incorporator(s): The name(s) and address(es) of the person(s) responsible for forming the corporation.
  • Board of Directors: Information about the initial directors if applicable.
  • Provisions for Regulating the Affairs of the Corporation: Any necessary provisions related to the internal governance of the nonprofit.
  • Duration of the Corporation: Whether the corporation will exist perpetually or for a specific period.

In Michigan, certain additional clauses may be required if the organization intends to seek federal tax-exempt status.

How and Where to File in Michigan

In Michigan, you file Articles of Incorporation with the Corporations Division of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). You can do this online through the LARA website or by mailing a printed form.

It’s advisable to consult with an attorney or other legal professional with experience in Michigan nonprofit law to ensure that you draft the Articles correctly.

7 – Obtain an Employer Identification Number (EIN)

In forming a nonprofit organization in Michigan, once the Articles of Incorporation have been filed and the organization has been officially recognized by the state, the next essential step is to obtain an EIN.

An Employer Identification Number (EIN) is a distinct nine-digit number issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This unique identifier is essential for various reasons within a nonprofit entity:

  • Federal Tax Reporting: It’s used for tax purposes, enabling the organization to file federal tax returns.
  • Banking and Financial Activities: Banks often require an EIN to open a business bank account.
  • Employment Requirements: If the nonprofit plans to hire employees, the EIN is necessary for employment tax reporting.

Step-by-Step Guide on How to Obtain an EIN

  1. Determine Eligibility: Ensure that the Articles of Incorporation have been properly filed with Michigan state, as this information will be necessary when applying for an EIN.
  2. Choose a Responsible Party: Designate an individual, typically an officer or director, who will act on behalf of the organization in obtaining the EIN.
  3. Apply Online or by Mail:
    • Online (Preferred Method): The IRS’s online application system allows for immediate processing. Complete the application form on the official IRS website.
    • By Mail: If preferred, fill out IRS Form SS-4 and mail it to the specified address on the form. Note that this method may take several weeks.
  4. Provide Required Information: Whether online or by mail, the application requires details about the organization, such as its legal name, address, purpose, and structure.
  5. Receive and Record the EIN: Upon successful application, the EIN will be provided. It’s crucial to record and store this number safely, as it will be regularly needed.

The process of obtaining an EIN is a fundamental and necessary step in the formation and operation of a nonprofit organization in Michigan. While the process itself is generally straightforward, attention to the required details and careful recording of the EIN ensures smooth operations as the organization grows and engages in its mission-driven activities.

8 – Apply for Tax Exemption

After obtaining an EIN, the next essential step for a nonprofit organization in Michigan is to apply for tax-exempt status. This status is a defining feature of nonprofit organizations and comes with various advantages.

Tax-exempt status, particularly under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, signifies that the nonprofit is exempt from federal corporate income taxes on income related to its mission. This status is vital for nonprofits in Michigan and across the United States.

The benefits of tax-exempt status in Michigan are significant:

  • Tax Savings: Nonprofits with tax-exempt status do not have to pay federal and often Michigan state corporate income taxes.
  • Eligibility for Grants: Many public and private grants in Michigan are only available to nonprofits with tax-exempt status.
  • Donor Incentives: Donors can deduct contributions to 501(c)(3) nonprofits on their federal and Michigan state tax returns, encouraging them to donate.
  • Postage Savings: Nonprofits in Michigan may be eligible for lower postal rates on bulk mailings.

Process of Applying for Federal Tax-Exempt Status

  1. Prepare your Application: Fill out Form 1023, the Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Smaller Michigan nonprofits may be eligible to use Form 1023-EZ.
  2. Submit your Application: Send the application to the IRS, along with the required supporting documents.
  3. Pay the Application Fee: Depending on your organization’s budget, the IRS requires a fee to process your application.
  4. Await the Determination Letter: The IRS will send a determination letter upon approval, confirming your organization’s federal tax exemption.

Michigan-Specific Requirements for Tax Exemption

In Michigan, additional procedures and exemptions apply:

  • Exemption from Michigan Corporate Income Tax: Once you receive the 501(c)(3) determination letter from the IRS, your nonprofit might also qualify for exemption from Michigan’s corporate income tax.
  • Sales and Use Tax Exemption: Michigan nonprofits must apply to the Michigan Department of Treasury with Form 3372 to be exempt from sales and use taxes.

For Michigan nonprofits seeking exemption from sales and use taxes:

  • Eligibility: The organization must be organized and operated exclusively for charitable, educational, or scientific purposes.
  • Apply for Exemption: Complete Form 3372 and submit it to the Michigan Department of Treasury.
  • Renew Exemption if Necessary: Michigan may have specific renewal procedures, so it’s crucial to keep up with any changes in state laws and regulations.

Tax-exempt status in Michigan, like elsewhere, comes with ongoing rules and restrictions at both federal and state levels. Limitations on political activities, filing of annual tax returns, and compliance with various other regulations are mandatory. Failure to comply with these rules may result in the revocation of your tax-exempt status. So understanding and following Michigan’s specific laws and regulations is vital.

9 – Obtain Necessary Licenses and Permits

Even as a nonprofit organization in Michigan, there are likely a number of licenses and permits you’ll need to legally operate within the state. Ensuring you have the proper licensing is a key part of running a compliant nonprofit in Michigan.

Why Licenses and Permits are Necessary

Licenses and permits serve several purposes in the operation of a nonprofit organization:

  • Legal Compliance: Obtaining the necessary licenses and permits ensures that your organization is operating within the boundaries of local, state, and federal laws in Michigan.
  • Public Trust: Having the right licenses can also increase the public’s trust in your organization, making them more likely to donate or support your cause in Michigan.
  • Avoiding Penalties: Failure to obtain necessary licenses and permits can lead to fines, sanctions, or even the closure of your nonprofit in Michigan.

Overview of Common Licenses and Permits

The licenses and permits required for a nonprofit in Michigan can vary depending on the nature of the organization’s activities. Here are a few common ones:

  • Charitable Solicitation License: Michigan requires a license to solicit donations, so nonprofits intending to solicit contributions must register with the Michigan Attorney General’s Charitable Trust Section.
  • Business License: Depending on local regulations in Michigan, your nonprofit may need a basic business license to operate in your city or county.
  • Fundraising Event Permits: If your organization plans to hold special events like raffles or bingo games, you may need a license or permit from the Michigan Lottery Charitable Gaming Division.
  • Sales Tax Exemption: If your nonprofit qualifies for sales tax exemption in Michigan, you’ll need to file Form 3372 with the Michigan Department of Treasury.

Procedure for Obtaining These Licenses and Permits

  • Charitable Solicitation License: You must file a registration statement before soliciting contributions in Michigan. You can find the forms on the Michigan Attorney General’s website. Additional documents, such as financial statements, may be required.
  • Business License: Check with your local city or county government office in Michigan to learn the process for obtaining a basic business license.
  • Fundraising Event Permits: For permits to conduct charitable gaming activities, check the Michigan Lottery Charitable Gaming Division’s website for application forms and information on the application process.
  • Sales Tax Exemption: Complete and submit Form 3372 to the Michigan Department of Treasury to apply for exemption from sales and use taxes in Michigan.

Every nonprofit in Michigan is unique, and the specific licenses and permits your organization will need may vary. Thorough research and consultation with a Michigan legal professional, if needed, are vital to ensure that your nonprofit is fully compliant with all local and state requirements. This due diligence will help your organization flourish in Michigan’s vibrant nonprofit landscape.


Starting a nonprofit in Michigan is a process filled with both challenges and rewards. By adhering to the state’s specific guidelines and legal requirements, you can build a strong foundation for an organization that truly makes a difference. Your careful attention to these details will pave the way for success in your mission and community engagement.

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