What Is a 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organization?

Volunteer serving sandwiches in a community kitchen.
••• KidStock/Blend Images/Getty Images

What Is a 501(c)(3) Nonprofit?

Covered by Section 501(c) of the United States Internal Revenue Code, nonprofits, in general, are called 501(c) organizations. Under that code, many types of organizations receive some exemption from federal income taxes.

The most common type of nonprofit organization, the 501(c)(3), is the one we are most likely to think of when we imagine a “nonprofit.” They are the charities to which we turn for help and that we support with our tax-deductible donations. This type of nonprofit is called a charitable nonprofit, a public nonprofit, or simply a charity.

To achieve tax exemption as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the organization must serve one or more of these purposes:

  • charitable 
  • religious
  • educational
  • scientific 
  • literary 
  • testing for public safety 
  • fostering amateur sports competition 
  • preventing cruelty to children or animals.

Also, "charitable" organizations must go further by explaining how they serve the public good. The IRS states:

Charitable Organizations If your organization is applying for recognition of exemption as a charitable organization, it must show that it is organized and operated for purposes that are beneficial to the public interest. Some examples of this type of organization are those organized for the:
• Relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged,
• Advancement of religion,
• Advancement of education or science,
• Erection or maintenance of public buildings, monuments, or works,
• Lessening the burdens of government,
• Lessening of neighborhood tensions,
• Elimination of prejudice and discrimination,
• Defense of human and civil rights secured by law, and
• Combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.

Typical qualifying organizations for the charitable designation include 

  • Nursing homes, 
  • Parent-teacher associations, 
  • Charitable hospitals, 
  • Alumni associations, 
  • Schools, 
  • Chapters of the Red Cross or Salvation Army, Boys' or Girl's clubs, and 
  • Churches.

501(c)(3) Charitable Nonprofits Fall into Two Categories

The first is a public charity. The IRS defines a public charity as “not a private foundation.” Public charities receive most of their income from the general public or the government. Public support must be broad rather than limited to a few people or families.

The second category is a private foundation. Foundations receive their income from investments and endowments rather than the general public.

In this article, we discuss the public charity. Learn more about private foundations at The History and Types of US Foundations.

The Requirements for 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Status

To receive the benefits of tax-exemption, a 501(c)(3) organization must meet several requirements beyond serving the charitable purposes listed above. 

These requirements are:

  • It must be organized and operated only for exempt purposes.
  • It must not be organized or operated for the benefit of any private interest. Its net earnings may not benefit any private shareholder or individual. Nonprofits can make a profit, but that profit must support charitable purposes only.
  • It is restricted in its political and lobbying activities.

What Benefits Do 501(c)(3) Nonprofits Enjoy?

It is helpful for a nonprofit organization to seek tax exemption. The benefits include:

Are There Drawbacks to Becoming a Tax-Exempt Nonprofit?

Yes, nonprofit status is not for everyone. Disadvantages are usually the flip side of the advantages.

For instance, some groups may think that not sharing profits with directors, officers, members, or staff is unfair.

Income-producing activities not related to the group’s nonprofit purpose are limited. The IRS examines unrelated income and, if it is large, the nonprofit may have to pay taxes and penalties.

If the nonprofit closes, it must give its remaining assets (after paying creditors) to another exempt organization.

How Do You Apply to Become a Tax-Exempt Nonprofit Organization?

Once incorporated, you may use one of two possible applications. Most nonprofits use Form 1023, Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. If your organization is small, you may qualify for Form 1023-EZ, Streamlined Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. You can determine if you qualify for this easier option by filling out the Eligibility Worksheet. 

When Do You Apply for Tax-Exemption?

To receive a tax-exemption dating from the date of your incorporation, you need to file IRS Form 1023 or 1023-EZ within 27 months.

If you file after 27 months, your exemption will only be valid from the application's postmark date.

You may file for an extension of the 27-month deadline by explaining why you failed to complete the 1023 application process on time.

You can find the acceptable reasons for late filing in the instructions for 1023. They include bad advice and inadequate information from a lawyer, accountant, or IRS employee.

Also, read what a 501(c)(7) tax-exempt social club is.

NOTE: Three groups are not required to file Form 1023. They include 


This article is just for informational purposes. It is not intended to be legal advice. Check other sources, such as the IRS, and consult with legal counsel or an accountant.

Article Sources

  1. IRS. "Publication 557, Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization." Accessed Jan. 17, 2020.

  2. IRS. "Publication 557," Pages 47-59. Accessed Jan. 17, 2020.

  3. IRS. "Publication 557, Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization," Page 22. Accessed Jan. 17, 2020.

  4. IRS. "Publication 557, Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization," Page 21. Accessed Jan. 17, 2020.

  5. IRS. "Publication 557, Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization," Page 28. Accessed Jan. 17, 2020.

  6. IRS. "Publication 557, Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization," Page 31. Accessed Jan. 17, 2020.

  7. IRS. "Publication 557, Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization," Page 29. Accessed Jan. 17, 2020.

  8. IRS. "How to lose your 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status (without really trying)." Accessed Jan. 17, 2020.

  9. USPS. "Who Qualifies for Nonprofit Prices?" Accessed Jan. 17.2020.

  10. IRS. "Tax on Unrelated Business Income of Exempt Organizations." Accessed Jan. 17, 2020.

  11. IRS. "Termination of an Exempt Organization." Accessed Jan. 17, 2020.

  12. IRS. "Publication 557, Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization," Page 23. Accessed Jan. 17, 2020.

  13. IRS. "Publication 557, Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization," Page 24. Accessed Jan. 17, 2020.