Starting a nonprofit organization in Wisconsin is easy
To start a Wisconsin 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, you'll need to first register a nonprofit corporation with the state of Wisconsin, and then apply for tax exempt status under section 501(c)(3) with the Internal Revenue Service.
Step 1: Name Your Wisconsin 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.
Wisconsin Nonprofit Naming Guidelines
The name that you pick for your organization must:
- Include an organizational designation, such as “Inc.”, “Ltd.”, “Incorporated”, or “Company”
- Be distinguishable from other registered corporations in Wisconsin
- Not suggest that the nonstock corporation was formed for any other purpose than described in the Articles of Incorporation.
You can read the Wisconsin State Legislature's statute for the complete rules on naming a Wisconsin- based nonstock corporation.
To learn more, read our How to Name a Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin Registered Agent
A nonprofit corporation in Wisconsin is required to have a registered agent with a Wisconsin 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 How To Pick a Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin nonprofit corporation MUST include:
- At least 3 directors not related to each other
- A president
- A secretary
- A treasurer (unless other stipulations exist in the Articles of Incorporation)
NOTE: The same person may hold two or more offices
To learn more, read our guide on how to select board members for your nonprofit
Step 4: File the Wisconsin Articles of Incorporation
To become a nonprofit corporation in Wisconsin you must file the Articles of Incorporation with the State of Wisconsin.
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 WI – Dept. of Financial Institutions:
- Articles of Incorporation
- A nonrefundable filing fee of $35.00 payable to the State of WI – Dept. of Financial Institutions.
WI-Department of Financial Institutions
Milwaukee, WI 53293-0348
To learn more, read our guide on How to File the Wisconsin Articles of Incorporation
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: Get a Wisconsin State Tax ID
The State of Wisconsin also requires Nonstock Corporations to register for state taxes, using form BTR-101.
Wisconsin Department of Revenue
PO Box 8902
Madison, WI 53708-8902
Information: (608) 266-2776
Web Site: www.revenue.wi.gov
Filing Fee: $20
Step 9: Applying for Exemption from Federal (501(c)(3) status) and State Taxes
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:
Once you have received your 501(c)(3) determination letter from the IRS, you will automatically be exempt from state franchise and income taxes. You do not have to fill anything out to become exempt from these taxes.
If you want your nonprofit to be exempt from sales and use taxes, you must fill out for S-103 - Application for Wisconsin Sales and Use Tax Certificate of Exempt Status (CES).
Once you have formed your Wisconsin nonprofit, we recommend you read our guide on How To Protect your Wisconsin Nonprofit and Keep It Compliant.
Step 10: 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 11: 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.