How to File Nonprofit Articles of Incorporation in California

Starting a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in California is easy — and the first task is filing your Articles of Incorporation. This guide will walk you through the seven steps required to file the Articles of Incorporation to officially start a nonprofit in California.

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Getting Started

To start a domestic nonprofit corporation in California, you must file the state’s Articles of Incorporation of a Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation. This guide covers each step you must take to fill out this document successfully and get on the right track to forming a California nonprofit.

Optional: If you choose to file the state’s Mail Submission Cover Sheet along with your Articles of Incorporation, make sure to include the following information:

  • A contact person’s name and email address
  • Your entity name, number (if applicable), and any comments
  • Your return address

Step 1: List Your Nonprofit’s Name

The first step to filling out the California Articles of Incorporation is to list your organization’s name in article one of the document. If you haven’t gone through the process of establishing a name for your organization, here are the requirements for naming a nonprofit in California:

  • Your nonprofit’s name must be distinguishable from any other name on record within the state of California, including any reserved names.
  • Your nonprofit’s name must include “corporation,” “company,” “incorporated,” “limited,” or an abbreviation of any of these terms.
  • Your nonprofit’s name can’t include any words related to the United States Olympic Committee, such as “Olympic,” “Olympiad,” or “Citius, Altius, Fortius.”
  • Your nonprofit’s name can’t include words like “university,” “bank,” “credit union,” or “trust” as a separate word to convey the organization is engaged in banking or a trust.
  • Your nonprofit’s name can’t include any terms that could be considered grossly offensive.

Recommended: For a step-by-step guide to naming your nonprofit corporation in California, read our guide on How to Name a Nonprofit in California.

Search the Availability of Your Name

After selecting potential names — ideally, at least four or five — it’s important to search for their availability in your state. You can do this by conducting the four recommended searches outlined below, or use our 501(c)(3) Lookup Table.

California Business Search
To operate in California, a nonprofit corporation must have a unique name. You can easily check if your chosen name is available by performing a search using the California Business Search tool.

Domain Name Search
We strongly recommend that you also check to see if your business name is available as a web domain (URL). Even if you don't plan to create a business website today, you may want to buy the web address to prevent others from acquiring that domain name. It’s a free search.

Find a Domain Now

Federal Trademark Search
You can easily check if someone already trademarked your chosen nonprofit name by using the federal Trademark Electronic Search System. This is important even if you don’t plan to form your nonprofit right away.

Once you confirm that no one else already trademarked your chosen name, you can apply for a trademark for your nonprofit.

Web and Social Media Search
A strong social media presence will play a key role in expanding your reach to potential donors as well as clients that will use your services. That makes it important to search the web and popular social media platforms for your desired name before registering it to ensure it’s available on all the platforms where you plan to promote your organization.

Step 2: Provide Your Nonprofit’s Address(es)

Follow these requirements when you provide your organization's street address in article 2a:

  • Enter a street name and number, your city and state, and your ZIP code.
  • The address must be a physical address.
  • The address can’t include a P.O. Box address, an “in care of” address, or an abbreviated city name.

You can then provide a mailing address, if appropriate, in article 2b. This is important to do if you can’t receive mail at the street address listed in article 2a or if your nonprofit’s mailing address differs from its street address.

Step 3: Choose an Agent for Service of Process

An Agent for Service of Process is required to file the Articles of Incorporation in California. Either an individual agent or a registered corporate agent may fill this role. The responsibilities of an agent for service of process include accepting and forwarding service of process documents for the corporation as well as serving as a point of contact for the organization.

Individual Agent — This is an individual resident of California with a physical street address within the state. You can designate an officer or director as your agent for service of process. Filing requirements for this type of agent include:

  • A complete street address with the street name and number, the city, and the ZIP code.
  • This address can’t include a P.O. Box address, an “in care of” address, or an abbreviated city name.

Registered Corporate Agent — This is a registered corporate agent qualified with the California Secretary of State. Filing requirements for this type of agent include:

  • Your registered corporate agent must have a current agent registration certificate on file with the California Secretary of State.
  • Your registered corporate agent must give advanced approval before you designate them as your agent for service of process.
  • Your registered corporate agent must be authorized to engage in business in California and be in good standing on the records of the California Secretary of State.
  • The registered corporate agent’s name you provide must be registered with the California Secretary of State.
  • A nonprofit corporation can’t name itself as an agent.

Note: You may include information for either an individual agent or a registered corporate agent, but not both.

Recommended: Using an affordable registered agent service offers many benefits. For more information on choosing a registered agent service, read our full guide.

Step 4: Describe Your Nonprofit’s Purpose

Check the appropriate box in article 4a to indicate if you plan to form your nonprofit corporation formed for “public” or “charitable” purposes. If you choose “public” — or if you intend to apply for 501(c)(3) status — you must enter a specific purpose in article 4b.

It’s optional to enter a specific purpose in article 4b if you check the “charitable” purposes box.

Your organization’s purpose must include one or more of the following characteristics to be eligible for 501(c)(3) status:

  • Charitable
  • Religious
  • Educational
  • Scientific
  • Literary
  • Testing for public safety
  • Fostering national/international amateur sports competition
  • Preventing cruelty to animals/children

Step 5: Provide Any Additional Statements

In order to qualify for 501(c)(3) status, you must include some additional statements in your Articles of Incorporation. These relate to your nonprofit’s board of directors and the distribution of assets upon dissolution.

Here’s what you need to know to correctly disclose this information:

Name Your Board of Directors

The state of California doesn’t require you to name your board of directors. However, in order to qualify for 501(c)(3) status, you must have a minimum of three board directors. If you plan to list more than three, you must attach a separate page with that information. When listing your nonprofit’s initial board of directors, follow these requirements:

  • Don’t include any prefixes, such as “Mr.” or “Ms.”
  • If applicable, use titles of lineage.
  • If applicable, use designations like “M.D.” or “Ph.D.”

For a complete guide to forming your nonprofit’s board of directors, read our How to Develop a Board of Directors for a Nonprofit in California article.

Outline the Distribution of Assets Upon Dissolution

Describe how the nonprofit corporation’s assets will be distributed upon its dissolution. If additional space is needed, use an attachment.

To qualify for 501(c)(3) status, your nonprofit must distribute its assets upon dissolution to approved, tax-exempt purposes only. For more information about the requirements of dissolution and 501(c)(3) status, refer to the sixth section of the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS’) suggested language for corporations and associations.

Step 6: List Your Incorporator Information

Each incorporator — those who complete and submit the Articles of Incorporation — must sign the document and include their mailing address. Requirements for these signatures are as follows:

  • If you need more space for incorporator signatures, place the additional signatures on only one side of a standard, letter-sized piece of paper, and clearly mark it as an attachment to the formation documents. Include this attachment with your Articles of Incorporation.
  • Use only one form for your Articles of Incorporation because California won’t process multiple forms with different incorporator signatures.
  • Don’t include the title of the person(s) signing.

Step 7: File Formation Documents

There are three ways to file your nonprofit Articles of Incorporation in California: online, by mail, or in person.

File the Articles of Incorporation

OPTION 1: File Online With the California Secretary of State

File Online

- OR -

OPTION 2: File Form ARTS-PB-501(c)(3) by Mail or In Person

Download Form

Fee: $30 online and by mail, $45 in person

Mailing Address:
Secretary of State
Business Entities Filing Unit
P.O. Box 944260
Sacramento, CA 95814

Office Address:
Business Entities
1500 11th Street
Sacramento, CA 95814

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does it cost to start a nonprofit in California?

Filing the Articles of Incorporation of a Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation in California costs $30 ($45 in person).

How long does it take to process the Articles of Incorporation in California?

Processing times are updated regularly on the California Secretary of State’s website. You can expedite your processing time by paying either a $350 24-hour expedite fee or a $500 24-hour preclearance fee.

How do I get a copy of my Articles of Incorporation in California?

You may request a copy of your nonprofit corporation’s Articles of Incorporation from the California Secretary of State.

How do I find nonprofits in California?

Use our handy California 501(c)(3) Lookup Table to find nonprofits in California. You can use this tool to see if your preferred nonprofit name is in use or not.

California Nonprofit Quick Links

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