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Where to Start

If you are considering starting your own Mutual Aid Society, chances are that you already have an issue in mind that you want to address, or a community you want to serve. When looking for additional members or volunteers for your group, it helps to have a clear, concise issue to address through the Mutual Aid Society. Many of these groups form to provide mutual support through sharing of necessary items like food. Other groups organize to help support those who might need emergency day care or help getting to or from a doctor’s appointment. Some groups try to address lots of different community needs. So, some questions to consider at the outset are what change you would like to see, what that change would look like, and what your visions are for the future of your Mutual Aid Society.

Sometimes an idea can grow beyond its original vision. In 1969, the Black Panthers started a free lunch program to prevent starvation in Los Angeles. By the following year, the program was feeding tens of thousands of children across several different cities. View article about the Black Panther's Breakfast Program!

Another thing to consider is whether a mutual aid organization or other, similar organizations already exists in your community to help meet the needs you want your group to address. If one does, it is worth asking what help they can use! See our map tool to determine if there is an already-existing Mutual Aid organization in the Capital Region of New York State: Mutual Aid Near Me.

Here is a list of resources your mutual aid society may decide to provide:

Each mutual aid society will have different ideologies, needs, approaches, and goals. It can be helpful to sit down with your members, or those who you want to help you form your group, and discuss what is important to your mutual aid society. Here are some questions to get you and your team started on the conversation. There is no one right answer to these questions, it all depends on what your group decides are your team’s goals (click on each for the answer).

The answer to this question will depend on the resources and goals of your mutual aid society. You could choose to organize by zip code, by block, a neighborhood, or by a specific distance (such as a two mile perimeter from a specific point).

Every mutual aid society has its own purpose and goal, so resources that you need or have may differ. By taking stock of your resources from the beginning of setting up your mutual aid society, you will be able to better ration and use your resources.

Because mutual aid societies often depend exclusively on community members donating their time, it can be difficult to produce a consistent schedule of volunteers who may have other commitments or irregular work schedules themselves outside of their volunteer efforts. Some ways to build accountability include having a signup sheet through excel or another format, check ins with volunteers a day or two before their volunteer shift, and/or have candid conversations with potential members about the expectations for volunteers working with your group.

The purpose of a mutual aid society is to provide aid to your community. However, providing aid is dependent on your resources. One aspect to consider when structuring your mutual aid society is if you want to limit the amount of aid a household can receive. An example is providing groceries to elderly households. Some people believe it is not the mutual aid society’s role to say how much of something a household needs and that the purpose is to provide what the person needs, not what you think a household needs. However, others may think that in order to remain active, the mutual aid society has to limit the aid given.

Below are some ways to compromise, but remember what works for one mutual aid may not work for another:

  • Limit aid to once a week but don't limit how much of something that can be given
  • Limit aid by household
  • Only provide specific groceries (such as buying certain in bulk items and letting people pick out of those)
  • Separate mutual aid society into two purpose to fit both ideologies

A mutual aid society can exist for numerous reasons and can take a wide range of approaches in how it functions. It is important to meet with your group and discuss what you want to do and how you want to do it. This discussion will bring up different ideologies and approaches and if so, it is important to determine if there can be a compromise or are the ideological differences so great that members should consider forming different groups.

Here is a list of questions that you should discuss with your key members:

  1. What are we providing (food, services, funds, education)?
  2. Will we limit how much we will give one family?
  3. Quantity or quality: if we want to help as many people as possible then buying in bulk may be the best option but if we want to provide fresh and organic food then we may not be able to help as many people.
  4. Where does our community sphere end?

Pod mapping is an excellent way to lay out and organize the individuals and resources they will provide within your pod. In the middle circle you will put the organizer of the organization. The solid circles will be people who help with the operation of the mutual aid society regularly. The dotted circles are individuals who have expressed interest to be included in your pod. The circles may be organized by the specific type of aid the person can provide. Watch our video on pod mapping for more information!

Mutual aid societies are created through a social and collaborative approach. After it’s decided what issue your mutual aid society will tackle, you will begin to look for people who also want to tackle the same issue. This does mean not that everyone in the group will have the same views and experiences, but this can be beneficial as it allows for a conversation within the group and alternative approaches to the issue. There are a variety of ways to build your network. Some examples are:

Whether you decide to incorporate or not will depend on your organization’s goal. Below are some of the different structures available. As always, for more information you should consult an attorney and look at the IRS guidelines. Read our Follow Your Own Formation Path Written Guide (PDF), or see our Follow Your Own Formation Path Chart (PDF) for more information.

What are the benefits of incorporating and seeking tax-exempt status

Whether or not you want to seek recognition as a charity under IRS rules, you might want to consider forming a corporation generally. If you do want to seek charity status with the IRS, you will have to incorporate. But you do not have to pursue this charity status with the IRS. That does not mean you might not want to incorporate. This section addresses some of the questions that arise when you consider whether to incorporate and whether to seek tax-exempt status.

Benefits of incorporating a mutual aid society includes (click on each for the answer):

While individuals or groups can be sued, incorporating an organization can protect directors from being held personally responsible for the actions of the organization and having to pay damages out of their own pockets.

If you do incorporate, then consider filing for tax exempt status, because it definitely has some perks if you qualify. The two major ones are that donations made to the charity will be deductible on the donee's tax returns and (2) your organization will be tax-exempt. If the organization relies on donations, it could be an incentive to donee's that they can deduct their donation on their taxes. The concept of mutual aid revolves around the ideology of reciprocal help between individuals and community. Some people donate time and others may donate goods or money. If your mutual aid society registers as a 501(c)(3), tax payers who make donations can deduct the contribution on their tax return. View IRS website for information about charitable contributions to charities and nonprofits.

501(c)(3) organization are tax exempt from the IRS. In order to be considered as a 501(c)(3) corporation, the charity has to be “organized and operated exclusively” for one or more of the statutes acceptable reasons, including charitable, scientific, literary, and educational purposes. The statute further requires “no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual. . . .” IRC 501(C)(3). In other words, no director, officer, or private individual, unfairly benefit from the activities or net earnings of the mutual aid society or any other 501(c)(3). Your organization may still make a profit though as long as that profit is furthering the organization’s verified purpose and not a shareholder or private person. In many cases a 501(c)(3) may need revenue in order to pay for certain goods and services. This may not be a concern for your organization if you mainly rely on donations and volunteers. View IRS website for information about exempt organization types.

What are some of the reasons not to incorporate

Click on each for the reason.

Mutual aid societies are not new and during times when a particular hardship or issue is devastating communities, more mutual aid societies tend to pop up. Some mutual aid societies are more permanent because they are tackling an issue that is not likely to go away in the near future. An example of this is an organization that tackles the problem of child hunger by providing lunches to children on weekends and school vacations. Other mutual aid societies tackle a problem that is most likely temporary. An example of a mutual aid society with a temporary objective is a mutual aid society that provides groceries to populations that are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Some individuals and groups hold the belief that registering with the state contradicts the essence of what makes mutual aid societies different from other nonprofit organizations and charities. Mutual aid is used to fill in the gaps left by state and federal aid, laws, and programs. Not only do mutual aid societies provide assistance to their community, they also provide education and space for difficult conversations. Mutual aid societies often take positions that challenge the government’s response to social issues that many people face, such as offering support to the LQBTQ+ community. Mutual aid societies are built on a social structure of neighbors helping neighbors and there is a fear that by incorporating, mutual aid societies would lose some of their ability to adequately oppose or question the government’s response to various social issues.

For more information on this take on mutual aid societies and incorporating, you can view this article by Dean Spade, Solidarity Not Charity: Mutual Aid for Mobilization and Survival (PDF)

It can be difficult to know what you need to do to incorporate, especially because different states can have drastically different requirements for incorporating depending on that state’s law. Knowing where to find a state’s rules for incorporating can be confusing and time consuming. One place to start is by looking at your state government webpage. It can be helpful to consult an attorney who is well versed in your state’s nonprofit law and guidelines when completing the incorporating process.

View IRS website to get information on how to file for charities and nonprofits.

*It may be expensive to incorporate as well. Be sure to consult an attorney to help you.*

Can I incorporate as a 501(c)(3)

It is important to note that not every organization can incorporate as an organization recognized as a 501(c)(3) charity. Organizations must offer general benefits to the public in order to qualify as a 501(c)(3) corporation. What does this mean? Your mutual aid society can limit itself to a small group or community, but the more exclusive the organization is on giving aid, the less likely it will qualify for 501(c)(3) status. Here are a few scenarios (click on each for the answer):

This is generally not the type of organization that can qualify for 501(c)(3) states, however your state may have its own fundraising rules and registration requirements to comply with. Learn about charity registration in NYS.

Most likely no because of the exclusivity of the activity. If the aid was available more publicly to the community instead of just a narrow group of people, this may qualify. See

This may qualify as a 501(c)(3) corporation. While this is similar to the prior example, it is different in that it is available to the public of the school district. The inclusivity of the endeavor makes it more of a community effort than small group of parents or friends supporting each other. Learn about exemption requirements for 501(c)(3) organizations from the IRS.

This may qualify as a 501(c)(3) because of the openness and availability to help community members. Learn about exemption requirements for 501(c)(3) organizations from the IRS.

Read our Journey to 501(c)(3) Status Written Guide (PDF) or see our Journey to 501(c)(3) Status Chart (PDF) for more information!

Remember, these are just some general examples that can help you consider some of the issues that come into play when a group wants to consider seeking recognition from the IRS as a 501(c)(3) charity. Always consult an attorney to address questions related to your specific situation.

Exemption quick notes

Obtaining 501(c)(3) status allows certain benefits but in order to obtain 501(c)(3) an organization has to meet and maintain specific requirements. See the following Exemption quick notes for information on various aspects of obtaining 501(c)(3) status.

  1. Be exclusively organized for an acceptable purpose as defined by the IRS and comply with all parts of the statute. [See];

  2. Lobbying and political activity;

    • In order to qualify for 501(c)(3) status by the IRS, the IRS limits lobbying and political activity. To qualify “no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation. . . .” Further, the corporation cannot endorse or oppose any political campaign or candidate for public office. For more information on the restrictions on non-profit political engagement, see

    • View IRS website for information about Lobbying.

  3. Registration and filing;

  4. Articles of incorporation, Organization By-laws, and Board of Directors;

    • The Articles of Incorporation is document that must be submitted for the nonprofit organization to become a corporation. The Articles of Incorporation must list the (1) name (2) the address of the individual willing to receive notices on behalf of the corporation (3) the names and addresses of directors (4) statement of purpose. View the IRS' the suggested language for Articles of Incorporation for charities and nonprofits.

    • While the IRS does not require a conflict of interest policy, states may have their own requirements. Conflict of Interest policies are used to ensure that the directors do not have a private interest that would interfere or conflict with the corporation’s best interests. Learn more about the purpose of Conflict of Interest Policies.

    • For IRS 501(c)(3) status, the organization must submit a copy of its By-laws and Articles of Incorporation. The By-laws is essentially the corporation’s guidebook and will set out it’s purpose and policies. Learn more about By-Laws for exempt organization.

    • There are many different ideological approaches to starting and running mutual aid societies. One popular view and use of mutual aid societies is that they are anti-establishment and/or take a stand against the government’s actions or response to different social issues. Some fear that having a board of directors can undermine an egalitarian ideology because instead of everyone being on equal footing, the voices on the board may be heard louder than others. Some mutual aid societies have addressed this by carefully drafting their bylaws and articles of incorporation in a way that ensures the collaborative environment. Another way to preserve the essence of a mutual aid society is through transparency. Depending on the size and reach of your mutual aid society, you may have a website explaining the organization’s purpose and goals. By explaining openly and outlining any board, council, or committee that the mutual aid establishes, it is easier for others not in those positions to understand the entities purpose and effect on the organization. See

  5. Continuing compliance.