Nonprofit organizations, also known as not-for-profit organizations, are entities that exist to achieve a social cause or provide a public benefit rather than generate profit for owners and shareholders. They play a vital role in society by addressing pressing issues and providing services in areas like education, healthcare, social services, arts, and the environment.

Defining Key Characteristics of Nonprofits

Nonprofits have a few key defining characteristics:


The primary goal of a nonprofit is to further its mission of effecting positive change rather than making money. The mission serves as the driving force behind a nonprofit’s activities and operations.

Tax-Exempt Status

Most nonprofits in the U.S. qualify for federal tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. This allows them to avoid paying income tax and makes donations tax-deductible for the donor.

Public Service

Nonprofits use surplus revenues to further their cause rather than distribute them as profits or dividends. Their services benefit the public directly or indirectly.


Nonprofits have an elected and voluntary board of directors that oversees operations, makes major decisions, and ensures alignment with the mission. The board represents the community’s interests.

Reliance on Donations

Since nonprofits don’t have owners or shareholders, they rely heavily on charitable donations and grants for their operating budget. Generous giving sustains their ability to provide services.

Classifying the Main Types of Nonprofits

Nonprofits span a diverse range of focus areas, but they mainly fall into the following categories:

Public Charities

The most common type of nonprofit, public charities, provide direct services that benefit the general public. Examples include food banks, museums, universities, and youth programs.

Private Foundations

Private foundations are nonprofits that give grants to individuals and other nonprofits. Large foundations often manage an endowment and have continued donor support.

Professional and Trade Associations

Groups advancing a particular profession or industry like accountants, engineers, teachers, and realtors form associations to support members and establish standards.

Chambers of Commerce

Chambers of commerce operate locally to promote, develop, and advocate for the business community in their region. Members are mostly area businesses.

Religious Organizations

Faith-based nonprofits like churches, synagogues, and mosques support members spiritually and fulfill missions rooted in religious values. Their services aim to benefit society.

Examining the Role of Nonprofits in Society

The nonprofit sector forms a vital building block of civil society. Some key societal roles nonprofits play include:

Addressing Underserved Needs

Nonprofits often pioneer and deliver essential services to disadvantaged groups that lack adequate support from government or business sectors.

Mobilizing Community Engagement

Nonprofits provide a vehicle for everyday citizens to become involved in solving local issues. Volunteering also builds social capital.

Promoting Philanthropy

Nonprofits enable charitable giving and make it accessible for regular people to contribute to causes they care about.

Strengthening Democracy

The nonprofit sector fosters democratic principles of pluralism, freedom of association, and civic participation.

Building Trust

By putting mission before money, nonprofits bring trust and human connections to problem-solving when government intervention would be resisted.

Innovation and Risk-Taking

Freed from profit-making pressures, nonprofits can experiment with innovative and bold approaches to entrenched problems.

Advocacy and Policy Change

Nonprofits raise awareness of emerging issues and give voice to underrepresented populations, driving policy changes for the public good.

The Origins and Evolution of Nonprofits

Nonprofit organizations have existed in societies worldwide throughout history. Some key developments include:

  • Ancient Times: Religious institutions provided social welfare in ancient civilizations. Greeks formed voluntary groups for early democracy.
  • Middle Ages: Monasteries and churches ran hospitals, schools, and shelters during the Middle Ages in Europe.
  • Colonial America: Civic and religious groups addressed social needs in the 1600-1700s, establishing institutions like Harvard College.
  • Industrialization Era: Poverty and immigration in the 1800s led to settlement houses and YMCAs to aid urban populations.
  • 1900s Growth: New Deal policies and socioeconomic changes caused nonprofits and foundations to boom in the 20th century.
  • Recent Trends: A shift towards business-like operations, professionalization, and reliance on fees and commercial ventures.

Launching and Registering a Nonprofit: Key Steps

Starting a nonprofit involves planning, research, and compliance with regulations. The major steps include:

Researching and Planning

  • Assess community needs and develop programs addressing gaps.
  • Write the nonprofit’s mission statement, values, and vision for change.
  • Build a founding team with skills in areas like operations, fundraising, and programs.

Choosing a Structure

  • Select incorporation status such as 501(c)(3) for U.S. public charities.
  • File incorporation paperwork and establish bylaws compliant with state laws.

Obtaining Tax Exemption

  • Apply for federal 501(c)(3) status and applicable state/local exemptions.
  • File annual IRS Form 990 financial information return after nonprofit status approval.

Fundraising and Budgeting

  • Estimate costs for startup and first-year operating budget.
  • Raise seed funding from grants, donations, membership fees if applicable.

Managing Operations

  • Form a governing board, assign officer positions, and recruit volunteers.
  • Set up systems for finance, HR, programs, fundraising, and communications.

Operating a Nonprofit: Key Practices

Responsible management and governance keeps a nonprofit sustainable and impactful over the long-term. Best practices include:

Strategic Planning

  • Set strategic goals in line with the mission and regularly track progress.
  • Analyze internal capacity and external opportunities with tools like SWOT analysis.

Financial Oversight

  • Maintain sound budgeting, reporting, auditing, and internal controls.
  • Build a diversified funding model not overly reliant on single sources.

Board Governance

  • Uphold term limits, conflict-of-interest policies, board independence, and fiduciary duties.
  • Assess board composition and recruit members with needed skills and diversity.

Performance Evaluation

  • Monitor programs through data collection and analysis tied to desired outcomes.
  • Report impact to stakeholders with metrics like people served and lives improved.

Public Accountability and Transparency

  • Communicate regularly with stakeholders through outreach, publications, and online presence.
  • Disclose financial statements and key documents publicly.

Challenges Facing Nonprofits

Nonprofits must navigate various challenges inherent to their business model, including:

  • Funding instability: Reliance on donations and grants can create unpredictable income streams.
  • Scaling limitations: Lack of access to equity capital restricts the ability to grow.
  • Staff burnout: Passion-driven staff often work long hours for modest pay leading to fatigue.
  • Governance issues: Volunteer boards may lack needed expertise or not fully execute duties.
  • Measuring impact: Social change is complex, making assessment of programs difficult beyond basic output metrics.
  • Competition: Other groups may duplicate services resulting in dilution of donations and effort.
  • Public trust: Nonprofits suffer from misconceptions about overhead costs and face media scrutiny over controversies.

Resources for Nonprofit Organizations

Many resources provide tools, knowledge, and assistance to help nonprofits overcome challenges:

  • Support organizations like local nonprofit alliances offer training, networks, and advocacy.
  • Online hubs like Candid and GuideStar help find grants and disseminate data on nonprofits.
  • Publications and conferences geared to the sector provide insights on promising practices.
  • Partnerships with government agencies, corporations and other nonprofits allow pooling of resources.
  • Financial management tools like budget forecasting software facilitate better stewardship of funds.
  • Social media furnishes low-cost but powerful channels for outreach, promotion, and recruiting volunteers.


In summary, nonprofits play an invaluable role in our society by delivering critical services, mobilizing civic engagement, and spearheading social innovations. Though facing many challenges, resources exist to strengthen the effectiveness and sustainability of these community-focused organizations. With sound management and dedicated volunteers, nonprofits can continue transforming lives and empowering positive change for years to come.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are public charities?

Public charities are nonprofit organizations that derive their financial support primarily from the general public via donations, grants, and fees for services. They advance social causes that benefit the overall community rather than serve private interests. Examples include food banks, homeless shelters, and youth development programs.

What legal requirements are there to start a nonprofit?

To legally form a nonprofit in the U.S., you must incorporate in the state where the organization is based and file for federal 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status with the IRS. Nonprofits must have governing documents, budgets, and policies meeting regulatory requirements.

How are nonprofits funded?

Nonprofits access funding from diverse sources like individual and corporate donations, foundation/government grants, corporate sponsorships, endowments, membership dues, program service fees, contracts, and earned income from ventures related to their mission. A diversified funding model provides financial sustainability.

How do nonprofits pay staff salaries?

Nonprofits draw from their operating budgets to pay staff salaries, just like any organization. The budget is funded through the various income sources mentioned above. Nonprofits must keep administrative expenses like salaries reasonable compared to money spent on programs.

What role do volunteers play in nonprofits?

Volunteers are the lifeblood of many nonprofits. They give their time for free to assist with programs, events, outreach, administrative tasks, and even board service. This allows nonprofits to accomplish more while keeping costs down. Volunteering also builds community engagement.