How to Start a Nonprofit in Tennessee
Last Updated: By TRUiC Team
In this guide, you’ll find everything you need to know about how to start a nonprofit in Tennessee, including information on how to name your nonprofit organization, file articles of incorporation and how to apply for 501(c)(3) tax exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Or, simply use a professional formation service: Northwest ($29 + state fee)
Starting a nonprofit organization in Tennessee is easy
To start a Tennessee 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, you'll need to first register a nonprofit corporation with the state of Tennessee, and then apply for tax exempt status under section 501(c)(3) with the Internal Revenue Service.
You can learn more about nonprofits and 501(c)(3) in our What is a nonprofit? and What is a 501(c)(3)? guides.
Want to form a nonprofit elsewhere? Read our other How to Start a Nonprofit guides. Also check out our best nonprofit formation services review.
Step 1: Name Your Tennessee Nonprofit
The name you select for your nonprofit will establish its brand. It is the first thing most people will learn about your organization. It is important to pick a name that both aligns with your mission and follows the rules for naming in your state.
Tennessee Nonprofit Naming Guidelines
- If the name of your organization contains the word “bank”, “banks”, “banking”, “credit union”, or “trust” you must first get written permission from the Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions
You can read the official guidelines for the complete rules on naming a Tennessee based organization.
To learn more, read our How to Name a Tennessee Nonprofit guide.
Not sure what to name your business? Check out our Business Name Generator.
Is the URL available?
We recommend that you check online to see if your business name is available as a web domain. Even if you don't plan to create a business website today, you may want to buy the URL in order to prevent others from acquiring it.
Find a Domain Now
Now that you have verified your name and secured the URL you may select a professional service to complete the nonprofit formation process for you.
We recommend: Northwest ($29 + state fee)
Step 2: Appoint A Tennessee Registered Agent
A nonprofit corporation in Tennessee is required to have a registered agent with a Tennessee address.
What is a Registered Agent? A registered agent is an individual or business entity responsible for receiving important legal documents on behalf of your business. Think of your registered agent as your business' point of contact with the state.
Northwest provides the first year of registered agent service free with nonprofit formation ($29 + State Fees)
To learn more, read our Tennessee Registered Agent guide.
Step 3: Select Your Board Members and Officers
The directors of a nonprofit are responsible for overseeing the operations of the organization. The directors come together to form a board.
The officers of a nonprofit (such as the president or the secretary) are individuals with responsibilities, and the authority to execute based on their job descriptions.
Together, the officers and the board will come together to make up the organizational structure of your nonprofit.
To be eligible for 501(c)(3) status, the organization structure of your Tennessee nonprofit corporation MUST include:
- At least 3 directors not related to each other
- A president
- A secretary
NOTE: The president and secretary positions cannot be held by the same person.
To learn more, read our Tennessee Board of Directors guide.
Step 4: File the Tennessee Nonprofit Corporation Charter
To become a nonprofit corporation in Tennessee you must file Form SS-4418 - Nonprofit Corporation Charter with the State of Tennessee.
In order to qualify for 501(c)(3) status, the organization’s purpose must explicitly be limited to one or more of the following:
- Testing for public safety
- Fostering national/international amateur sports competition
- Preventing cruelty to animals/children
You will need to mail the following to the Secretary of State:
- Form SS-4418 - Nonprofit Corporation Charter
- A nonrefundable filing fee of $100 payable to the Tennessee Secretary of State.
Secretary of State’s office at 6th FL – Snodgrass Tower
ATTN: Corporate Filings
312 Rosa L. Parks Avenue
Nashville, TN 37243-1102
You can also file online with the Tennessee Secretary of State's online portal.
To learn more, read our guide on How to File the Tennessee Nonprofit Corporation Charter.
Step 5: Draft Bylaws and Conflict of Interest Policy
There are two documents that will be central to the running of your nonprofit:
Bylaws: These are the rules that determine how your organization will be governed and run.
Conflict of Interest Policy: These are the rules set to ensure that decisions being made for the nonprofit are based on what is best for the organization, and not being motivated by what is best for individuals.
Step 6: Conduct an Organizational Meeting
An organizational meeting is the first official meeting of your nonprofit! Some of the things that are discussed in a typical organizational meeting:
- Taking attendance to show you have a quorum (minimum number needed)
- Appointing temporary officers, chairmen, secretaries, etc.
- Adoption of the bylaws
- Adoption of conflict of interest policy
Don’t forget to record “minutes” of the meeting and have it signed by all attending directors. Here are some corporate minutes templates to help you get the ball rolling.
Step 7: Get an EIN
An EIN or Employment Identification Number (also called a Federal Tax Identification Number or Federal Employment Identification Number), is used to uniquely identify a business entity. You can think of the EIN as a social security number for your nonprofit.
The EIN is required for your organization whether or not it will have any employees.
To learn more, read our guide on how to get your EIN.
Step 8: Applying for Exemption from State and Federal Taxes (501(c)(3) status)
Applying for Exemption from Federal Taxes:
A nonprofit may be eligible for 501(c)(3) status only if its purpose is limited to one or more of the following:
Charitable, Religious, Scientific, Educational, Literary, Fostering national/international amateur sports competition, Preventing cruelty to animals/children, Testing for public safety
Before a nonprofit can apply for 501(c)(3) status it must:
- Elect at least 3 directors not related to each other
- Register as a nonprofit with the state
- Adopt the bylaws and conflict of interest policy
- Have an EIN number
Once these four conditions have been met your nonprofit can apply for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status by filing Form-1023 online.
If your application is approved, the IRS will send you a determination letter stating that your organization is exempt from federal taxes under section 501(c)(3).
To learn more, read our guide on How to File Form 1023-EZ.
Applying for Exemption from State Taxes:
Your nonprofit corporation will not need to pay
- Corporate income tax
- State franchise tax
- Excise tax
To be exempt from state sales tax you must apply to the Tennessee Department of Revenue.
Once you have formed your Tennessee nonprofit, we recommend you read our guide on How To Protect your Tennessee Nonprofit and Keep It Compliant.
Step 9: Open a Nonprofit Bank Account
After you acquire an EIN and a federal tax exemption for your nonprofit, you can open a 501(c)(3) bank account to begin soliciting donations or paying vendors and employees of the organization.
Opening a bank account for your nonprofit is the first step towards creating a paper trail of all income and expenses to show the IRS that your nonprofit is legitimate, honest, and legal.
There are several rules and exceptions that differentiate a 501(c)(3) bank account from a traditional business account. To find the best bank for your organization's financial needs read our review of the best banks for small business.
Step 10: Get Insurance for your Nonprofit
A nonprofit has assets and can be the subject of legal action or suffer financial damages from accidents, just like a regular business.
We recommend Tivly to protect your organization from lawsuits and damages.
Find out the real cost of getting insurance for your nonprofit. Get a free quote or call 855-965-3168.
State of Tennessee Nonprofit Quicklinks
IRS - Information for Charities & Nonprofits
IRS - Required Provisions for Organizing Documents
IRS - 990 Series for Tax-Exempt Organizations
IRS - Applying for Tax-Exempt Status
IRS - 501(c)(3) Compliance Guide
Small Business Administration - License and Permits
Tennessee Secretary of State - Charitable Organizations