You should hire your attorney early in the planning phase for your organization so it has the best possible chance of qualifying for nonprofit status. Nonprofit formation is a specialized field of law. Look for a lawyer that advertises as a business attorney, corporate attorney, or nonprofit attorney. It’s a real plus if your attorney has specific experience in the field where your nonprofit will operate, such as political action, church groups, or the arts.
Each state has its own requirements for creating a nonprofit, but all of them require your group to form a corporation as a first step. Your attorney should be an expert in the corporate laws of your state. He will fill out your state incorporation forms, help you choose your board of directors, write your corporate bylaws and check for potential conflicts of interest.
After incorporating, the next step is applying for a tax exemption with the Internal Revenue Service. Although the IRS instructions for Form 1023 seem straightforward, your application can be delayed or rejected because of a simple misstep or missing information. The federal tax code has several categories for nonprofits, with different requirements for each one. An attorney with a specialty in nonprofit formation will choose the category that provides the best fit for your organization’s purpose and goals.
After you receive tax exemption from the IRS, your organization needs to follow the many federal and state laws that govern nonprofits. Fundraising is one area where nonprofits can run afoul of the law by straying outside their tax-exempt purposes, especially if you plan to provide goods or services. Your attorney should also understand human resources issues and how they apply to nonprofits in case your organization grows enough to hire employees.
If you don’t know an attorney who specializes in nonprofit law, you can ask for referrals from nonprofit organizations in your community. Your state bar association also may be helpful. If you use a phone book or online directory, avoid listings for specialties like criminal law or family law. Find a law office that specializes in business, nonprofit, or corporate law.