How to File the Nonprofit Articles of Incorporation

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

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7 Steps to File Your Nonprofit Articles of Incorporation

To start a domestic nonprofit corporation you must file the Articles of Incorporation in your state. This guide covers the common steps you must take to fill out this document successfully and get on the right track to forming a nonprofit.

  1. Select Your State
  2. List Your Nonprofit’s Name
  3. Choose a Registered Agent
  4. Describe Your Nonprofit's Purpose
  5. Name Your Initial Board of Directors
  6. List the Incorporator(s) Name(s) and Address(es)
  7. File Formation Documents

Step 2: List Your Nonprofit’s Name

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

  • Your corporation’s name must include “corporation,” “company,” “incorporated,” “limited,” or an abbreviation of any of these terms. 
  • Your corporation’s name must be unique within your state, including any reserved names. 
  • Your corporation’s name can’t include any words that may infer it’s related to a government agency. 
  • Your corporation’s name can’t include words like “university,” “bank,” or “trust” without necessary permissions.

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

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.

Business Entity Search

To operate a nonprofit corporation must have a unique name. You can easily check if your chosen name is available by performing a search using the state’s business entity 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 3: Choose a Registered Agent

A registered agent is typically required to file the Articles of Incorporation. Some states refer to registered agents as statutory agents, resident agents, or agents for service of process.

What Is a Registered Agent?

A registered agent serves as the official contact for your nonprofit by receiving official documents on its behalf, such as compliance notices and tax documents. Your registered agent also is responsible for accepting service of process documents in the event of a lawsuit.

Requirements for a Registered Agent

A registered agent for a nonprofit corporation can be anyone with a physical address within the state. However, your organization can’t fill this role.

While you aren’t required to include proof of consent from your registered agent with this filing, you must list their name and address.

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

This is one of the most important sections of this document because your federal tax exemption depends on the purpose of your organization aligning with Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requirements.

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: Name Your Initial Board of Directors

Some states require nonprofit corporations to list their initial board of directors at the time of filing. The number of directors your nonprofit needs will depend on your state.

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 article.

Step 6: List the Incorporator(s) Name(s) and Address(es)

You must list the name(s) and address(es) of the incorporator(s). An incorporator is whoever files the Articles of Incorporation — whether that’s someone who’s a part of the organization, a lawyer, or another chosen party. If your nonprofit corporation has multiple incorporators, you may have to list them on a separate, attached sheet.

The incorporators must also sign the Articles of Incorporation.

Step 7: File Formation Documents

Once you complete your formation documents, you must file them with the Secretary of State or equivalent state agency.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I get the Articles of Incorporation?

Most states provide either an online filing portal or a PDF form for businesses to use.

How long does it take to file the Articles of Incorporation?

Processing the Articles of Incorporation can take anywhere from one day to several weeks, depending on your filing method, your state’s backlog, and whether you elect to pay for expedited services.

How much does it cost to start a nonprofit?

Filing the Articles of Incorporation for a nonprofit can cost anywhere from $20 to potentially over $100.

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