Two years of pandemic fundraising have made online fundraising mainstream for most nonprofits. Online fundraising makes it simpler for your donors to give and easier for them to make recurring donations to support your mission. It also allows you to reach a greater number of supporters. As you take advantage of new opportunities to use online fundraising to grow and engage your donor community, make sure that you know what you need to know to be compliant.   

Charitable registration 

Simply being recognized by the IRS as a nonprofit organization does not permit you to fundraise. States are the regulators of charitable solicitation. Fundraising registration is generally required in any state in which you want to solicit funds, and states deem that solicitation occurs where your fundraising request is received. So before you fundraise, you may be required to first register in each state where the donors you will solicit are located, then regularly renew the registrations. Meeting this obligation may seem simple, but there’s a catch. States define solicitation as the act of asking for donations, regardless of the method of solicitation. It is simple enough to know where you are soliciting in person, sending a letter, or submitting a grant application. But if you use online methods such as email or a website “donate now” button to fundraise, in which states are you soliciting?  

In 2001, the National Association of State Charity Officials (NASCO) released a set of recommendations called the Charleston Principles to supplement fundraising laws that had not kept pace with technology.  The principles suggested that registration should be required if:

  • if you use an interactive webpage such as a “Donate Now” button that allows donors anywhere to give to you,
  • if you send targeted emails to a specific person you know is in a given state, or generally encourage people in that state to donate to you, or
  • if you receive ongoing, repeated, or substantial donations from donors in a state. 

Here are more details on the compliance requirements for the most common types of online fundraising:

1) Website Donation Pages 

You now know that charitable solicitation simply means asking for donations, regardless of the means, and you know that solicitation happens wherever the message is received. There’s another key to understanding state charitable solicitation registration. Solicitation occurs regardless of whether the solicitor receives a donation in response. This means fundraising requests made on your online donation page may be charitable solicitations in every state. It also means that your website’s “donate now” button or banner may be nationwide solicitations. These online fundraising methods may obligate you to first register in many of the 41 states that regulate fundraising. Whether you must register in a specific state depends on your mission and how much you receive in donations. Here’s a chart with state-specific charitable registration details.

In a recent study by Fidelity Charitable, 8 out of 10 donors reported that nonprofit transparency and trustworthiness influence their giving decisions. Understanding and meeting state solicitation requirements will help ensure your compliance and allow you to avoid penalties; it will also protect your reputation and win the trust of new supporters.

2) Social Media Campaigns

Most nonprofits work hard to connect with donors through multiple channels, including social media. If you make fundraising requests on social media, understand that many states view such social media requests as solicitations within their borders. To be compliant when making fundraising requests online, you may be required to register nationwide.

It’s important to understand that your compliance obligations will continue beyond initial registration regardless of the methods you use to solicit donations. Once you have registered to fundraise in a state, you must regularly renew that registration and file an annual report of details of your fundraising activities. Doing so will keep you listed as registered and in good standing in the state’s searchable online charity database.

3) Participation in Giving Days

Do you create a page on your website for Giving Day donations or solicit Giving Day donations via email and social media? In that case, you may also need to seek nationwide charitable registration. Prospective donors can access those online solicitations anywhere and at any time, and state registration requirements are triggered by the act of soliciting, not by the receipt of funds.

Giving Days present an opportunity for you to reach new donors to fuel your mission. State charity regulators’ websites make it easy for potential supporters to check your charitable registration status. Make sure you’re compliant to win and maintain the trust and donations of those new donors. 

4) Online Events

Online auctions and bingo, raffles, and other charitable gaming can be fun for your attendees and a way for you to gain donations and support for your mission. These virtual events may require not just prior state charitable registration but also gaming licenses. In addition, state-specific fundraising disclosures may be required for events, just as they are for other solicitation methods. 

Twenty five states require nonprofits to include some form of disclosure statement when communicating with donors, whatever the method of communication. Disclosures usually inform donors where donors can obtain information about the nonprofit. Typically, nonprofits must include disclosures in solicitations and donor correspondence. However, each state’s disclosure requirements differ. This charitable solicitation registration guide can help you make sure you and your virtual event meet state requirements.

How to Comply with State Regulations 

Online charitable registration compliance can strengthen your credibility and help you stand out from the crowd. Today, potential donors have a choice of giving opportunities and trust matters. So what are your options for compliant online fundraising? Register to fundraise or seek a registration exemption in all 41 states with such a requirement, or accept donations only from those states where you have registered by putting a disclaimer on your social media donation requests and “Donate” webpage. Most nonprofits want to be free to use online fundraising to broaden their circle of donors and increase contributions to support their mission. If you’re among them, there are two options to achieve nationwide charitable registration compliance.

First, you can meet the challenge of obtaining and managing your nationwide fundraising registration in all 41 states yourself using educational resources like Labyrinth’s Online Fundraising Compliance Guide. Handling multiple state registrations yourself is often quite challenging. The other option is to outsource registration to an experienced state charitable registration provider like Labyrinth or a law firm. Many nonprofits find that this option provides them with peace of mind and allows them to focus on their mission. State charitable registration is both the law and a best practice. Make it a priority for 2022.

Free Webinar on June 28

Join Nonprofit Tech for Good and Labyrinth on June 28 for a free webinar about how nonprofits can stay compliant in 2022. The webinar will cover the legal requirements for registration and reporting, licensing for special fundraising activities, and the positive impact of compliance. Learn more & register!

A promotional graphic for a free webinar about why and how nonprofits can stay compliant with online fundraising laws.

About the Author

Sharon Cody, J.D. is the Nonprofit Market Manager at Labyrinth, a leading provider of state charitable registrations for nonprofits nationwide. Her more than 30 years in the nonprofit sector have made her passionate about educating nonprofits on the role of fundraising compliance as both a best practice and an industry differentiator.