How to Start a Nonprofit in Wisconsin

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

Step 1: Name Your Wisconsin 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 Articles of Incorporation
Step 6: Get an EIN
Step 7: Apply for 501c3

Recommended: Start your nonprofit with Northwest for just $29 + state fees
  • Formation and FREE registered agent services for your first year
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Starting a 501c3 Nonprofit in Wisconsin Is Easy

There are 38,380 nonprofit organizations already operating in Wisconsin, and these nonprofits employ over 426,000 people. Nonprofits operating in the state earn over $58 billion combined each year, and they share around $157 billion in assets. 

The main area for nonprofits is in Milwaukee. There are 10,625 nonprofits operating there. Or, you could open up in Madison, where 6,407 nonprofits are operating. If you want to work in an underserved area, consider Fond du Lac or Oshkosh — both of these locations only have a few hundred nonprofits. 

There are all kinds of organizations, ranging from religious organizations (the most common) to foundations or mutual assistance programs. Medical, scientific, and social science research centers are the least common kinds of nonprofits, but civil rights, disease-focused, and international-focused nonprofits are also uncommon in the state. Any of these could be a good niche for your business. 

In terms of job trends, 65 of the nonprofits in the state employ over 1,000 people. Those nonprofits tend to be general hospitals, hospital systems, universities, vocational rehabilitation programs, and Christian organizations. The largest businesses include:

  • Aurora Health Care Group Return
  • Gundersen Lutheran Administrative Services
  • Aurora Health Care
  • Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Community Physicians
  • Marshfield Clinic Health System

8,733 Wisconsin nonprofits earn less than $250,000 a year, but 167 make between $25 million and $100 million in revenue annually. That means there is plenty of room for a new nonprofit of any size — including yours.

To start a 501c3 tax-exempt nonprofit organization in Wisconsin, you must first start a nonprofit in Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin Nonprofit

The first step in starting your nonprofit is choosing a good name. You need one that meets the state’s naming requirements and is easy to find by potential donors or members. 

Take a look at our How to Name a Nonprofit in Wisconsin guide for a closer look at the brainstorming and registration process.

1. Follow the naming requirements:

  • Your nonprofit’s name should include a designation such as “corporation,” “incorporated,” “company,” “limited,” or one of these words’ abbreviations
  • You cannot include anything that suggests your nonprofit was formed for any reason other than what you stated in your Articles of Incorporation
  • You do need to make sure your business is distinguishable from other registered corporations in Wisconsin

Go over the Wisconsin State Legislature’s statutes to see the rules for naming your Wisconsin-based nonstock corporation.

2. Can you get the name in Wisconsin? Your next step is to perform a name search on the Department of Financial Regulations’ website. If it’s taken, you’ll need to choose a new name. 

3. Can you get the URL? It’s our recommendation to look for your business name as a web domain. Buying the URL now, even if you don’t want to make your site at the moment, will prevent others from using it until you’re ready.

Once you have your URL and business name, you can hire a professional service to assist with your nonprofit’s formation process. We suggest choosing a company with a history of success, such as:

Northwest ($29 + State Fees)

Step 2: Choose a Registered Agent in Wisconsin

You need to nominate a registered agent for your nonprofit in Wisconsin. Your registered agent works as a contact between your nonprofit and the state. They accept written legal documents (i.e., service of process) on your behalf. 

Who can be a registered agent? A registered agent has to be a resident or corporation based in Wisconsin. You can also choose to work with a registered agent service authorized to do work in the state. You or a work colleague can also be your nonprofit’s agent if you choose.

Do you need help choosing a registered agent? Take a look at our guide to Wisconsin 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

While Wisconsin only requires nonprofit corporations to have at least one board member, the IRS requires nonprofits to have at least three directors to be eligible for 501c3 status. The majority of directors should not be related to each other.

Unless otherwise noted in the bylaws, Wisconsin requires that the nonprofit’s officers include:

  • A president
  • A secretary
  • A treasurer

Officers can hold multiple titles if the bylaws allow for it.

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

Step 4: Adopt Bylaws & Conflict of Interest Policy

Before you’ll be eligible for 501c3 status, you need to make sure your nonprofit has established its bylaws and conflict of interest policy. 

The bylaws go over exactly how you’re going to operate the nonprofit. The conflict of interest policy is a set of rules that makes sure the board of directors (or related officers) only make decisions that are intended to help the nonprofit, not decisions that benefit individual members. 

TIP: You need to implement your conflict of interest policy and bylaws during your first organizational meeting. You’ll also put your board of directors and officers in place at that time.

Step 5: File the Wisconsin Articles of Incorporation

To register your nonprofit, you will need to file the Articles of Incorporation with the State of Wisconsin.

To ensure that your nonprofit is eligible to apply for 501c3, in the Articles of Incorporation 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 Articles of Incorporation

Option 1: File online with the State of Wisconsin.

File Online

– OR –

Option 2: File by mail

Download Form

State Filing Cost: $35

Mail to:

WI-Department of Financial Institutions
P.O. Box 93348
Milwaukee, WI 53293-0348

To learn more, read our How to File Nonprofit Articles of Incorporation in Wisconsin guide.

Step 6: Get an EIN

An Employer Identification Number (EIN), or Federal Tax Identification Number, is a number given to businesses to help identify them. The federal government uses this number to recognize the business as a unique entity. Essentially, this is a Social Security number for your nonprofit.

You need an EIN for three important purposes:

  1. To open a business banking account as your nonprofit
  2. To pay taxes to the state or federal government
  3. To hire employees to work with your nonprofit

Getting an EIN is simple. Once you’re done forming your nonprofit, reach out to the IRS for a free EIN by applying online or by mail. Take a look at our EIN Lookup guide for more details.

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 Certificate of Formation 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 Wisconsin. Use our Wisconsin 501c3 lookup table to find all Wisconsin 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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