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University of Pennsylvania

Introduction to Nonprofit Law

University of Pennsylvania via Coursera


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The nonprofit sector in America is made up of over 1.9 million tax exempt organizations and accounts for nearly 6% of the nation's gross domestic product. This course will introduce the major legal rules that govern nonprofit organizations, beginning with the historical context that has shaped the modern nonprofit sector. We will explore the different forms of nonprofit organizations and their associated legal obligations, and we will examine the rules that govern nonprofit activities such as fundraising. We will also look at the constraints nonprofit organizations face regarding both political activity and internal employment considerations. Finally, we will examine the various oversight mechanisms designed to keep nonprofit organizations in line with their mission as well as look to the future and explore how the nonprofit sector may continue to evolve.


  • Development of the Nonprofit Sector: History and Theory
    • Welcome to this introductory course on the laws that shape and govern the nonprofit sector in America! In this first module, we will look at the history and development of the nonprofit sector in the United States. We'll see the influence of early theories of charitable work as well as the evolving relationship between nonprofit organizations and the government.
  • Choosing the Charitable Form: Legal Requirements & Alternatives
    • This module will introduce the different entity choices available to the nonprofit sector and the various considerations that go into choosing a corporate form. In particular, we examine how the primary purpose and fundraising strategy can influence the particular form chosen. Finally, we look at the different obligations to state and federal governments that nonprofit entities must fulfill to maintain their exempt status.
  • Legal Issues When Operating a Nonprofit
    • This module examines the operational challenges that are particular to the nonprofit form. What legal obligations must a nonprofit fulfill when bringing in revenue? Under what circumstances may exempt organizations participate in lobbying or political activity? Finally, we will study the seemingly simple issue of distinguishing between employees and volunteers in the nonprofit setting.
  • Accountability; Directions for the Nonprofit Sector
    • In this final module, we address accountability - who is charged with ensuring that organizations that have been formed as nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations abide by their expected and legal purposes and activities?

Taught by

John M. Bradley


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