Nonprofit organization

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A nonprofit organization (NPO) or non-profit organisation, also known as a non-business entity, [1] not-for-profit organization, [2] or nonprofit institution, [3] is a legal entity organized and operated for a collective, public or social benefit, in contrast with an entity that operates as a business aiming to generate a profit for its owners. A nonprofit is subject to the non-distribution constraint: any revenues that exceed expenses must be committed to the organization's purpose, not taken by private parties. An array of organizations are nonprofit, including some political organizations, schools, business associations, churches, social clubs, and consumer cooperatives. Nonprofit entities may seek approval from governments to be tax-exempt, and some may also qualify to receive tax-deductible contributions, but an entity may incorporate as a nonprofit entity without securing tax-exempt status.


Key aspects of nonprofits are accountability, trustworthiness, honesty, and openness to every person who has invested time, money, and faith into the organization. Nonprofit organizations are accountable to the donors, founders, volunteers, program recipients, and the public community. Theoretically, for a nonprofit that seeks to finance its operations through donations, public confidence is a factor in the amount of money that a nonprofit organization is able to raise. Supposedly, the more nonprofits focus on their mission, the more public confidence they will have. This will result in more money for the organization. [1] The activities a nonprofit is partaking in can help build the public's confidence in nonprofits, as well as how ethical the standards and practices are.

United States


According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the United States, including public charities, private foundations, and other nonprofit organizations. Private charitable contributions increased for the fourth consecutive year in 2017 (since 2014), at an estimated $410.02 billion. Out of these contributions, religious organizations received 30.9%, education organizations received 14.3%, and human services organizations received 12.1%. [4] Between September 2010 and September 2014, approximately 25.3% of Americans over the age of 16 volunteered for a nonprofit. [5]

Nonprofit vs. not-for-profit

Nonprofit and not-for-profit are terms that are used similarly, but do not mean the same thing. Nonprofit organizations typically operate at a loss and rely heavily on donors to continue operations. Not-for-profits operate at small margins of 3-4% and use the proceeds from those margins to reinvest in the company. [6] [ unreliable source? ]

In the United States, both nonprofits and not-for-profits are tax-exempt under IRS publication 557. Although they are both tax-exempt, each organization faces different tax code requirements. A nonprofit is tax-exempt under 501(c)(3) requirements if it is either a religious, charitable, or educational based organization that does not influence state and federal legislation. Not-for-profits are tax-exempt under 501(c)(7) requirements if they are an organization for pleasure, recreation, or another nonprofit purpose. [6] A news report of 2022 [7] quotes a chief executive of a large health system in the United States as having explained to "an industry publication in 2021 that “‘nonprofit health care’ is a misnomer. It is tax-exempt health care,” he said. “It still makes profits.” Those profits, he added, support the hospital's mission." [7]

Nonprofits are either member-serving or community-serving. Member-serving nonprofit organizations create a benefit for the members of their organization and can include but are not limited to credit unions, sports clubs, and advocacy groups. Community-serving nonprofit organizations focus on providing services to the community either globally or locally. Community-serving nonprofits include organizations that deliver aid and development programs, medical research, education, and health services. It is possible for a nonprofit to be both member-serving and community-serving.

Mechanism of money-raising

Nonprofit organisations are not driven by generating profit, but they must bring in enough income to pursue their social goals. Nonprofits are able to raise money in different ways. This includes income from donations from individual donors or foundations; sponsorship from corporations; government funding; programs, services or merchandise sales, and investments. [8] Each NPO is unique in which source of income works best for them. With an increase in NPO's within the last decade, organizations have adopted competitive advantages to create revenue for themselves to remain financially stable. Donations from private individuals or organizations can change each year and government grants have diminished. With changes in funding from year to year, many nonprofit organizations have been moving toward increasing the diversity of their funding sources. For example, many nonprofits that have relied on government grants have started fundraising efforts to appeal to individual donors. [9]


A common misconception about nonprofits is that they are run completely by volunteers. Most nonprofits have staff that work for the company, possibly using volunteers to perform the nonprofit's services under the direction of the paid staff. Nonprofits must be careful to balance the salaries paid to staff against the money paid to provide services to the nonprofit's beneficiaries. Organizations whose salary expenses are too high relative to their program expenses may face regulatory scrutiny. [10]

A second misconception is that nonprofit organizations may not make a profit. Although the goal of nonprofits is not specifically to maximize profits, they still have to operate as a fiscally responsible business. They must manage their income (both grants and donations and income from services) and expenses so as to remain a fiscally viable entity. Nonprofits have the responsibility of focusing on being professional, financially responsible, replacing self-interest and profit motive with mission motive. [11]

Though nonprofits are managed differently from for-profit businesses, they have felt pressure to be more businesslike. To combat private and public business growth in the public service industry, nonprofits have modeled their business management and mission, shifting their raison d’être to establish sustainability and growth. [12]

Setting effective missions is a key for the successful management of nonprofit organizations. [13] There are three important conditions for effective mission: opportunity, competence, and commitment. [13]

One way of managing the sustainability of nonprofit organizations is to establish strong relations with donor groups. [13] This requires a donor marketing strategy, something many nonprofits lack. [13]


Nonprofit organizations provide public goods that are undersupplied by government. [14] NPOs have a wide diversity of structures and purposes. For legal classification, there are, nevertheless, some elements of importance:

Some of the above must be (in most jurisdictions in the USA at least) expressed in the organization's charter of establishment or constitution. Others may be provided by the supervising authority at each particular jurisdiction.

While affiliations will not affect a legal status, they may be taken into consideration by legal proceedings as an indication of purpose. Most countries have laws that regulate the establishment and management of NPOs and that require compliance with corporate governance regimes. Most larger organizations are required to publish their financial reports detailing their income and expenditure publicly.

In many aspects, they are similar to corporate business entities though there are often significant differences. Both not-for-profit and for-profit corporate entities must have board members, steering-committee members, or trustees who owe the organization a fiduciary duty of loyalty and trust. A notable exception to this involves churches, which are often not required to disclose finances to anyone, including church members. [15]

Formation and structure

In the United States, nonprofit organizations are formed by filing bylaws or articles of incorporation or both in the state in which they expect to operate. The act of incorporation creates a legal entity enabling the organization to be treated as a distinct body (corporation) by law and to enter into business dealings, form contracts, and own property as individuals or for-profit corporations can.

Nonprofits can have members, but many do not. The nonprofit may also be a trust or association of members. The organization may be controlled by its members who elect the board of directors, board of governors or board of trustees. A nonprofit may have a delegate structure to allow for the representation of groups or corporations as members. Alternatively, it may be a non-membership organization and the board of directors may elect its own successors.

The two major types of nonprofit organization are membership and board-only. A membership organization elects the board and has regular meetings and the power to amend the bylaws. A board-only organization typically has a self-selected board and a membership whose powers are limited to those delegated to it by the board. A board-only organization's bylaws may even state that the organization does not have any membership, although the organization's literature may refer to its donors or service recipients as 'members'; examples of such organizations are FairVote [16] [17] and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. [18] The Model Nonprofit Corporation Act imposes many complexities and requirements on membership decision-making. [19] Accordingly, many organizations, such as the Wikimedia Foundation, [20] have formed board-only structures. The National Association of Parliamentarians has generated concerns about the implications of this trend for the future of openness, accountability, and understanding of public concerns in nonprofit organizations. Specifically, they note that nonprofit organizations, unlike business corporations, are not subject to market discipline for products and shareholder discipline of their capital; therefore, without membership control of major decisions such as the election of the board, there are few inherent safeguards against abuse. [21] [22] A rebuttal to this might be that as nonprofit organizations grow and seek larger donations, the degree of scrutiny increases, including expectations of audited financial statements. [23] A further rebuttal might be that NPOs are constrained, by their choice of legal structure, from financial benefit as far as distribution of profit to members and directors is concerned.

Tax exemption

In many countries, nonprofits may apply for tax-exempt status, so that the organization itself may be exempt from income tax and other taxes. In the United States, to be exempt from federal income taxes, the organization must meet the requirements set forth in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). Granting nonprofit status is done by the state, while granting tax-exempt designation (such as IRC 501(c)) is granted by the federal government via the IRS. This means that not all nonprofits are eligible to be tax-exempt. [24] For example, employees of non-profit organizations pay taxes from their salaries, which they receive according to the laws of the country. NPOs use the model of a double bottom line in that furthering their cause is more important than making a profit, though both are needed to ensure the organization's sustainability. [25] [26] An advantage of non-profit organisations registered in the UK is that they benefit from some reliefs and exemptions. Charities and non-profits are exempt from Corporation Tax as well as the trustees being exempt from Income Tax. [27]

Social Welfare nonprofits

In the U.S., "social welfare" nonprofits (IRS Section 501(c)(4)) are frequently used by politicians. Their use has resulted in controversies for politicians such as Kwame Kilpatrick and Gretchen Whitmer. [28]


Founder's syndrome

Founder's syndrome is an issue organizations experience as they expand. Dynamic founders, who have a strong vision of how to operate the project, try to retain control of the organization, even as new employees or volunteers want to expand the project's scope or change policy. [29]

Resource mismanagement

Resource mismanagement is a particular problem with NPOs because the employees are not accountable to anyone who has a direct stake in the organization. For example, an employee may start a new program without disclosing its complete liabilities. The employee may be rewarded for improving the NPO's reputation, making other employees happy, and attracting new donors. Liabilities promised on the full faith and credit of the organization but not recorded anywhere constitute accounting fraud. But even indirect liabilities negatively affect the financial sustainability of the NPO, and the NPO will have financial problems unless strict controls are instated. [30] Some commenters have argued that the receipt of significant funding from large for-profit corporations can ultimately alter the NPO's functions. [31] A frequent measure of an NPO's efficiency is its expense ratio (i.e. expenditures on things other than its programs, divided by its total expenditures).

Competition for talent

Competition for employees with the public and private sector is another problem that nonprofit organizations inevitably face, particularly for management positions. There are reports of major talent shortages in the nonprofit sector today regarding newly graduated workers, [32] and NPOs have for too long[ opinion ] relegated hiring to a secondary priority, [33] which could be why they find themselves in the position many do. While many established NPOs are well-funded and comparative to their public sector competitors, many more are independent and must be creative with which incentives they use to attract and maintain vibrant personalities. The initial interest for many is the remuneration package, though many who have been questioned after leaving an NPO have reported that it was stressful work environments and implacable work that drove them away. [34]

Public- and private-sector employment have, for the most part, been able to offer more to their employees than most nonprofit agencies throughout history. Either in the form of higher wages, more comprehensive benefit packages, or less tedious work, the public and private sectors have enjoyed an advantage over NPOs in attracting employees. Traditionally, the NPO has attracted mission-driven individuals who want to assist their chosen cause. Compounding the issue is that some NPOs do not operate in a manner similar to most businesses, or only seasonally. This leads many young and driven employees to forego NPOs in favor of more stable employment. Today, however, nonprofit organizations are adopting methods used by their competitors and finding new means to retain their employees and attract the best of the newly minted workforce. [35]

It has been mentioned that most nonprofits will never be able to match the pay of the private sector [36] and therefore should focus their attention on benefits packages, incentives and implementing pleasurable work environments. A good environment is ranked higher than salary and pressure of work. [33] NPOs are encouraged to pay as much as they are able and offer a low-stress work environment that the employee can associate him or herself positively with. Other incentives that should be implemented are generous vacation allowances or flexible work hours. [37]

Online presence

When selecting a domain name, NPOs often use .org, or the country code top-level domain of their respective country, or the .edu top-level domain (TLD), to differentiate themselves from more commercial entities, which typically use .com.

In the traditional domain noted in RFC   1591, .org is for "organizations that didn't fit anywhere else" in the naming system, which implies that it is the proper category for non-commercial organizations if they are not governmental, educational, or one of the other types with a specific TLD. It is not designated specifically for charitable organizations or any specific organizational or tax-law status, but encompasses anything that is not classifiable as another category. Currently, no restrictions are enforced on registration of .com or .org, so one can find organizations of all sorts in either of those domains, as well as other top-level domains including newer, more specific ones which may apply to particular sorts of organization including .museum for museums and .coop for cooperatives. Organizations might also register by the appropriate country code top-level domain for their country.

Alternative names

Instead of being defined by 'non' words, some organizations are suggesting new, positive-sounding terminology to describe the sector. The term 'civil society organization' (CSO) has been used by a growing number of organizations, including the Center for the Study of Global Governance. [38] The term 'citizen sector organization' (CSO) has also been advocated to describe the sector – as one of citizens, for citizens – by organizations including Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. [39] Advocates argue that these terms describe the sector in its own terms, without relying on terminology used for the government or business sectors. However, use of terminology by a nonprofit of self-descriptive language that is not legally compliant risks confusing the public about nonprofit abilities, capabilities, and limitations. [40]

In some Spanish-language jurisdictions, nonprofit organizations are called "civil associations". [41]

See also

Related Research Articles

Public Interest Watch (PIW) was established in September 2002 by Mike Hardiman. The PIW website states that the group was created "in response to the growing misuse of charitable funds by nonprofit organizations and the lack of effort by government agencies to deal with the problem." In March 2006 the Wall Street Journal reported that PIW received approximately 95% of its funding from ExxonMobil during the fiscal year ended July 31, 2004.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fundraising</span> Process of gathering voluntary contributions of money or other resources

Fundraising or fund-raising is the process of seeking and gathering voluntary financial contributions by engaging individuals, businesses, charitable foundations, or governmental agencies. Although fundraising typically refers to efforts to gather money for non-profit organizations, it is sometimes used to refer to the identification and solicitation of investors or other sources of capital for for-profit enterprises.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Charitable organization</span> Nonprofit organization with charitable purpose

A charitable organization or charity is an organization whose primary objectives are philanthropy and social well-being.

United States non-profit laws relate to taxation, the special problems of an organization which does not have profit as its primary motivation, and prevention of charitable fraud. Some non-profit organizations can broadly be described as "charities" — like the American Red Cross. Some are strictly for the private benefit of the members — like country clubs, or condominium associations. Others fall somewhere in between — like labor unions, chambers of commerce, or cooperative electric companies. Each presents unique legal issues.

A 501(c) organization is a nonprofit organization in the federal law of the United States according to Internal Revenue Code and is one of over 29 types of nonprofit organizations exempt from some federal income taxes. Sections 503 through 505 set out the requirements for obtaining such exemptions. Many states refer to Section 501(c) for definitions of organizations exempt from state taxation as well. 501(c) organizations can receive unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, and unions.

A nonprofit corporation is any legal entity which has been incorporated under the law of its jurisdiction for purposes other than making profits for its owners or shareholders. Depending on the laws of the jurisdiction, a nonprofit corporation may seek official recognition as such, and may be taxed differently from for-profit corporations, and treated differently in other ways.

Laws regulating nonprofit organizations, nonprofit corporations, non-governmental organizations, and voluntary associations vary in different jurisdictions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fund accounting</span> An accounting system used for special reporting requirements

Fund accounting is an accounting system for recording resources whose use has been limited by the donor, grant authority, governing agency, or other individuals or organisations or by law. It emphasizes accountability rather than profitability, and is used by Nonprofit organizations and by governments. In this method, a fund consists of a self-balancing set of accounts and each are reported as either unrestricted, temporarily restricted or permanently restricted based on the provider-imposed restrictions.

A 501(c)(3) organization is a United States corporation, trust, unincorporated association or other type of organization exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of Title 26 of the United States Code. It is one of the 29 types of 501(c) nonprofit organizations in the US.

A for-profit corporation is an organization which aims to earn profit through its operations and is concerned with its own interests, unlike those of the public.

Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax forms are forms used for taxpayers and tax-exempt organizations to report financial information to the Internal Revenue Service of the United States. They are used to report income, calculate taxes to be paid to the federal government, and disclose other information as required by the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). There are over 800 various forms and schedules. Other tax forms in the United States are filed with state and local governments.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Private foundation</span> Type of charitable organization

A private foundation is a tax-exempt organization not relying on broad public support and generally serving humanitarian purposes. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest private foundation in the U.S. with over $38 billion in assets. Most private foundations are much smaller. Out of the 84,000 private foundations that filed with the IRS in 2008, approximately 66% have less than $1 million in assets, and 93% have less than $10 million in assets. In aggregate, private foundations in the U.S. control over $628 billion in assets and made more than $44 billion in charitable contributions in 2007.

Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT) in the U.S. Internal Revenue Code is the tax on unrelated business income, which comes from an activity engaged in by a tax-exempt 26 U.S.C. 501 organization that is not related to the tax-exempt purpose of that organization.

A foundation in the United States is a type of charitable organization. However, the Internal Revenue Code distinguishes between private foundations and public charities. Private foundations have more restrictions and fewer tax benefits than public charities like community foundations.

A religious corporation is a type of religious non-profit organization, which has been incorporated under the law. Often these types of corporations are recognized under the law on a subnational level, for instance by a state or province government. The government agency responsible for regulating such corporations is usually the official holder of records, for instance, the Secretary of State. In the United States, religious corporations are formed like all other nonprofit corporations by filing articles of incorporation with the state. Religious corporation articles need to have the standard tax-exempt language the IRS requires.

A mutual-benefit nonprofit corporation or membership corporation is a type of nonprofit corporation in the US, similar to other mutual benefit organizations found in some of common law nations, chartered by government with a mandate to serve the mutual benefit of its members.

Until 1969, the term private foundation was not defined in the United States Internal Revenue Code. Since then, every U.S. charity that qualifies under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service Code as tax-exempt is a "private foundation" unless it demonstrates to the IRS that it falls into another category such as public charity. Unlike nonprofit corporations classified as a public charity, private foundations in the United States are subject to a 1.39% excise tax or endowment tax on any net investment income.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Form 990</span> United States Internal Revenue Service form

Form 990 is a United States Internal Revenue Service form that provides the public with financial information about a nonprofit organization. It is often the only source of such information. It is also used by government agencies to prevent organizations from abusing their tax-exempt status. Certain nonprofits have more comprehensive reporting requirements, such as hospitals and other health care organizations.

Form 1023 is a United States IRS tax form, also known as the Application for Recognition of Exemption Under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. It is filed by nonprofits to get exemption status. On January 31st of 2020, the IRS abandoned the paper format of the form 1023. Those who used the paper version were given 90 days grace period and that ended on 30th of April 2020. Going forward, every application has to be filed online through portal.

A 501(h) election or Conable election is a procedure in United States tax law that allows a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to participate in lobbying limited only by the financial expenditure on that lobbying, regardless of its overall extent. This allows organizations taking the 501(h) election to potentially perform a large amount of lobbying if it is done using volunteer labor or through inexpensive means. The 501(h) election is available to most types of 501(c)(3) organizations that are not churches or private foundations. It was introduced by Representative Barber Conable as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1976 and codified as 26 U.S.C. § 501(h), and the corresponding Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations were finalized in 1990.


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Further reading