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Resources for Nonprofit Organizations

Looking for the old, familiar Nonprofit FAQ? It has a new home at the National Center for Charitable Statistics. The center is a program of The Urban Institute in Washington, DC.

The resources listed below are a streamlined collection of information for nonprofit organizations and people who work, volunteer, and care for them. We encourage you to send us any suggestions you have for additions or improvements to this resource by using the Contact link at the top of this page.

Information for nonprofits (and people who are curious about them)

On these resource pages you'll find an overview of key topics for consideration by people who work for, lead, or support nonprofit organizations in the United States. The subject is vast; you should be able to find books about running nonprofits at your public library, and there are lots of other websites that provide other perspectives on the topic.

Our goal is to touch on the basics and point toward some of these other resources. We see this as background for the many ways Idealist supports the work of nonprofits and the interests of the people connected to them.

These pages were prepared by Idealist staffer Putnam Barber.

What you'll find here

Nonprofits: What are we talking about anyway?

He says "nonprofit." She says "not-for-profit." A professor talks about "civil society." The tax officials refer to "exempt organizations." We help you sort through the vocabulary with a list of some of labels used to describe this work and hints about what difference it makes which one you use. (Hint: Not much.) Still, nonprofits (no matter what the label) are a big deal and you might want to understand the technicalities that define the concept.

Have a look at some other notes on the basic facts about nonprofit organizations. Do they pay taxes? Do they ever go out of business? How do they find help for doing their work?

Where do they come from? How does it work?

If you or someone you know is thinking about starting a nonprofit, these Five Tips (and a warning) may be useful. And to get started on doing it, the nuts and bolts of the process will be useful.

Every nonprofit has a mission (the IRS uses the phrase "exempt purposes") and it helps to write it down to communicate with the public and give volunteers and staff something to guide their work. Watching over the organization in general to stay "on mission" (or change the mission if need be) is a key duty of the board of directors; the way the board does its work is one of the things to specify in the "charter documents" that are the "constitution" of every nonprofit.

Businesses have owners and customers. Governments are structured by laws and the results of elections. Nonprofits, for the most part, stand alone, responsible only to themselves. This independence put a special burden on the board (and everyone else) to understand the concept of "stewardship" and think carefully about ethics. One part of this that boards struggle with a lot is how to avoid damage from conflicts of interest that may come up in the board room or in other parts of the organization.

Managing nonprofit organizations

Is there a difference between "nonprofitlike" and "businesslike"? Shallow generalizations aside (unfortunately, there are plenty of them), the answer is..."yes, of course"...and "no, not really." Running a nonprofit organization requires clear focus on the mission and paying attention to everyday issues like payroll, taxes, and finding a good accountant. Neither is easy. Both can be satisfying. Explore the everyday life of a nonprofit manager, get advice about strategic planning or link up with some tech-for-nonprofits advice from the web.

Nonprofits must, though, observe some special rules that apply only to them. Learn what nonprofits have to do, and can't do according to the state and federal laws and regulations that apply to them.

Where does the money come from?

Most nonprofits are really small. Many are entirely volunteer projects sustained by the energy and enthusiasm of a group of supporters and have no employees at all. Some, of course, are huge, with hundreds or even thousands of employees. Larger nonprofits generally receive important revenue from the services they provide: admissions to museums, tuition at schools and colleges, insurance (and patient) payments at clinics and hospitals, and so forth. Nonprofit managers have to strike a balance between program service revenue and support that comes from other sources, such as contracting with government agencies and fundraising.

Some details: To find sponsors for an event follow this nine-step outline. To raise money for a needy family or a worthy cause can be very important — and very satisfying. But there are a lot of issues to think about before getting started. Working as a fundraiser for an organization or cause can be a good gateway to a career in nonprofits.

What can go wrong? And what to do about it?

Rogue leaders, dishonest employees or crooked contractors can take advantage of nonprofits (as can happen in any sort of organization) and damage, or even destroy, their capacity to serve the mission. Sleaze of this sort is particularly outrageous in nonprofits, true, because the losses are not personal; they touch the people served, the volunteers, the honest employees, the donors and sometimes, by raising suspicions, they can undermine the work of completely unrelated groups. Read advice about how to deal with this kind of problem, or how to push back against abuses in fundraising.

Working and volunteering for nonprofit organizations offers many tools for exploring employment and volunteer opportunities with nonprofit organizations around the world. Find help with using these tools or learn more about careers with nonprofit organizations (maybe a career in fundraising), volunteering in general and in another country.