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I understand the perspective that operations and growth challenges for a nonprofit are generally the same, but there are some pretty huge differences too.

My own organization is a nonprofit startup. Our 501(c)(3) application took four and a half years in review. During that time we had no final status so rule out most foundational support and as a nonprofit there's no equity investment either. Essentially we had to scrape for what help we could find little by little without much to offer in return. Luckily we're in a high-profile space (music) so we could return enough PR while building.

The IRS eventually denied our application for status. It's not uncommon, especially in the open-source space, but luckily we now have a major law firm representing us pro bono, we hold credible domestic nonprofit status (at the state level) and we've build up enough of a reputation. We're still cut off from most grant-making, but we're finding ways to be creative.

My point is that the administration of the organization itself is no trivial matter, and it's especially difficult to carve out a space for yourself as a nonprofit if you don't fit a traditional nonprofit mold. (And innovation in the nonprofit space is vital — both in the models and the regulation. Sadly the latter lags behind.)

Not a complaint at all, but I'd definitely argue that the differences are many. And for nonprofit startups without a 501(c)(3) you're going to face a challenge, even if you're supported by a fiscal sponsor. It's similar waters for sure, but a whole different ocean.

> The IRS eventually denied our application for status. It's not uncommon, especially in the open-source space..

Could you elaborate on that?


Open source by itself isn't a tax-exempt action, but for many it's an important part of releasing free software for the public benefit. Services for the public benefit that are open to all can generally be framed as tax-exempt activity, but the lawyers at the IRS who review 501(c)(3) applications are tax attorneys, not software/tech specialists so a lot of confusion ensues.

Our review came back arguing that providing open source software is not only non-exempt, but actually provides a competitive advantage in the market because some companies would be paying for the same service, therefore they are at a disadvantage — even though they would have the same access to that free software as anyone.

Talking to other nonprofit directors and experts it seems like the arguments around open source are inconsistent at best. It makes sense because the IRS generally fast-tracks more common arguments and passes off specialty cases (think software) to individual reviewers. As enough case-law builds up they'll provide a more consistent decision based on internal protocols.

Out of the scope of your question, but the end result for us is that we're doing a bunch of legal wrangling, establishing more outreach and education efforts (which were always part of our mission) and getting ready to re-apply by year's end. It's not unrealistic to think a full ten years will pass from the start of the organization to the point where we get 501(c)(3) status.

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