How to Start a Nonprofit in Tennessee

To start a nonprofit in Tennessee and get 501c3 status, follow these steps:

Step 1: Name Your Tennessee Nonprofit
Step 2: Choose Your Registered Agent
Step 3: Select Your Board Members & Officers
Step 4: Adopt Bylaws & Conflict of Interest Policy
Step 5: File the Nonprofit Corporation Charter
Step 6: Get an EIN
Step 7: Apply for 501c3

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Starting a 501c3 Nonprofit in Tennessee Is Easy

There are 37,145 different nonprofit organizations that call Tennessee home. Combined, these organizations generate over $45 billion in average revenue each year, employ 349,157 people, and own assets totaling $113 billion in value. 

Nonprofit organizations in the Volunteer State fall under dozens of different categories, including religious organizations, human services organizations, and foundations. The National Federation of Independent Business, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and St Jude Children’s Research Hospital are just a few well-known nonprofits located in Tennessee. 

Religious organizations make up the largest category of Tennessee nonprofits, accounting for 5,947 of the state’s nonprofit organizations. Animal organizations are the second-largest category with 5,359 organizations, and educational institutions are the third-largest with 4,513. 

Despite only numbering 860 organizations, health organizations bring in the most revenue of any Tennessee nonprofit category. Every year, nonprofit health organizations in Tennessee bring in an average total of over $19 billion. Educational institutions earn the second most with almost $6.5 billion in combined annual revenue, and public sector, public co-ops, and veteran organizations come in third place with over $3.7 billion in combined annual revenue. 

If you would like to get started making a difference in your Tennessee community, you must first follow the steps to forming your nonprofit in Tennessee.

To start a 501c3 tax-exempt nonprofit organization in Tennessee, you must first start a nonprofit in Tennessee according to the rules of the state and then apply for 501c3 status with the IRS.

Learn more about 501c3 eligibility in our What Is a 501c3 guide.

Want to form a nonprofit elsewhere? Check out our other How to Start a Nonprofit guides. Also, check out our best nonprofit formation services review

Step 1: Name Your Tennessee Nonprofit

Choosing a name for your company is one of the first decisions you will need to make as the new owner of a Tennessee nonprofit, and it is also the first step in the process of forming your company. 

To learn more about naming a Tennessee nonprofit, feel free to check out our How to Name a Nonprofit in Tennessee guide.

Rules for Naming a Tennessee Nonprofit 

Along with choosing a name that will appeal to potential members and donors, you will also need to come up with a name that adheres to Tennessee’s business name requirements.

In Tennessee, business names cannot include the terms “bank,” “banks,” “banking,” “credit union,” or “trust” without written permission from the Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions

Read Tennessee’s official guidelines for a complete list of rules regarding the naming requirements for Tennessee nonprofit companies. 

State and URL Availability 

You will not be able to use any name that is already being used by a company doing business in Tennessee. To make sure that the name you want is available for use, you can conduct a name search on the State of Tennessee website. 

In addition to verifying that the name is available, we also recommend that you confirm that it is available as a web domain. Purchasing your domain name ahead of time is important if you intend to create a website for your nonprofit company.

Having chosen a name and secured a web domain for your company, the next step is to file the new company with the state. The simplest way to do this is to work with a business formation service, and our top recommendation for Tennessee nonprofit owners is one with years of experience and quality customer service.

Northwest ($29 + State Fees)

Step 2: Choose a Registered Agent in Tennessee

The next step in the process of forming a nonprofit company in Tennessee is choosing a registered agent for your company. 

What is a registered agent? A registered agent is someone who is responsible for receiving legal documents from the state on behalf of your company. You can think of a registered agent as your company’s point of contact with the state. 

Who can be my registered agent? Anyone who is a resident of Tennessee or any business entity authorized to operate in the state will be eligible to be your registered agent. This includes existing employees and owners of the company (i.e., yourself). It also includes Tennessee registered agent services, and working with these services is a convenient option to consider.

For more assistance choosing the right registered agent for your nonprofit, be sure to check out our complete guide on Tennessee nonprofit registered agents.

Step 3: Select your Directors & Officers

The directors of an organization come together to form a board of directors. This board of directors is responsible for overseeing the operations of the nonprofit. 

The president, secretary, and other members of the nonprofit who have individual responsibilities and authorities are known as officers

Both Tennessee and the IRS require 501c3 nonprofits to have at least three directors to be eligible for 501c3 status. The majority of directors should not be related to each other.

To learn more about electing a Tennessee nonprofit board of directors, read our full guide.

Step 4: Adopt Bylaws & Conflict of Interest Policy

In order to qualify for tax-exempt status as a 501c3 nonprofit, a nonprofit company is required to adopt bylaws and a conflict of interest policy. 

Bylaws are a set of rules that outline various procedures within the company, including things such as when and where board meetings are held, the format of those meetings, and how board members are elected. 

conflict of interest policy, meanwhile, contains rules designed to ensure that board members and officers always act in the best interest of the company instead of making decisions intended to benefit individual members. 

Both your company’s bylaws and its conflict of interest policy should be adopted during its first organizational meeting when directors and officers are officially appointed.

Step 5: File the Tennessee Nonprofit Corporation Charter

To register your nonprofit, file the Nonprofit Corporation Charter with the State of Tennessee.

To ensure that your nonprofit is eligible to apply for 501c3, in the Nonprofit Corporation Charter you must explicitly state the following:

1. Purpose:

In order to qualify for 501c3 status, the organization’s purpose must explicitly be limited to one or more of the following:

Charitable, Religious, Scientific, Educational, Literary, Fostering national/international amateur sports competition, Preventing cruelty to animals/children, Testing for public safety

2. Dissolution:

You must explicitly state what the assets of the organization will be used for, and what will happen to the assets if the organization is dissolved. 

To be eligible for 501c3 status, the assets of your organization must only ever be used for purposes approved under section 501c3. 

Section 5 of this sample IRS document provides an example of these provisions required for 501c3 eligibility. 

File the Nonprofit Corporation Charter

OPTION 1: File Online With the Tennessee Secretary of State

File Online

– OR –

OPTION 2: File Form SS-4418 by Mail or In Person

Download Form

State Filing Cost: $100

Filing Address:
Secretary of State
6th FL – Snodgrass Tower
ATTN: Corporate Filings
312 Rosa L. Parks Ave.
Nashville, TN 37243-1102

To learn more, read our How to File a Nonprofit Corporation Charter in Tennessee guide.

Step 6: Get an EIN

In order to get your Tennessee nonprofit up and running, you will need to acquire an EIN from the IRS for your company. 

What is an EIN? An Employer Identification Number (EIN) or Federal Tax Identification Number is a nine-digit number that is used for identification purposes. An EIN serves a purpose similar to a Social Security number, except that EINs are used to identify business entities rather than individuals. 

Why do I need one? Nonprofit organizations are required to have an EIN before they are able to open a business bank account, file taxes, or hire employees, making an EIN a necessity for any nonprofit company. 

How do I get an EIN? You can request an EIN free of charge from the IRS either by mail or online. To learn more about how to get an EIN for your Tennessee nonprofit, check out our EIN Lookup guide. 

Step 7: Apply for 501c3 Status

Before a nonprofit can apply for 501c3 status it must, 

  1. Elect at least 3 directors not related to each other
  2. File the Nonprofit Corporation Charter with the required provisions (As covered in Step 5)
  3. Adopt the bylaws and conflict of interest policy
  4. Have an EIN number

Once these four conditions have been met your nonprofit can apply for 501c3 tax-exempt status by filing Form-1023 online. 

If your application is approved, the IRS will send you a determination letter stating that your organization is exempt from federal taxes under section 501c3. 

See if your nonprofit has 501c3 status in Tennessee. Use our Tennessee 501c3 lookup table to find all Tennessee nonprofits.

FAQ: Starting Your Nonprofit

When should an organization apply for federal tax exemption?

Form 1023 must be filed within 27 months from the end of the first month your organization was created.

How long will it take for the IRS to process Form 1023/1023-EZ?

Soon after sending your application you should receive an acknowledgment of receipt of your application. 

If your application is simple and complete, IRS will send your determination letter within 180 days for Form 1023

If you have not heard from them by that time you can call (877) 829-5500 to inquire about your application. 

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