What is a "Nonprofit"?

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When you think of a "nonprofit" what do you think of? Most likely, you think of a group making a difference in your community. Maybe you are thinking of a large organization, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters or Make-a-Wish, or maybe you think about a local animal shelter or community theatre. These are groups that are tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3) as "public charities" because they are formed to provide "public benefit." Community foundations are also part of this group (and so are private foundations, although tax rules treat them a bit differently than public charities.)

  • There are actually 29 types of organizations that are tax-exempt under Section 501(c), including chambers of commerce and other business leagues, exempt under 501(c)(6), and state-chartered credit unions, which are tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(14). These organizations are exempt from certain taxes because of the contributions they make in the community. However, only 501(c)(3) groups will provide donors with a tax-deduction for their contribution.
  • What's an "NGO"?

Nonprofits by Type

Nonprofits are all around us


Working in every community, nonprofits are making a difference every day. The figures below illustrate how the numbers of nonprofits that operate in different states covers quite a range. (Source: IRS)

Nonprofits Per Thousand People

Number of Nonprofits by State

Source: Internal Revenue Service, Exempt Organizations Business Master File (November 2015), The Urban Institute, National Center for Charitable Statistics, http://nccsweb.urban.org/

There are many types of 501(c)(3) nonprofits

Even among nonprofits recognized as tax-exempt within section 501(c)(3) there are many different types of nonprofits, focusing on diverse missions. Within section 501(c)(3) there are two primary distinctions: those organized as "private foundations" and those organized as "public charities." Private foundations are diverse too: For example, there are family foundations, private operating foundations, and also corporate foundations. Visit the Foundation Center to learn more about foundations and how they operate.

Public charities (what we refer to as "charitable nonprofits," to distinguish them from private foundations) have many different missions. The National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) identifies 645 categories (NTEE classification codes) in eight primary groups: The majority of charitable nonprofits (35.5 percent) are classified as "human service" organizations. These include groups providing food and shelter, assistance in times of disaster, services for children and the elderly, and much more. Other NTEE classifications include arts organizations (9.9 percent), education groups (17.1 percent), nonprofits focused on health - from finding cures, to providing mental health services (13 percent), community and civil rights groups (11.6 percent), religion-related organizations (6.1 percent), environmental and animal protection groups (4.5 percent), and those focused on international development and human rights (2.1 percent).

Before you make a gift...

If a donor is interested in receiving a tax deduction for a gift, the donor should know in advance whether or not the donee organization is recognized as "tax-exempt" by the IRS. (Only donations to tax-exempt organizations will qualify the gift for a deduction.) How do you know? You can ask the organization, of course. Nonprofits committed to transparency will usually have that information readily available, such as on their websites. Donors can also go to the IRS website and use a tool, "EO Select-Check" to find out whether the organization is recognized as tax-exempt by the IRS. GuideStar is another resource for donors to use to learn information about a nonprofit before making a donation.

What should individual donors consider when choosing a charitable nonprofit to donate to?

We encourage individual donors to get to know a nonprofit before making a donation. Kate Barr, CEO of the Nonprofit Assistance Fund in Minnesota, sums it up well: "For me it boils down to three questions: Do you care about the cause or the mission that the nonprofit is addressing; does the information you have give you confidence that the nonprofit is effective in their work; and do you believe that the people leading the nonprofit are capable and trustworthy?"

Find out more about the impact nonprofits have in communities and on the economy.

Find Your State Association of Nonprofits

Find Your State Association of Nonprofits

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