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What are the differences of a Nonprofit vs. Not-for-Profit?


    We often hear the terms "Nonprofit" and "Not-for-Profit" used interchangeably – but are they really the same? You may have guessed that the answer is no, these are two completely different entities, each with their own rules!

    Nonprofits tend to have a broader mission focused on social, educational, or environmental issues, whereas not-for-profits are usually more focused on the interests or activities of a specific group of people.

    However, both types of organizations reinvest any extra funds back into their mission rather than distributing them as profits.

    We’re going to dive into the nuances that distinguish Nonprofits from Not-for-Profits and discuss their similarities, so you’ll gain a clear understanding of these types of organizations. Whether you’re considering starting one, working for one, or contributing to one, you’ll be equipped to engage with them.

    What is a Nonprofit?

    Nonprofits aim to advance a specific social cause or advocate for a shared point of view. They focus on areas such as education, healthcare, social services, environmental conservation, and human rights. Their principal objective is to serve the greater public good, effecting positive change in communities and contributing to the betterment of society at large.

    Some examples of nonprofts include the American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Habitat for Humanity, and The Salvation Army.

    What is a Not-for-Profit?

    A not-for-profit organization is established to serve the interests or pursuits of a specific group, rather than the broader public. Not-for-profits are typically oriented around communal activities like sports clubs, hobbyist groups, or educational societies. 

    These organizations may generate revenue through membership fees or selling goods and services, but these funds are reinvested into the group's activities. The focus is often more localized and specialized, aiming to foster community and shared interests rather than addressing wider social, environmental, or humanitarian issues.

    You may have heard of or been a part of a not-for-profit before. Some examples include AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), Toastmasters International, Girl Scouts of the USA, AAA (American Automobile Association), The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and The American Bar Association. Yet many not-for-profit organizations exist within your own neighborhood such as Rotary Clubs, a local soccer club, Homeowner Associations, or a community theatre. 

    Key Similarities

    • Mission-Oriented: Both are geared towards fulfilling a specific mission rather than generating shareholder profits.
    • Social, Educational, or Community Goals: Both often have objectives that are rooted in social change, educational outreach, or community building.
    • Funding Avenues: Both can utilize similar means of revenue generation, such as grants, donations, and fundraising events.
    • Positive Impact: Both aim to create a positive impact, whether it's on a broad societal level for nonprofits, or within a specialized community for not-for-profits.

    Key Differences

    • Scope: Nonprofits usually aim to serve the greater public good, while not-for-profits are more focused on narrower, often community-based, interests.
    • Legal Requirements and Benefits: Nonprofits are subject to stricter regulations and can apply for a broader range of tax benefits, such as 501(c)(3) status. Not-for-profits generally have fewer legal benefits and different tax-exempt considerations.
    • Handling and Allocating Funds: Nonprofits often channel their revenue directly into mission-driven activities and programs. Not-for-profits usually reinvest their income into the organization's specialized activities and interests.

    Legal Structure


    In legal terms, nonprofits are typically registered entities subject to specific laws and regulations. In the United States, many nonprofits seek tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. This exemption allows them to avoid paying federal income tax, while also enabling their donors to claim tax deductions for their contributions. 

    Being designated as a 501(c)(3) signifies that the IRS has recognized the organization's tax-exempt status due to its charitable activities. To maintain this tax-exempt status, nonprofits must adhere to various requirements.

    To learn more about how 501(c)(3) organizations work, check out The Complete Guide to Registering a 501(c)(3) Nonprofit.


    Not-for-profit organizations also need to be formally organized, but their legal requirements can be less stringent compared to nonprofits. While they may be incorporated at the state level, they are not automatically eligible for the broad tax exemptions available to 501(c)(3) nonprofits.

    Not-for-profits often operate under different subsections of the 501(c) tax code, which come with their own set of rules and benefits, such as 501(c)(7) for social and recreational clubs. Unlike nonprofits, they may not receive tax-deductible donations and often have more latitude in political activities. 



    Funding for nonprofits comes from a diverse array of sources, tailored to support their broad, public-benefit missions. They often rely on grants from governmental bodies, foundations, and corporations, as well as individual donations and fundraising events to generate revenue. 

    Their tax-exempt status, particularly under 501(c)(3), adds a financial incentive for donors, as contributions are usually tax-deductible. This tax advantage not only attracts more donations but also allows the organization to channel a larger proportion of its funds directly into its mission-driven activities.


    Funding for not-for-profit organizations is often more specialized, reflecting their narrower scope and community-oriented focus. Common revenue streams include membership fees, as well as revenue generated from selling goods, services, or tickets to events. 

    Unlike nonprofits, they are generally not eligible to receive tax-deductible donations, limiting certain kinds of philanthropic support. As mentioned before, they may still qualify for specific tax exemptions under different subsections of the 501(c) tax code, depending on their activities. These exemptions can help not-for-profits maintain financial stability while serving their specific communities or interest groups.

    Operations and Governance


    In nonprofits, day-to-day operations are often multifaceted, encompassing everything from program development and execution to fundraising and community outreach. Staffing can vary widely, with some nonprofits employing a full roster of professionals in areas such as program management, marketing, and finance, while others may rely heavily on volunteers. The role of volunteers is particularly crucial, offering a valuable resource for executing the organization's mission and programs. Given the public-benefit focus, operational activities are generally aligned to maximize social impact rather than profits.


    Operations in not-for-profit organizations are generally more specialized and geared toward serving a specific community or interest group. The role of members is often prominent, actively participating in decision-making processes and the organization's activities. A board of directors usually oversees governance, but their role may be less formal compared to nonprofits, given the often smaller scale of not-for-profits. Focus areas for operations are usually well-defined, based on the particular interest or activity that the organization centers around, whether that be a recreational activity, educational pursuit, or other specific communal interests.

    Kickstart Your Knowledge

    Now that you’re armed with a clear understanding of the differences between nonprofits and not-for-profits, you're fully equipped for meaningful collaboration. So, go out and contribute to these organizations, fostering positive change in your community!

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