Are Schools 501(c)(3) Organizations?

Written by True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

Reviewed by Subject Matter Experts

Updated on April 16, 2023

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What Is a 501(c)(3)?

The 501(c)(3) designation is one of the most common designations among charity organizations in the U.S., though there are several other types of non-profit organizations with similar tax-exempt status.

The term "501(c)(3)" refers to a section of the United States Internal Revenue Code.

This section defines the requirements an organization must meet in order to qualify as tax-exempt.

Organizations that qualify as 501(c)(3)s must be organized and operated exclusively for one or more specific purposes, such as religious, educational, scientific, or charitable purposes.

Types of Organizations That Are Eligible

There are several different classifications under which organizations can qualify as 501(c)(3). In general, organizations can fall into one of four broad categories:

  • Public charities

  • Private foundations

  • Private operating foundations

  • Supporting organizations

Public charities generally serve a large group of people by providing social services or promoting certain causes; whereas private foundations tend to provide smaller grants and scholarships on behalf of individuals or corporations who have made significant contributions (beyond ordinary donations).

Private operating foundations fund their own charitable projects while supporting organizations coordinate programs between two or more groups that share similar goals but have separate operations (for example, two churches working together on a joint mission).

Are Schools 501(c)(3) Organizations?

Although a school may apply for tax exemption under 501(c)(3), that step is not necessary to qualify for private foundation grants.

The IRS generally treats schools and other educational institutions as government entities.

How Schools Qualify as 501(c)(3) Organizations

Schools can receive tax-exempt status under the Internal Revenue Code if they meet the requirements of a 501(c)(3) organization.

To qualify for such status, schools must be organized and operated exclusively for religious, educational, scientific, or charitable purposes.

Additionally, funds raised and used by the school must be solely for these stated purposes; any activity that does not relate to these objectives is considered outside the scope of a school's purpose and is not eligible for tax-exempt status.

Requirements for Tax Exemption Status

Checklist for Schools to Qualify as 501(c)(3)

In order to qualify when applying for 501(c)(3) status, schools must meet certain criteria set out by the IRS.

First and foremost, schools must have an appropriate mission statement that clearly outlines their purpose and goals.

Additionally, in order to maintain their tax-exempt status, schools must have a certain number of governing board of members that oversees daily operations and expenditures of funds.

Furthermore, all fundraising activities must be consistent with the charitable purposes outlined in the mission statement; any funds that are used for activities unrelated to the mission of a school (such as those used for private gain or excessive administrative expenses) are not eligible for exemption under this code section.

Finally, when submitting Form 1023 (the application form required to obtain 501(c)(3) status), schools will need to submit detailed financial statements demonstrating the appropriate use of funds and outlining planned fundraising activities.

To ensure compliance with IRS rules and regulations regarding nonprofit organizations, it is strongly recommended that school leaders consult with an attorney prior to filing their applications.

Best Practices for School Leaders in Obtaining and Maintaining Tax Exemption

The following outlines best practices for school leaders wishing to obtain and maintain tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3) organization.

Developing an Appropriate Mission Statement

An effective mission statement will clearly define the purpose of a school's existence and the goals it wishes to achieve.

This statement should be straightforward, concise, and intertwined with a school's core values and beliefs.

Additionally, when creating such statements, it is important to avoid language that implies private gain or substantial non-charitable activities as these can jeopardize a school's eligibility for tax exemption.

Establishing a Governing Board to Oversee Operations

For consistent management of daily operations, schools should appoint a board of directors composed of volunteers from the community who demonstrate dedication and commitment to its overall success.

The board should assist in setting long-term objectives, developing strategies for achieving those goals, and ensuring compliance with relevant laws, regulations, and ethical standards.

Furthermore, board members should approve the use of all funds raised by the organization for only approved activities put forth by the mission statement.

Ensuring All Funds Are Used for Educational Purposes

One of the key principles of attaining 501(c)(3) status is establishing that funds are used exclusively for charitable activities related to an organization's mission statement.

All expenditures must adhere strictly to this purpose; any activity deemed excessive or unrelated could risk compromising a school's nonprofit status if audited by the IRS.

Schools should also have procedures in place for seeking approval prior to making large purchases or engaging in fundraising activities that might not be easily recognizable as related educational expenditures when applying for tax exemption status.


Most colleges, universities, kindergartens, and trade schools are established under the 501(c)(3) Internal Revenue Code.

These organizations are tax-exempt on the basis of having an educational purpose, and their activities must reflect that goal.

Schools can follow best practices for obtaining and maintaining their tax-exempt status as 501(c)(3) organizations.

This includes developing an appropriate mission statement, establishing a governing board to oversee operations, and ensuring all funds are used for educational purposes.

Following these guidelines will help schools take the necessary steps to become eligible for the advantages associated with 501(c)(3) status.

Are Schools 501(c)(3) Organizations? FAQs

About the Author

True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

True Tamplin is a published author, public speaker, CEO of UpDigital, and founder of Finance Strategists.

True is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®), author of The Handy Financial Ratios Guide, a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, contributes to his financial education site, Finance Strategists, and has spoken to various financial communities such as the CFA Institute, as well as university students like his Alma mater, Biola University, where he received a bachelor of science in business and data analytics.

To learn more about True, visit his personal website or view his author profiles on Amazon, Nasdaq and Forbes.

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