Internet Fundraising and State Registration Rules

Learn when a "Donate Now" button can trigger nonprofit registration requirements.



Thirty-nine states plus the District of Columbia require that nonprofits register with a state agency before soliciting donations from within the state. Of course, all nonprofits that are not otherwise exempt must register in their home state—the state where they have their home office. But what about other states?

In the past, only large nonprofits could afford to fundraise outside their home state—usually by conducting extensive telephone or direct mail campaigns. Smaller nonprofits typically would only fundraise locally, or, at most, statewide. Thus, it was only the larger nonprofits that had to worry about registering outside their home state. Small nonprofits usually never had to deal with the expensive and time-consuming burden of multistate registration. Today, however, even the smallest nonprofit can reach a nationwide audience through an inexpensive website or email, and collect contributions from donors located anywhere in the country. Consequently, many small nonprofits that have never had to deal with registration other than in their home state must now figure out where and how to register in multiple states.

Read literally, the charitable solicitation laws of most states require any nonprofit that has a website that includes a donate now button (or any other charitable solicitation) to register with the state even if it has no actual physical presence within that state, makes no direct fundraising efforts there, and even if it receives no contributions from state residents.

If the law was applied in this way, even a small nonprofit would have to register with every state charity office simply because it has a website that asks for a contribution. This would work an enormous burden on small nonprofits. Fortunately, most state nonprofit regulators realize that it is impractical to literally apply their solicitation laws to all Internet fundraising. Thus, most states do not require a nonprofit to register in a state simply because it has a website that can be viewed there. Unfortunately, determining when a website requires registration can be complex.

Some Guidelines to Follow—The Charleston Principles

The National Association of State Charity Officials (NASCO) has issued detailed guidelines on when the existence of a website alone should give rise to an obligation to register with a state. These guidelines are called the Charleston Principles because they were adopted during a NASCO meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Under these guidelines, registration in a state is required only if:

  • the nonprofit’s website is used to make charitable solicitations, and
  • the nonprofit has sufficient fundraising contacts with state residents, whether through the website or by other means.

Thus, under the Charleston Principles, you do not need to register with a state simply because you have a website that people in the state can view. Something more is needed, such as sending a fundraising email to state residents, soliciting donations from state residents through your website, or accepting substantial donations from state residents through your website.

However, it is important to remember that these principles are not legally binding on any state. They merely represent the “informal, nonbinding advice of the NASCO Board of Directors to NASCO members.” NASCO is not a government agency—it is a nonprofit membership organization for state charity officials. Moreover, not all states follow these principles.

Which States Follow the Charleston Principles?

Determining exactly which states follow the Charleston Principles is not an easy task. Only Colorado and Tennessee have incorporated the principles into their state charitable solicitation laws. It’s clear that they follow them. Whether, and to what extent, the other 37 states that require fundraising registration follow the principles (plus the District of Columbia) is another matter. There has never been any formal count or study conducted by a government agency or official organization. A survey conducted by the National Association of College and University Attorneys found that 23 states follow the Charleston Principles as a matter internal policy. However, their interpretations and implementations of the principles are not necessarily the same. Moreover, state charity regulators can always change their policies at any time.

The following chart is based on the survey conducted by the National Association of College and University Attorneys.

States that Follow Charleston Principles

States that Do Not Follow Charleston Principles

Alaska

Alabama

Arkansas

District of Columbia

California

Florida (Registration application requires disclosure of websites)

Colorado (Enacted into law by Internet Solicitations, Rule 12; adopted May 4, 2009, 8 CCR 1505-9, Rule 12 )

Georgia

Connecticut

Illinois

Hawaii

Kansas (state registration form asks if conducting internet solicitations)

Kentucky

Louisiana

Maryland

Maine

Massachusetts

Nevada

Michigan

New York (defines “solicit” as: “To directly or indirectly make a request for a contribution, whether express or implied, through any medium.” New York Executive Law § 171-a.)

Minnesota

North Dakota

Mississippi

Ohio

Missouri

Oklahoma

New Hampshire

Rhode Island

New Jersey

Utah

New Mexico

North Carolina

Oregon

Pennsylvania

South Carolina

Tennessee (Enacted into law by Secretary of State Rule 1360-03-01-.07)

Virginia

Washington

West Virginia

Wisconsin



For detailed guidance on all aspects of the state fundraising registration process, including each state’s rules on renewals and financial reporting and links to all the forms you need, refer to Nonprofit Fundraising Registration: Nolo’s State-by-State Digital Guide (updated quarterly).

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