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As for the status of 501c3 charitable organization - the status is based on the bylaws of entity - as long as all legal requirements are met - you may treat the organization as charitable and that organization may accept donations.
However - there is an established practice to obtain the determination letter from the IRS - and based on your intention - you likely is going to submit all required documentation to obtain that letter - that is the purpose of the form 1023.
If you have difficulties to complete the form - you may hire a local tax preparer or CPA to do that for your organization.
You wrote "the funds are not available to pay the user fee and pay someone to complete the form for us" - that is not correct - you may use funds as needed as long as your bylaws allows you to do so.
If you will file on your own - download Publication 557, Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization - that is the most helpful guide. Still I suggest to have a local CPA to verify your filing.
If the IRS will reject your application or revoke the status of charitable organization - all donations will be invalidated as charitable donations - that is the risk of making charitable donations before the determination letter is issued.
Generally, tax-exempt organizations must file an annual information return. Tax-exempt organizations that have annual gross receipts not normally in excess of $25,000 are not required to file the annual information return, but may be required to file an annual electronic notice (e-Postcard) Form 990-N. In addition, churches and certain religious organizations, certain state and local instrumentalities, and other organizations are excepted from the annual return filing requirement.
. In addition, Publications 4221-PC and 4221-PF explain the filing and record keeping rules that apply to section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt public charities and private foundations respectively.
Let me know if you need any help.
When I said the funds were not available, my meaning was that we are very new and there hasn't been enough donations made to cover these fees. We live in a rural area in South Arkansas and obtaining donations to cover a major expense like this will probably prove to be difficult.
If your organization doesn't have enough funding - you may want to postpone its operations or operate on limited resources - means most work would be done by you or other volunteers without compensation.
You still may accept donations, but should clear inform donees that tax deductions would be allowed only after you receive a determination letter from the IRS.
You may also negotiate with a local CPA that he/she will help without charge, reduce charge, or the compensation will be based on future funding.
You may also contact other non-profit organizations in your area for consultations and help.
If you will do filing on your own - there is no choice but to educate yourself - starting from IRS Publication 557.
The IRS provides Web-Based Training for Tax-Exempt Organizations - you might be interested in Applying for Tax-Exempt Status – How to make the application process easier and quicker for new organizations.