Donation Rules for 501c3 Churches to Follow in 2024

If you’re trying to decide if the 501(c)(3) status is right for your church, you’re in the right place! Whether you’re a pastor preparing to plant a church or a member of an established church’s finance team, we know you have questions. In this guide, we’ll go over everything you need to know about the IRC section 501(c)(3) rules for churches so you can decide if it’s the right option for your church.

In this blog post, we’ll cover:

This post has been written to answer questions about 501(c)(3), offer an overview of the application process, and explore the benefits. But this isn’t intended as professional financial advice or legal counsel. If you need help filing a 501(c)(3) application or have other tax questions, it’s best to get advice from a tax expert or directly from the IRS.

What is a 501(c)(3) church?

501(c)(3) is a tax status from the IRS that exempts a qualified organization from paying federal income tax. Churches with the 501(c)(3) designation don’t have to pay taxes on donations or other sources of income. And their donors can deduct their gifts to the church on their taxes, ​​otherwise known as tax deductible contributions

Do you have to apply for 501(c)(3) status?

Short answer: yes. 

The IRS already considers most churches and religious organizations tax-exempt. Check out the IRS’s Publication 557, which says, “a church, its integrated auxiliaries, or a convention or association of churches isn’t required to file Form 1023 to be exempt from federal income tax or to receive tax-deductible contributions.”

But, the official 501(c)(3) status (and determination letter from the IRS that makes it official) isn’t automatically given to all churches with a religious purpose. To get that, you have to apply through the IRS. 

Any time people have to deal with the IRS, it can feel intimidating and confusing. But they’ve got a guide, Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations, to help you navigate the whole process.

The Application

If your church isn’t organized as a trust, a corporation, or an association, or doesn’t have an EIN, you’ll need to get those before you apply.

Once you’ve got all the legal documents ready, you can fill out an application— either Form 1023 or Form 1023-EZ. On your application, you’ll need to provide detailed information about your church’s history, activities, and finances. Fair warning, Form 1023 is 28 pages long all by itself. With all the accompanying attachments, schedules, and other information needed, it’s not unusual for your application to be as long as 100 pages.

The application and approval process can take several months, but your church can enjoy federal income tax exemption once your application is approved (and even while it’s pending).

Here are some more resources straight from the IRS to use as you navigate the 501(c)(3) application process.

But before you start working on that application, there are some responsibilities you need to know about as a 501(c)(3) organization.

501(c)(3) rules to maintain tax exempt status for churches

Ready for some good news? After all the work of organizing and applying, once your 501(c)(3) status is approved, it doesn’t expire! But there are a few steps you need to take to maintain your status (just not another 100-page application). 

Let’s review the IRS’s requirements so you know exactly what to do to protect your ministry from mishaps and penalties. 

1. Your nonprofit can only be run for religious purposes.

2. It can’t primarily focus its activities on lobbying or political efforts.

3. Your organization can’t engage in illegal activities.

4. It can’t primarily benefit a private interest or individual.

5. You can’t generate too much income from a business unrelated to your nonprofit.

6. You need to file and report your income annually.

Advantages and Disadvantages of 501(c)(3)

Now that we’ve waded through the application process and the requirements to maintain a 501(c)(3) status, it’s time to weigh the pros and cons for your ministry.


Tax exemption is the first benefit most people think of with 501(c)(3), but there’s more to it for you and your donors. These advantages can help you save money and generate more income, so your ministry can do even more. A church management software unlocks your administration’s full potential to maintain a direct line of communication with your parish and provide updates on religious activity and progress that’s made possible through their gifts.

Builds credibility

501(c)(3) status gives donors and supporters increased confidence that the nonprofit organization is reputable and trustworthy- making people more likely to donate to the cause. 

Makes contributions tax-deductible

Donors want to give to a religious organization that is trustworthy and doing good work. But it doesn’t hurt when they also get to write off their donations on their taxes.

Brings more saving opportunities

Beyond saving money on income tax, 501(c)(3) churches can save on other expenses, from the US Postal Service and state sales tax to private brands ranging from Amazon to Microsoft.

Unlocks access to grants

As a 501(c)(3) church, you can apply for grants to help your cause. A popular grant for churches to claim is the Google Ad Grants, which offers up to $10,000 each month in ad spend (for free!!) for churches to create highly targeted search ads. 


We’ve talked about all the benefits of a 501(c)(3). Now it’s time for an honest breakdown of the disadvantages that come with the 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

Application Cost

There is a cost to become a 501(c)(3) church. Expect to pay somewhere between $275-600 to the IRS for the application fee, but you could easily add on $2,000 in fees by having an expert help you organize and file the application. 

Piles of paperwork

Unfortunately, being exempt from paying federal income tax doesn’t mean that your church is exempt from filing tax returns. You’ll need to file Form 990 with the IRS annually to report the church’s income. Between the requirement of filing to keep your 501(c)(3) status and the chance of an audit at any time, it’s essential to keep all those documents up to date. 

Scrutiny on reports

Once your organization has established that it’s not-for-profit, your financial information becomes public. Anyone can download a copy of your State and Federal filings and see where exactly the money is being spent. While transparency is great at establishing trust with donors, it can also lead to scrutiny if people feel you’re not spending your money as you should. 

Fear of violating terms

Churches may end up second-guessing their choices or feeling like they can’t say exactly what they want to out of fear of losing their 501(c)(3) status. With the strict rules in place, especially around politics and activism, a church could risk losing their exemption status.

Manage and track church finances easily

While this post has been written to give you an overview of the process and benefits, we know we’re not the experts in 501(c)(3) exemptions. The IRS and tax pros are. Our specialty is creating tools for the Church, like secure online giving for churches

We’re here to equip busy church administrators with tools that empower them with donor development, easily integrate with their current systems, streamline donor communication, and simplify reporting to your leaders. Every step of the giving journey is backed by top-notch PCI Level 1 compliance, so you know your donors’ data is safe and secure. 

Want to learn more? Schedule a call with one of our product experts!



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