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non profit association
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Updated 29 January 2024

Non-profit associations: how it works and create one

Starting a new business does not always mean starting a lucrative business. Have you ever thought about it? With your new business, you can raise aid and funds to support and finance the causes that matter most to you.

Get inspired by this quote from Richard Branson:

“For me, the business is not about wearing smart clothes or pleasing shareholders. Instead, it’s about being true to yourself, your ideas and focusing on the essentials”.

If your business idea is not only profit-oriented, but also pursues cultural, social or humanitarian purposes, you need to know how to set up a non-profit association to give substance to your project. Keep in mind that your business knowledge is likely to lead you astray: conventional business models, in fact, do not work for this particular type of business. Instead, focus on what really works.


What is a non-profit association

First of all, let’s clarify the meaning of “non-profit” because this expression risks misleading you: you must know, in fact, that there are several “non-profit” realities that also have the aim of generating a profit; in these cases, however, the profits are not withdrawn by the owner or redistributed among the shareholders, but are reinvested in the causes or in the management of the business itself.

But what, then, is a non-profit association? It is a non-commercial non-profit organization that operates in the “third sector” and pursues purposes of a solidarity, ideal or social, cultural, recreational, environmental, welfare or sporting utility.

A non-profit association, in more detail, is distinguished by some specific characteristics. It must:

  • be non-profit;
  • have an ideal purpose in accordance with morality and public order.

Furthermore, a non-profit organization must provide for:

  • equal rights and duties of its members;
  • the freedom of membership of new members;
  • the free eligibility of its administrative bodies;
  • an annual report;
  • the prohibition on distributing profits or operating surpluses among its members;
  • the obligation to devolve the payment to another association with similar purposes in the event of its dissolution.

The absence of profit aims more specifically means that non-profit associations can carry out a commercial activity (for example, the production and sale of goods or the administration of services), but without distributing in any way the profits for the benefit of the associates. Also remember that the commercial activity must not be exclusive and prevalent within the business of the non-profit association, but must be instrumental in raising the funds necessary to achieve the purposes that guide the association itself.


Types (and examples) of non-profit associations

Before analyzing in detail what are the various types of non-profit associations, it is appropriate to clarify a further distinction concerning these particular activities: there are, in fact, recognized and unrecognized associations.

Recognized associations must necessarily be established in the presence of a notary and must have a minimum capital of at least 15 thousand euros. In this case, the creditors have the opportunity to claim only and exclusively on the assets of the entity and not on the associates.

Non-recognized associations, on the other hand, can be formed even in the absence of a notary: in fact, it is sufficient for the members to sign the deed of incorporation and the statute and it is not necessary to pay a minimum capital. In this case, the recognition of legal persons is not envisaged and, therefore, those who administer them respond with their personal assets in the event that that of the association is not sufficient.

As already pointed out, it is possible to distinguish different types of non-profit associations, based on the area in which they operate:

  • the Cultural Association: has the purpose of promoting cultural activities (such as education, research, conservation and/or protection and/or enhancement of artistic, food and wine, linguistic, naturalistic, historical heritage etc.) ;
  • the Volunteer Association (Associazione di Volontariato or ODV): has the purpose of preventing situations of need, discomfort and marginalization of a socio-economic nature (the activity of volunteers is carried out mainly towards third parties in a state of need and not towards its members);
  • the Social Promotion Association (Associazione di Promozione Sociale or APS): aims to increase the well-being and improve the quality of life of its members, their families or third parties (the activity of volunteers is carried out mainly towards their members);
  • the Non-profit Organization of Social Utility (Organizzazione non Lucrativa di Utilità Sociale or ONLUS): pursues solidarity interests (such as, for example, social or health assistance, charity, training, the promotion of culture and art, scientific research, etc.);
  • the Amateur Sports Association (Associazione Sportiva Dilettantistica or ASD): aims to promote amateur sports activities, including educational activities, within the disciplines regulated by the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI);
  • the Third Sector Entity (Ente del Terzo Settore or ETS): non-profit associations registered in the Single National Third Sector Register (Registro Unico Nazionale Terzo Settore or RUNTS).

It is important for you to know, at this point, that ONLUS do not represent a strictly legal category, but tax: there are ONLUS associations and non ONLUS associations, just as there are also ONLUS organizations that are not associations.


Who can create or join a non-profit association

A non-profit association is a non-commercial entity made up of 3 or more people who decide to set up an organization to achieve together goals of an ideal, supportive or socially useful nature.

If you are thinking of setting up a non-profit association, therefore, it is necessary that you bring together a group of people united by the same goal, who will become the founding members of the association itself. Although there is no precise number of founding members, remember that in some cases a minimum number is required to accept registration in the ODV register.

In order to establish a non-profit association, the following are required:

  • the deed of incorporation, ie a document containing all the mandatory information required by law (such as, for example, the name and data of the founding members);
  • the statute, which is a text that aims to regulate the functioning of the association and its various bodies.

Both the articles of association and the statute must be signed by the founding members.

Within the statute, the association’s corporate bodies must be indicated, which are responsible for ensuring compliance and implementation of the rules set by the contract and guiding the entity’s path towards achieving its purpose. Specifically, the main bodies of a non-profit association are:

  • the President, who is elected by the Shareholders’ Meeting, directs the association and also represents it in court and who chairs the Governing Council implementing its decisions;
  • the Governing Council, also elected by the Shareholders’ Meeting, which represents the executive body of the entity in relation to all decisions relating to the organization and activities of the association;
  • the Shareholders ‘Assembly, which meets annually for the approval of the social budget and the annual program of activities to be carried out, on the basis of what is prepared by the Governing Council (the Shareholders’ Assembly is the only body that can deliberate changes to the statute and the dissolution of the association).

For your association to be recognized as a “non-profit”, remember, it must meet certain requirements:

  • the conditions required by law or regulation for the establishment of the entity must be met;
  • the purpose must be possible and lawful;
  • the assets must be adequate to achieve the purpose;
  • the consistency of the assets must be demonstrated by suitable documentation attached to the application.

Once you have formed the association, you can request the tax code from the Revenue Agency (Agenzia delle Entrate), which is necessary to carry out all the basic operations (such as, for example, opening a current account and entering into contracts).

Within 20 days of the establishment of the association, you must also proceed with its registration with the same Revenue Agency. This is a fundamental step, because it will allow you to obtain tax breaks and public contributions. To take advantage of the tax concessions, however, you must take a further step: transmit (within 60 days of the association’s establishment) the EAS model to the Revenue Agency.

Also from the Revenue Agency, if you plan to carry out commercial transactions on a regular basis, you can also request a VAT number for association.


How non-profit associations are financed

One of the most common questions among those who, like you, are wondering about how to set up a non-profit association is the following: how are these particular organizations financed?

To answer this question, you need to carry out an accurate analysis of the present and future situation. First of all, it is good that you ask yourself if the purpose you have decided to pursue with your association is able to make your entrepreneurial adventure sustainable, finding the consent of many other people willing to provide you with help (be it public or private) and/or managing to intercept the needs or interests of a sufficiently large portion of the market.

Within your analysis, therefore, you must also consider the opportunity to make use of professionals in the marketing sector and to better refine your promotional strategies, with all that this entails in terms of costs.

As already pointed out, the non-profit association can also produce and sell goods and/or services, but in no case can it distribute the profits of its economic activity among the members. This also applies at the time of the dissolution of the association itself: in this case, in fact, the active assets must be donated to a non-profit association (or several associations).

One of the most discussed aspects when it comes to non-profit associations is that related to the remuneration within this type of entity. In this regard, you must know that there is no compensation for the members of the board of directors or for the members for the simple office they hold, but they can receive sums of money for the activities that they actually perform within the association, in the compliance with the legislation governing the contractual forms with which relations between them and the entity are regulated.


Costs and tax obligations for non-profit associations

Before even thinking about how a non-profit association is financed, in reality, you should focus on how much it costs to open a non-profit association and make sure you have a clear idea of the implications from a tax point of view.

The most important step, as underlined, is the registration of the articles of association and the statute with the Revenue Agency. The indicative cost of this operation is 200 euros plus stamps (where applicable).

To take advantage of the tax benefits reserved for non-profit associations, remember that you must submit the EAS form to the Revenue Agency. As for the benefits, you must know that they are to be considered non-commercial and, therefore, not subject to taxation:

  • the activities that are carried out towards the members, in accordance with the aims of the association, for which a specific economic consideration is not required;
  • membership fees of members and other contributions paid by them;
  • donations that are received by the association;
  • the contributions that are paid by the public administrations for the agreed carrying out, under the accreditation system, of activities with social purposes carried out in accordance with the purposes of the body;
  • funds from public collections made occasionally for certain holidays or anniversaries;
  • the fees that are obtained from the sale, including to third parties, of own publications sold mainly to members.

Remember, however, that to receive these tax benefits, non-profit associations (even those duly constituted) must also necessarily comply with the rules established by tax legislation. Otherwise, tax disputes could arise, with the risk of having to pay financial penalties and losing the status of a non-commercial entity. For this reason (and not only) it is important that you know how to set up a non-profit association before taking this important step.

Nicola Zanetti

Founder B-PlanNow® | Startup mentor | Startup consulting & marketing strategist | Leading startup to scaleup | Private angel investor | Ecommerce Manager | Professional trainer | Book writer

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