Just What is a Nonprofit, Anyway?

Our nation has a long and rich tradition of people coming together and forming organizations to solve problems and enrich their communities. The concept of nonprofit organizations and associations is an important part of our history and culture. But just what is a “nonprofit,” anyway? This article provides some basic answers. It does not explore the pros and cons of the current system of laws and eligibility requirements for nonprofit and tax-exempt organizations, which the Center is exploring in-depth on an ongoing basis.

For more information about forming a nonprofit, visit our “Forming a Nonprofit” page.

Trying to describe a “nonprofit” is a bit like playing “twenty questions,” where everyone tries to guess the answer by process of elimination. In the definitional sense, nonprofits are creatures of federal and state law, based in large part on what they do not, or cannot do.

To make matters more confusing, the term “nonprofit” does not have a statutory meaning on the federal level. On the state level, it is used to describe corporations that are organized to advance a public or community interest rather than for individual personal or financial gain. Thus, nonprofits may not distribute earnings or pay dividends; any surplus must be used to further the corporation’s organizational purpose. However, all nonprofits are permitted to hire paid staff to conduct their organization’s activities. In New Jersey, nonprofit status exempts a corporation from State corporate income taxes.

Many — but not all — nonprofit corporations, depending upon their purposes, can qualify for exemption from federal corporate income taxes. The U.S. Internal Revenue Code contains more than 29 different classifications of tax-exempt groups, including professional associations, charitable organizations, civic leagues, labor unions, fraternal organizations, and social clubs, to name just a few. Depending on the category of the exemption, such groups are entitled to certain privileges and subject to certain reporting and disclosure requirements and limitations on their activities. In certain instances, contributions to nonprofit organizations are deductible from federal income taxes.

Following is a much-simplified description of a few of the most common types of tax-exempt organizations. All of them are accurately described as “nonprofit,” but there are critical differences between them.

Charitable Organization, or Charity

This is the category people think of most often when they are referring to a nonprofit. It refers generally to organizations that are exempt from taxation under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Although the word “charity” is often used as a “catch-all” for simplicity’s sake, Section 501(c)(3) describes groups organized and operated for one or more of the following purposes: charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, or the prevention of cruelty to children or animals. Day care centers, food banks, low-income housing organizations, mental health organizations, United Ways, museums, theatre groups, colleges, and environmental groups are just some examples of the many types of charities.

In general, 501(c)(3) organizations are divided into two categories, “public charities” or “private foundations.” Public charities are 501(c)(3) organizations that can demonstrate that a certain part of their support (usually 1/3 on average) comes from the general public or a unit of government; or organizations formed to raise money for a specific school, hospital, governmental unit or publicly supported charity. However, charities are permitted to charge fees for their services; in fact, most charities rely on fees for a substantial part of their revenues. Contributions to public charities are usually tax-deductible, a significant privilege not granted to most other types of organizations. Public charities are prohibited from engaging in any activities to support or oppose political candidates, but are permitted to influence legislation within legal limits.

Private foundations are organizations that distribute money to fulfill a public purpose. Foundations are subject to different laws and regulations than public charities. Foundations must distribute a certain portion of their income for charitable purposes; are subject to strict rules and penalties to prevent personal gain on the part of trustees, substantial contributors and other disqualified persons; must pay an excise tax on investment income. Under most circumstances, contributions to private foundations are tax-deductible. Private foundations are prohibited from engaging in lobbying activities, but may contribute to charities that lobby as long as the funds are not earmarked for lobbying purposes.

Civic Leagues and Social Welfare Organizations

This category, described in Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, refers to organizations that are created to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community. Examples can include civic groups, downtown improvement associations, and social action organizations. Because the purposes of 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations can be very similar, some organizations could potentially qualify for either classification. There are pros and cons to each structure. For example, contributions to 501(c)(4) groups are usually not tax-deductible, but lobbying activities of 501(c)(4) organizations are not limited by law, and partisan political activities are subject to different restrictions.

Trade and Professional Associations

Business leagues, trade associations and the like are described in Section 501(c)(6) of the Internal Revenue Code. Chambers of commerce, retail merchants associations and real estate boards are examples of 501(c)(6) organizations. Contributions to trade associations are not tax-deductible as such, but may be deductible as business expenses within certain limits (membership dues used for lobbying purposes, for example, are not tax-deductible). Trade associations are not subject to legal limitations on lobbying and political activity beyond normally applicable election laws.

Social and Recreational Clubs

Social and recreational clubs, described in Section 501(c)(7) of the Internal Revenue Code, include hobby clubs, country clubs, garden and variety clubs, amateur hunting, fishing or other sport clubs and similar groups organized primarily for recreation or pleasure and not for profit. Social clubs may not discriminate against any person on the basis of race or color.

In short, nonprofit corporations are for people, to help them achieve some common purpose. Nonprofit and charitable organizations play a vital role in the economic and social well-being of our communities, state and nation. They provide a means for people to contribute time, resources and expertise for a greater good. The answer to the “twenty questions” may be hard to come by, but the pursuit is well worth the effort.

More information:

New Jersey’s Nonprofit Community

America’s Nonprofits

Myths about Nonprofits