Answers To 3 Big Questions About Your US Nonprofit Tax Returns

Filing taxes can be stressful—and filing taxes for your nonprofit in the United States may seem even more complicated. These answers to three common questions about US nonprofit tax returns can help you get started.


If you’re preparing to file your nonprofit tax returns in the US, read on for guidance about tax-exempt status, filing requirements, and types of forms. For the most up-to-date information, check the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website.

1. Is my nonprofit a registered 501(c)(3)?

By its simplest definition, a nonprofit organization is one in which those who control or support it do not earn a profit. In the US, you first register a nonprofit organization with the state. To apply for US federal tax exemption, you must already be organized under state law as a nonprofit, and then apply to the federal US government (the IRS) for recognition as a 501(c)(3) organization.

If the IRS approves your application for 501(c)(3) recognition, they will issue a letter (known as a “letter of determination”) affirming that your organization is exempt from federal income tax. Unless your organization is a registered 501(c)(3), it does not qualify for US federal tax exemption.

2. Do I have to file an IRS tax return?

Put simply, yes. While tax-exempt status means an organization does not need to pay federal corporate income tax on income generated by activities directly related to the nonprofit’s mission, there is a wide variety of other taxes that a registered 501(c)(3) may be obligated to pay. Other than a few exceptions, the IRS requires all exempt organizations to file annual returns of their income and expenses. Failing to file your tax returns can lead to a revocation of your 501(c)(3) status.

There are a few exceptions to the general rule. Small tax-exempt nonprofits with gross receipts under $50,000 file an annual electronic notice. Churches and church-affiliated organizations that meet the requirements of 501(c)(3) status are not required to file an annual return or notice with the IRS.

3. Which tax form do I need?

There are four 990 forms for 501(c)(3) tax return filing purposes.

  • Form 990 is the IRS’ general tool for collecting information about tax-exempt organizations and is also used to share programmatic information with the public.
  • Form 990-PF is the tax form for private foundations.
  • Form 990-EZ is the short-form return of organizations exempt from income tax.
  • Form 990-N is the electronic notice or e-postcard for small exempt organizations with gross receipts less than $50,000.

Learn how to register your nonprofit as a 501(c)(3) with the federal government, and get more information about which tax form you need to file.

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