If you run a nonprofit, you need to know about state fundraising registration requirements. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia require nonprofits that are not exempt to register with a state agency before soliciting charitable contributions from state residents. Failure to register can subject your nonprofit to fines, penalties, and even loss of its state tax exemption.
Fundraising registration involves filing an application, supporting documents, and usually paying a fee to the agency that regulates charities in the state involved—typically, the secretary of state, state attorney general, or a state consumer protection agency.
Unfortunately, there is no single national registration application that works in every state. Instead, your nonprofit must individually register with each state where it is required to do so, following that state’s particular requirements. These requirements differ from state to state—sometimes dramatically—so the more states you fundraise in, the more work you will have. Even the name for registration varies depending on what state you’re in—in some states, it’s called a registration statement; in others, it’s called a license, solicitation permit, or certificate.
Registration usually consists of two parts: an initial registration application and an annual renewal or financial reporting requirement.
The initial registration application asks for organizational and financial information about your nonprofit. The application must be signed under penalty of perjury by a principal officer of the nonprofit, such as the president or chief financial officer. The registration is a public record, and in most states is made freely available to the public from a state-run website.
The information required on the application varies. Typically, you’ll have to provide:
In addition, almost all states require nonprofits to submit copies of their articles of incorporation, bylaws, IRS determination letter, and most recently filed Form 990 or 990-EZ. Many require copies of fundraising contracts as well.
The initial registration is only the beginning of the state compliance process. In most states, your registration will expire after a specified time. The expiration date varies from state to state. Typically, it is either one year after the registration is issued, at the close of the calendar or fiscal year, or a designated number of months thereafter. So you will need to periodically renew your registration within a certain time period before the existing registration expires.
Basically, the rule is that any nonprofit that makes, or intends to make, a charitable solicitation within a state that requires registration must register with that state. “Charitable solicitation” is defined broadly to include any request for a contribution by a nonprofit or someone working on its behalf in which:
The registration requirement is triggered by asking for donations—it is not necessary that your nonprofit actually receive a donation. That means you must register in any state before you actually solicit there (except for California where you have 30 days from the time you receive your first contribution to register). The only exception to this general rule is for nonprofits that fall within an exemption from registration.
In most cases, it will be pretty obvious when your nonprofit is making a charitable solicitation—you’ll be asking for money and a charity or charitable purpose will somehow be involved. However, charitable solicitations don’t always have to involve asking for a donation. Offering to sell a product or service that includes a representation that all or part of the money received will be devoted to a charitable organization or charitable purpose is considered a charitable solicitation and triggers the registration requirement. This includes cases where nonprofits sell merchandise or services themselves—for example, operating a nonprofit thrift shop. It also includes “commercial coventuring” or “cause marketing” where a nonprofit teams up with a for-profit business to market an image, product, or service with the promise that part of the proceeds will go to the nonprofit.
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).