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Nonprofit Organizations: A Beginner’s Guide

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Nonprofit organizations have become a critical part of American culture.  Not only is the nonprofit sector one of the “fastest-growing part[s] of the U.S. economy,” but also, as a recent study by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Public Policy has shown, nonprofit workers make up approximately 10.2% of the total U.S. workforce.

It is no wonder, then, that information about the law regarding nonprofits is one of our most popular public requests at the Law Library of Congress.  Patrons appear to be most concerned with how to create a nonprofit organization, how to deal with taxation issues, and how to properly govern a nonprofit organization (or deal with management conflicts as they arise).  Thus, we will try to address all of these issues, as well as provide information about internet resources that can assist those interested in nonprofit organizations and the laws that govern them.

"A man may be down but he's never out!" Home Service Fund Campaign - Salvation Army - May 19-26, 1919, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
“A man may be down but he’s never out!” Home Service Fund Campaign – Salvation Army – May 19-26, 1919, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Secondary Sources

Like we have suggested in some of our Beginner’s Guides in the past, the best place to start research on a new topic, such as the law of nonprofit organizations, for the first time is to use a secondary source, like a treatise, handbook, dictionary, encyclopedia, or a model act/law.  Once these sources provide you with a foundation in the area, you can use the citations they provide to drill down and find primary source materials.

For True Beginners






Most of the laws on the incorporation and maintenance of nonprofit organizations are dictated by state corporation law.  For more information about state laws and where to find them online, visit the Law Library’s Guide to Law Online. To find your state’s statutes, select your state from the Guide to Law Online page, and scroll down to the “Legislative” section.

With regard to federal laws, researchers will likely be most interested in the Internal Revenue Code, as many nonprofit and charitable organizations can be exempt from federal taxes as long as they adhere to certain guidelines: see the “General” and “Taxation” secondary sources listed above for more information.  The Internal Revenue Code is included in the United States Code at Title 26.  Tax regulations can generally be found in Title 26 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

Online Resources

In addition to the resources listed above, those interested in the creation and governance of nonprofit organizations can find a wealth of helpful information on the internet.  Below are links to some websites, broken down by topic, that offer more information about the law of nonprofits.


Clinics/Legal Representation



Information from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)

If you have any other favorite nonprofit law resources, please share them with us in the comments.

As always, please feel free to contact the Law Library of Congress if you have any questions.

Update on October 28, 2013:  The post was updated to fix an outdated link.


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