Once you've found a legal and available name, you aren't usually required to file or reserve the name with your state -- when you file your articles of incorporation, your nonprofit's name will be automatically registered.
After you've decided on your business name, you must prepare and file articles of incorporation with the corporate filing office. This document goes by a different name in a handful of states; your state may instead use the term articles of organization, certificate of incorporation, certificate of formation, or charter.
Your state's corporate filing office website should have nonprofit articles of incorporation -- either a fill-in-the-blank form or a sample on which you can base your articles. Although preparing this document isn't difficult, you do need to include specific language to ensure that you'll receive tax-exempt status. Your state's nonprofit formation packet, if available, may include the required information. If not, or if you need help understanding the requirements, consult a good legal self-help guide such as How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation, by Anthony Mancuso (Nolo), to make sure your articles comply with your state's nonprofit law.
After the corporate filing office returns a copy of your filed articles, you can submit your federal 501(c)(3) tax exemption application to the IRS. The IRS requires you to submit a copy of your filed articles with your application. This is a critical step in the formation of your nonprofit organization since most of the real benefits of being a nonprofit flow from 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.
To apply for your exemption, you must complete IRS Package 1023, Application for Recognition of Exemption. For instructions on filling out this form, read IRS Publication 557, Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization. You can obtain all of these items for free by calling 800-TAX-FORM, or you can download them from the IRS website at www.irs.gov. If you need a bit of help deciphering the IRS-speak, consider downloading Nolo's plain-English eGuide, Nonprofit Corporations: Tax Exemption.
Smaller nonprofits may be eligible to file Form 1023-EZ, Streamlined Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. This is a shorter, simpler application form that you complete online. Check the IRS website and instructions to the form which include an Eligibility Worksheet you must complete to determine if your nonprofit meets the requirements for using the streamlined form.
After the IRS reviews your application, it will send you a letter indicating that it has approved your nonprofit status, or it might ask you for more information about your organization. The IRS can also deny your application outright. If this happens, see a lawyer who specializes in nonprofits. Nolo's Lawyer Directory provides comprehensive profiles of the lawyers who advertise there, including each lawyer