If you find yourself on this page, please redirect to Nonprofits.
Please note Idealist's familiar Nonprofit FAQ is temporarily unavailable. Connections to the Nonprofit FAQ are being redirected here. Read more about this change at the end of this page.
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 [LINK TO ORG SEARCH/REGISTER PAGE?] and the interests of the people [LINK TO PEOPLE SEARCH?] connected to them.
This page was written by Idealist staffer Putnam Barber
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.
To dig deeper, have a look at some other notes on the basic facts about nonprofit organizations. Do they pay taxes? Go out of business? How do they find help for doing their work?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Idealist.org 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.
November 2010: We just re-launched this site, and the familiar Nonprofit FAQ is temporarily not available. We expect the content to be available again soon. Meanwhile, we hope you will enjoy this more streamlined collection of information for nonprofit organizations and people who work, volunteer, and care for them.
Please let us know what you think about these new resource pages and send along any suggestions you have for additions or improvements. You can use the Contact link at the top of the page, or jump back to the Table of Contents to explore further.