What is 501(c)3?

The federal government allows certain organizations to be exempt from federal income taxes. This is called tax-exempt status. Before you can be a 501(c)3 tax-exempt entity, the organizaton must first have a federal EIN number which means the organization must first be incorporated at the state level. It is important to understand that 501(c)3 tax-exepmpt status does not automatically qualify organizations for tax exemption at the state or local level.

501(c)3 organizations are also referred to as public charities. This means the organization is only allowed to operate as a charity - meaning none of its earnings are allowed to benefit an individual or shareholder. 501(c)3 organiztions are also restricted from political action activities or political campaign activities. The idea is that a 501(c)3 may not benefit private individuals, but only operate to benefit a charitable charter. Examples of 501(c)3 organizations are relief organizations, religious organizations, educational foundations, and animal rescues.

Public charities may also receive contributions that are tax-deductible. This means contributors who itemize deductions can write-off the expense from their taxable income.

What are the benefits of an animal rescue organizing as a 501(c)3

1. Tax exempt status allows the organization to allocate more of its funds to the operation, rather than paying federal taxes from its income.

2. Public Charities can attract more donations because the donations are tax-deductable for the donors.

3. 501(c)3 organizations garner more credibility with other charitable organizations and therefore it is easier to qualify for free booth space at non-profit shows, qualify for membership in releif organizations, and get cooperation from local and regional shelters and authorities. This is because the background information disclosed to the federal government and the process for approval may be rigorous depending on the timing. After hurricane Katrina, for example, the federal government was eyeing applications more carefully because some organizations who applied for tax-exempt status were found to be fraudulent money-raising scams.

4. Public Charities can find fund-raising through grants to be a little easier. Sometimes tax-exempt status is a prerequisite for grants.

5. Public Charities can legally run raffles or other fund-raising activities so long as local permits are secured.

6. Breeding-for-profit does not qualify for public charity status. Public Charities therefore are established in the public trust as not profiting from the sale or breeding of animals.

What is the procedure for filling for 501(c)3 status?

1. First, you must set up your organization as a trust, association or corporation. This is done at the state level. Most non-profits are set up as corporations at the state level. You can do a do-it-yourself incorporation with an incorporation helper organiazation, or you can hire an attorney to do it for you. To incorporate you set up a corporate charter, hold an original meeting of shareholders, elect directors and officers, and establish by-laws. Most of this is boilerplate and can be done easily by professionals. Doing it yourself takes a lot of study and time. If you set up your company with a lawyer or a helper firm, it can be done in a week or two at a cost of between 700 and $1,800 dollars. In most cases, this will iclude the incorporaton fees from the state. Within a week or two, you will receive a binder with your corporate seal, shares register, charter, by-laws and minutes of the first meeting of the shareholders, directors and officer appointments.

It is typical that this process will include a simultaneous application for a federal EIN number. This EIN number will become the basis for you filing for 501(c)3. Without it, you cannot get 501(c)3 status.

Some states may also offer tax-exempt status. Some will only award tax-exempt status to animal rescues if the rescue is open to all animals, not just sugar gliders. Once you have incorporated in your state, you will need to inquire as to whether or not you need a state business license and a county or city business license. Both of these will cost in the hundreds of dollars for each year of operation.

2. IRS Publication 557 establishes what organizations qualify for tax exempt status. This is an important consideration. For example, if you are a breeder and sell or broker animals for profit, that would disqualify you for 501(c)3 status. This is because a public charity cannot benefit an individual or shareholders. This is one of the reasons why commercial breeders are not public charities.

3. You need to fill out Form 1023, which is called "Application for Recognition of Exemption." Depending on the gross receipts of the entity in the preceding 4 years of operation, a fee of $400 or $850 (gross receipts over $10,000) must accompany the application. On the first page, you must include the EIN number or else the appliacation will be rejected. You must also include with the application your company's "organizing documents." (Corporate charter, list of officers, bylaws).

4. If your company or organization has been in constant operation for more than three years, you do not need to submit any financial information. If your company is new you have to submit financial statements for the current year and pro-forma budgets for the next two years. This needs to include details on projected revenue and expenses.

5. You need to submit background information on the organization and its founders. This includes information on the mission of the organization, day-to-day operations, and some history on how the organization was founded and the services it provides.

All in all, the body of paperwork for this submission is about 30 pages. We recommend you hire an accountant to help you with this. Accountants who are familiar with the 501(c)3 process are the best to consult with. The charge for help in filing will average around $1,000 but does not include the user fee from the federal government.

It may take as long as two or three months to hear back from the federal government on your 501(c)3 status.

It is still a good idea to file a federal tax return each year even if you technically have no taxes to pay. The cost to get an tax accountant's help on this is in the hundreds of dollars. This is an important consideration because if you file for grants or loans, tax returns are often needed.


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Last Edited July 6, 2011