501(c)(3) vs. 501(c)(4)

What's the Difference?

501(c)(3) organizations are typically charitable, religious, educational, scientific, or literary organizations that are tax-exempt and can receive tax-deductible donations. These organizations are limited in their lobbying activities and are prohibited from engaging in political campaign activities. On the other hand, 501(c)(4) organizations are social welfare organizations that are also tax-exempt but are allowed to engage in lobbying activities and some political campaign activities. While both types of organizations are tax-exempt, they have different restrictions and purposes.


Tax-exempt statusYesYes
Primary purposeCharitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, or preventing cruelty to children or animalsSocial welfare, civic betterment, or social advocacy
Political activitiesVery limited lobbying and no political campaign interventionCan engage in unlimited lobbying and some political campaign intervention
DonationsTax-deductible for donorsNot tax-deductible for donors

Further Detail


501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) are both types of nonprofit organizations recognized by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in the United States. While they share some similarities, they also have distinct differences in terms of their purposes, activities, and tax-exempt status.


501(c)(3) organizations are typically charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, or public safety organizations. They are required to operate exclusively for one or more of these purposes in order to qualify for tax-exempt status. On the other hand, 501(c)(4) organizations are social welfare organizations that focus on promoting the common good and general welfare of the community. They can engage in lobbying and political activities to further their social welfare goals.


501(c)(3) organizations are limited in the amount of lobbying and political activities they can engage in. They are prohibited from endorsing or opposing political candidates, and their lobbying activities must be insubstantial in relation to their overall activities. In contrast, 501(c)(4) organizations have more flexibility in engaging in lobbying and political activities. They can endorse or oppose political candidates and participate in political campaigns, as long as these activities are not their primary purpose.

Tax-Exempt Status

501(c)(3) organizations are eligible for tax-exempt status, meaning they do not have to pay federal income tax on their earnings. Additionally, donations to 501(c)(3) organizations are tax-deductible for the donors. This tax-exempt status comes with certain restrictions, such as limits on lobbying and political activities. On the other hand, 501(c)(4) organizations are also tax-exempt, but donations to them are not tax-deductible. They are allowed to engage in more lobbying and political activities than 501(c)(3) organizations.

Public Disclosure

501(c)(3) organizations are required to file annual information returns (Form 990) with the IRS, which are publicly available and provide detailed information about their finances, activities, and governance. This transparency is intended to ensure that these organizations are operating in the public interest and using their resources appropriately. In contrast, 501(c)(4) organizations are not required to disclose their donors publicly, which has led to concerns about potential influence from undisclosed sources in the political process.

Donor Privacy

501(c)(3) organizations are generally prohibited from engaging in political activities, including endorsing or opposing political candidates. As a result, donors to these organizations can be assured that their contributions will not be used for political purposes. On the other hand, donors to 501(c)(4) organizations may not have the same level of assurance, as these organizations can engage in political activities that may not align with the donors' beliefs or values.


While both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations are important components of the nonprofit sector, they serve different purposes and have different rules and regulations governing their activities. 501(c)(3) organizations focus on charitable, educational, and religious activities, while 501(c)(4) organizations focus on social welfare and advocacy. Understanding the distinctions between these two types of organizations can help donors and stakeholders make informed decisions about where to direct their support.

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