Choose a Business Name

Once you’ve chosen a name for your organization that conveys or is consistent with your mission, make sure it’s unique, not too similar to another registered name in Washington, and doesn’t contain any restricted/deceptive wording. Be sure to read the WA Non-Profit Handbook to get the particulars (pg. 22)

Then, once you’ve chosen a name check for any naming conflicts by conducting a free Business Entity Search through the state. If needed, you can file a Name Reservation form with the Sec. of State to protect the name for up to 180 days so you have plenty of time to file Articles of Incorporation in Step 5.

Filing Fee: $20


Choose a Registered Agent

Your registered agent will be a legal representative of your non-profit, but not in a lawyer or attorney-sense. It’s their job to officially receive/process critical documents like state filings, legal notices, tax forms, and so forth. This is why they have to be either a Washington resident individual/citizen or a legally registered business entity with a street address and be reliable during all regular business days/hours.

For most the two options they confront are either a) hiring an outside 3rd party which can cost upwards of $160/yr, or they get cheaper rates or deals through providers. For example, when you incorporate with IncFile or BizFilings they provide a registered agent for free for the first year.


Choose the Initial Directors

Washington requires your non-profit have at least 1 initial incorporator who among other things is responsible for filing the Articles of Incorporation with the state in Step 5. There can be more than one, yes, but these types of rules are subject to change over time. You’ll also need to select at least 1 Director who will oversee the non-profit until your initial meeting in Step 7.

Because this part can get complex thanks to the legal/tax nature of non-profits, if possible it’s a good idea to either hire the best non-profit lawyer you can afford or partner with professional incorporation services who can provide expert assistance to see it’s done right and you fully understand what’s going on.


Register an LLCIncorporated non-profits need to have bylaws, or rules, that first and foremost determine how it’s governed. They also state the mission of the non-profit and steer it’s course. They are essential. Other common bylaws touch on aspect like:

  • How meetings are to be conducted.
  • How new officers and directors are elected.
  • How voting takes place, disputes handled, and records kept/managed.
  • Adding/Amending bylaws (any changes must be reported to the IRS after incorporation).
  • How to handle other non-profit organization formalities in the state of Washington.

If this is all new to you, use this savvy Corporate Bylaws Template which you can customize for your non-profit and get an idea of the paperwork-side of bylaws.


How to Choose a Business Structure

Once you and your team decide it’s time to form and fully incorporate in the eyes of the law/public record, file your non-profit Articles of Incorporation with the Sec. of State either through mail or online. Information you’ll need includes:

  • The name, type, duration of existence, and statement of purpose (provisions for non-profit vs corp);
  • Complete names & addresses of registered agent (and office), incorporators, and directors.
  • Any specific provisions/bylaws set forth as part of the internal operations of your organization.
  • A stipulation of apportioning assets to any 501(c)(3) upon termination of your organization.

Filing Fee: $30, or $50 for 2-day Online Processing


File Annual Reports & Publication Requirements

If you’re audited, a corporate or non-profit records book/binder is what you’ll need to show them. In fact, if there are any kind of disputes it is the records book which should contain documents covering the matter either through contracts, bylaws, minutes of meeting, tax forms, legal notices, and so on.

As the name of the book implies, it’s a record holder of your Washington registration, licenses and permits, and other critical paperwork. They’re very common in conjunction with modern “cloud-based” storage. You can pick one up at nearby office supply stores, online through Amazon, or for $99 get a professional Corporate Kit which you can brand and customize.


Hold a Meeting with Your Board of Directors

As this is your first official non-profit meeting it’s very important and organizational. Once you have a quorum (the needed amount of attendance in WA) be sure you record your first “meeting minutes” and put them in your records book. Topic covered should include:

  • Voting on the appointment of critical officers;
  • Voting on and approving/amending bylaws;
  • Establishing a tax year as well as an accounting period;
  • Approving initial transactions, committees, efforts, and more.

To begin familiarizing yourself with this aspect, use this savvy Corporate Minutes Template that can be customized and shows you what types of wording is used.


Get an EIN for Your LLC

An EIN is an Employer Identification Number and your non-profit organization will need one to be compliant on the federal as well as state levels whether you intend on hiring official employees or not. Why? Well, through this number relevant agencies track your financials through your bank account which you need an EIN to create (Step 10).

Now, while there are a number of ways to get one, the quickest and easiest way is to apply/request one directly through the IRS Website.


Small Business TaxesWith everything above taken care of, start looking at gaining your exemption status and becoming compliant in terms of any needed licenses/permits. If you don’t have legal representation, below are a few resources to get you started.

  • Download IRS FORM 1023 – Application for the Recognition of Exemption under Section 501(c)(3).
  • Or Form 1023-EZ – streamlined form but must be under $50k annual gross receipts and $250k in assets.
  • Visit the Sec. of State’s Charities Section and Dept. of Revenue to get more state-specific info.

You might also want to bookmark the Seattle district office of the Small Business Administration and the state’s Small Biz Development Center because they have a ton to offer non-profits or can quickly connect you with the right people. If you need extra help, consider professional Business License Research packages that can source all the right paperwork and provide filing instructions.


Best Business Bank Account

Where will you non-profit establish itself financially? Make no mistake, where your non-profit chooses to bank as an incorporated legal entity is serious. If you don’t have an official CFO or accountant, be sure to check out different local, state, and national banks/credit unions.

You can leverage financial services like a corporation in many ways – lowered fees, great online banking, lines of credit, smooth financial tracking, and so forth. The last thing we’ll mention is that wherever you set up shop, be sure that your non-profit accounts are isolated and apart from accounts of any other kind – then synced with your accounting software of choice.


Write a Business Plan

Planning a non-profit isn’t somehow special or different than legitimately planning any other type of business entity. Your non-profit has a budget, it has marketing needs, it has a company mission/culture, it has competitors, it has demographics, it has a pitch and funding needs and so on. You get the idea. Question is, how well-planned will your non-profit be?

Will it be empowered by modern planning software? These days you can get beautiful “presentation-ready” plans created and formatted for print, PDF, Word, etc., in a fraction of the time it took to assemble the 40-page conventional plans of old.



Build a Business Website

Not every non-profit needs to make digital marketing the cornerstone of their growth strategy, or even put much emphasis into building a digital presence – but a nonprofit website is necessary nonetheless. What will volunteers, partners, or donators find when they search for your brand name online to see what it’s about and what people might be saying?

There’s a lot of options to get running smoothly if you don’t have an in-house designer, for example Wix, SquareSpace, or WordPress. If you’re interested here’s a free/quick tutorial that shows you How to Make a Website using that incredibly popular platform to give you an idea of what’s involved.

Need Help Forming Your Organization?

Have a reliable incorporation service like IncFile or LegalZoom do the work for you. Just answer a few questions about your organization and they’ll take care of the paperwork.

Visit IncFile Or Visit LegalZoom

Note that this article on how to form a Washington non-profit organization isn’t a legal document or legal advice. It’s for informational purposes and the information above is subject to change. For specific legal questions regarding how to form a Washington non-profit organization or business in general, please consult with a non-profit/corporate lawyer or other accredited professional.