How to Start a Non-Profit in Wisconsin

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Starting a nonprofit organization in Wisconsin requires filing paperwork at the federal, state and county levels. You need to learn the national laws governing nonprofit enterprises and the laws in your area before submitting any applications or naming a board of directors. Do some research before you begin to make sure your nonprofit idea becomes a reality.

Choose a name for your organization before doing anything else. This sounds simple, but you actually need to research business names to make sure another business or organization hasn't already claimed it. In Wisconsin, sole proprietors and general partnership organizations that wish to use a name other than their own must file a Registration of Firm Names form with the county's Register of Deeds office. Check Wisconsin's Department of Financial Institution's Corporate Registration Information System (CRIS) online to ensure your organization name is original in your county. Once you have an original trade name, you can file it with office of Wisconsin's Secretary of State.

Prepare and file an articles of incorporation form with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, Division of Corporate and Consumer Services. This is referred to as Form 102 under Wisconsin Statute Section 181.0202, or Articles of Incorporation for Nonstock Corporations. After you complete the form, mail the original and an exact copy to the address on the form along with the filing fee.

Apply for 501(c)(3) tax exempt status after you receive a copy of your articles of incorporation from the Department of Financial Institutions. The Internal Revenue Service's website will walk you through the application process step-by-step, including calculating the user's fee. This fee can range anywhere from $275 to $10,000 depending on the size of your organization. When you complete the application, you can file it electronically through the website.

Apply for a certificate of exempt status number. Wisconsin grants sales and use tax exempt status to nonprofits given exemption by the IRS, but you must apply for a CES number. Submit application form S-103, a copy of your articles of incorporation, a copy of your your federal 501(c)(3) tax exemption certificate and an accounting statement from your last fiscal year to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue. This form and application directions are available on the department's website.

Draft your corporate bylaws, or rules governing your organization. You can draft the bylaws by yourself using guides and self-help resources, or you can hire a lawyer to do it for you. The bylaws should be voted on and adopted at your first board meeting.

Appoint a board of directors. Wisconsin requires nonprofit organizations to appoint a five-member board of directors. At your first meeting you will elect a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer to serve for the year. Once you have your board in place, you need to file a Newly Elected Officers and Directors form with the Department of Financial Institutions' Division of Corporate and Consumer Services office. You can find this form on the website, and send it in along with a small processing fee.

Review and adopt the bylaws at your first board of directors meeting, at which you should also elect officials and set up any plans that still need to be accomplished, such as setting up bank accounts or approving an annual budget. Write down the minutes of this meeting and file them for your records. Your nonprofit is now up and running.


  • Read IRS Publication 557, Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization, before applying for 501(c)(3) status. It contains all the federal rules, regulations and application procedures for nonprofit organizations.