501(c)(3) Vs 501(c)(6) – A Detailed Comparison for Nonprofits

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) states that both 501c3 and 501c6 organizations do not have to pay federal income taxes, but after that, the differences between the two are vast. 501c3 organizations must serve the public and 501c6 nonprofits must serve their members. This article will give you a thorough understanding of other differences and similarities between the two.

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501(c)(3) Vs 501(c)(6) – A Detailed Comparison for Nonprofits

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) states that both 501c3 and 501c6 organizations do not have to pay federal income taxes, but after that, the differences between the two organization types are vast. The primary difference between the two has to do with the organizations’ purpose.

501c3 organizations must serve the public. 501c6 organizations are formed to serve their members. 501(c)(6) organizations, in fact, are often termed as nonprofit membership organizations and non-charitable organizations as well.

This article will give you a thorough understanding of other differences and similarities between 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(6) organizations.

  1. 501c3 Vs 501c6
  2. An In-depth Comparison: 501c6 vs 501c3
  3. Noteworthy Differences: 501c3 vs 501c6

501(c)3 Vs 501(c)(6)

501c3 and 501c6 organizations may both be exempt from paying federal taxes, but these two organizations have many noticeable differences that become apparent as soon as you look at them.

1. What is a 501(c)(3)?

501c3 vs 501c6

The IRS states that in order to become tax-exempt, a 501c3 must be organized and operated exclusively for one or more exempt purposes. These purposes are limited by the IRS to the following –

  • Charitable,
  • Religious,
  • Educational,
  • Scientific, and literary,
  • Testing for public safety,
  • Fostering national or international amateur sports, and
  • Preventing cruelty to children or animals.

Organizations like For the Love of Alex qualify as 501c3 organizations due to their work to save the lives of animals and support low-income pet owners. On the other hand, those like the Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County are organizations created to promote religion. Some other notable 501c3 organizations include Black Girls Code, New York Cancer Foundation, Sista Afya Community Mental Wellness, and Healthcare for the Homeless.

2. What is a 501(c)(6)?

what is a 501c6 vs 501c3

A 501c6 organization is an association of persons having common business interests. The organizations’ purpose must be to promote their common interest and improve business conditions, not to engage in a regular business for a profit.

501c6 organizations include the following –

  • Business leagues,
  • Chambers of commerce,
  • Real estate boards,
  • Boards of trade, and
  • Professional football leagues.

There are thousands of local chambers of commerce formed around the country to support their members that all qualify as 501c6 organizations. Some other good 501(c)(6) organizations include Drone Service Providers Alliance and National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching.

An In-Depth Comparison : 501c6 Vs 501c3

The distinct difference between 501c3 and 501c6 organizations is in their underlying purposes. The goal of most 501c3 organizations is charitable, while 501c6 organizations are mainly business or membership nonprofits.

Let’s have a look at this comparison table before we take a deeper dive.

501c3 vs 501c6

Next, we’ll discuss each category in detail for an in-depth insight into each.

1. Getting the tax-exempt status

The very first comparison comes in getting the respective nonprofit status from the IRS. For 501c3, the tax-exempt status comes by filing Form 1023 or Form 1023-EZ with the IRS. The cost of the same would be either $600 or $275.

For 501(c)(6), nonprofits will need to file Form 1024 to get the respective tax-exempt status. In addition, they’ll have to attach Form 8718 to Form 1024 to receive their Letter of Determination. This works as proof of their tax-exempt status. The cost for filing Form 1024 remains at $600.

2. Purposes and activities

501c3 organizations’ primary goal is charitable or educational. They must perform activities that benefit the public through services like housing, food distribution, education, religion, or other publicly beneficial actions.

In addition to providing services, 501c3 organizations are responsible for informing and educating the public about their missions and causes.

501c3 nonprofits can advocate and lobby for their causes within reason.

The IRS does not see 501c6 organizations as charitable organizations. Instead, these organizations are formed to support their members’ business activities.

501c6 organizations have less strict regulations regarding lobbying.

3. Political involvement

As we said, 501c3 organizations can lobby for their organization’s purpose and activities but there are limits. The IRS ensures that 501c3 organizations cannot

  • Influence legislation,
  • Participate or intervene in any political campaign, or
  • Support any candidate or public office.

501c3 private foundations cannot engage in lobbying but can provide funding for nonprofits used for lobbying.

On the contrary, 501c6 organizations can participate in unlimited lobbying as long as it relates to their purpose. They must notify their members about the percentage of dues used for lobbying. If they don’t, the IRS will assess a proxy tax penalty.

The most significant difference between 501c3 and 501c6 organizations when it comes to political activity is electioneering. Electioneering is when organizations actively take part in election campaign activities. Some 501c6 organizations spend 49% of their resources on electioneering. 501c3s cannot take part in electioneering.

Both types of organizations must comply with IRS registration and reporting requirements regarding all lobbying activities.

4. Donations, fundraising, and membership

501c3 nonprofits can receive tax-deductible donations. These donations are considered charitable contributions, and donors can report them on their annual taxes. Donors can receive tax deductions for cash and property gifts.

501c3 nonprofits may also offer memberships to their supporters for a monthly fee. These fees are tax-deductible.

501c3 organizations have a distinct fundraising advantage over 501c6 organizations. 501c6 organizations can accept donations, but these gifts are not tax-deductible as charitable donations.

For 501c6 organizations, membership fees are tax-deductible. But it is only members who can claim these fees as business expenses.

The IRS may also require 501c6 organizations to report that donations and fees are not tax-deductible to the public and pay a proxy tax in connection with these fees.

5. Grants

501c3 organizations can give and receive grants as long as they further their purpose. Most grants are meant for charities.

On the other hand, 501c6 organizations can receive grants if the grant organization allows them to apply.

Noteworthy Differences: 501c3 Vs 501c6

501c3 vs 501c6

1. Are there any similarities between 501c3 and 501c6 organizations?

501c3 and 501c6 organizations have several differences, but there are a few similarities.

Both of these organizations are exempt from paying a federal income tax, but only 501c3 may be exempt from state and local taxes.

Both organizations must file Form 990 that proves they benefit either the public or the organizations’ membership.

501c3 and 501c6 organizations’ earnings cannot substantially benefit an individual or private shareholder. If they’re found to benefit an individual with influence over the organization, the IRS can impose an excise tax on the individual. The organizations will lose their tax-exempt status.

Finally, while 501c6 organizations are membership nonprofits, both 501c6 and 501c3 organizations may have members.

2. 501c3 vs 501c4 vs 501c6

Many people are confused by the differences between 501c3, 501c4, and 501c6 organizations.

Each of these organizations is tax-exempt, but the key differences apply to their political activities.

501c3 organizations can perform some lobbying activities if they are directly related to the charity’s mission. There are several restrictions, including those on supporting campaigns and political parties.

501c6 organizations are given more freedom by the IRS to take part in lobbying and electioneering.

501c4 organizations are trade unions, social welfare organizations, and civic leagues. 501c4 can endorse political candidates, and there are no limits on its political lobbying. Thanks to the supreme court decision, Citizens United, 501c4 organizations can also spend unlimited amounts through PACs to endorse candidates that align with their mission.

501c4 donations are not tax-deductible as charitable donations. But members of these organizations may be able to deduct fees as business expenses.

Final Thoughts

The differences between 501c3 and 501c6 organizations can be confusing, but this article should help define the two and support you in determining which type of organization you wish to start.

Visit our website for more information on creating your own 501c3 or 501c6 nonprofit. If you are interested in learning more about the differences between 501c3 and 501c4 organizations, read our article on the subject.

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Note: By sharing this information we do not intend to provide legal, tax, or accounting advice, or to address specific situations. The above article is intended to provide generalized financial and legal information designed to educate a broad segment of the public. Please consult with your legal or tax advisor to supplement and verify what you learn here.

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Kristine Ensor is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience working with local and international nonprofits. As a nonprofit professional she has specialized in fundraising, marketing, event planning, volunteer management, and board development.

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