Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of Ask Us visitors who want to see a specific nonprofit’s Form 1023, also known as its exemption application. This question usually comes from would-be nonprofits that want to refer to Form 1023 samples from similar orgs as they fill out their own applications. Sometimes, a visitor wants to verify that a nonprofit’s activities indeed align with its mission, as described to the IRS.
Documents subject to public inspection
Indeed, Form 1023 is a public document. An exempt organization that filed for exemption before July 15, 1987, must make available for public inspection its exemption application. For 501(c)(3) public charities, this means Form 1023. For other types of 501(c) exempt orgs, this means Form 1024. Also subject to public inspection are any supporting documents and any letter or document issued by the IRS concerning the application.
Exempt orgs also must make available the three most recent submissions of Form 990 , Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax. However, there are some exceptions to the public disclosure requirements. For example, public charities are not required to disclose the names and addresses of any individual contributors (usually filed in Schedule B). This exception does not apply to private foundations.
See this IRS page for more details about which tax documents are public.
Public disclosure does not mean “available online”
“Subject to public inspection” means that exempt orgs must provide copies of these documents upon request. Copies usually must be provided immediately in the case of in-person requests, and within 30 days in the case of written requests.
If your nonprofit makes its documents “widely available”, like posting them on your website or in third-party online databases, then you can instruct requesters on how to find your documents online in lieu of providing paper copies.
Forms 990 are available at several websites, like Foundation Center, GuideStar, National Center for Charitable Statistics, and Economic Research Institute. So it’s not surprising that many people expect to find Forms 1023 just as easily, but so far, we’ve not found any single online source for all Forms 1023. (If you know of one, tell us!) Some orgs will put their Form 1023 on their websites, but this seems rare.
So where can you get an org’s Form 1023? For now, you’ll have to request it from the org directly or from IRS using Form 4506-A. If you're looking for samples because you need guidance in filling out your own Form 1023, see "Where can I get help filling out my incorporation and tax-exempt 501(c)(3) paperwork?" Our Knowledge Base Article includes staff-picked websites that offer guidance, and some even include samples.
Are bylaws public documents?
It depends. The instructions for Form 1023 state that if your organization has adopted bylaws, you must include a current copy with your exemption application. Thus, as supporting documents to Form 1023, your bylaws would be subject to public inspection. With Form 1023-EZ, you don’t have to submit bylaws, but you could be asked to provide them at a later time.
But even if you’re not legally required to disclose your bylaws, consider doing so anyway. Your nonprofit’s willingness to be transparent to the public can help to build your audience’s trust in your org and to keep your leaders honest and accountable.
Also consider the image you give off if you refuse to provide your bylaws when requested. If the person requesting them is mildly concerned about your org’s activities, you’ve just given them more reason to suspect greater impropriety.
-- Sandy Pon