Key takeaways

  • Nonprofits focus on public good and can offer tax-deductible donations, unlike not-for-profits that cater to member interests​​​​.
  • Nonprofits are eligible for 501(c)(3) status, providing tax exemptions and access to grants, a benefit not typically available to not-for-profits​​​​.
  • Choosing between a nonprofit and not-for-profit structure depends on the organization’s mission, with nonprofits serving the broader public and not-for-profits focusing on member benefits.

The terms “nonprofit” and “not-for-profit” are often used interchangeably, yet they encapsulate distinct concepts with unique implications.

This article aims to demystify these terms, offering a clear understanding of their differences and similarities. Grasping these distinctions is crucial for anyone looking to establish such an organization as they carry significant consequences in areas like taxation and eligibility for donations. For innovators and entrepreneurs forging paths in philanthropy or community building, comprehending these nuances is a foundational aspect of shaping your entity’s mission and operations. 

Whether you’re a budding philanthropist, a community leader, or just curious about the structural nuances of these entities, this exploration will provide the clarity needed to navigate the difference between nonprofit and not-for-profit organizations.

Also read: Optimizing Donor Outreach: 5 Best Practices for Nonprofits

What is a nonprofit organization? 

Nonprofit organizations are entities that operate for purposes other than making a profit. Their main goal is to serve the public interest in various ways. Unlike for-profit businesses that distribute profits to owners or shareholders, nonprofits reinvest their earnings back into their mission, which could range from charitable, educational, scientific, or religious purposes.

The structure of nonprofit organizations typically involves a board of directors or trustees, and they must adhere to specific governance and accountability standards. They enjoy tax-exempt status, meaning they don’t pay income tax on the money they receive, which is crucial for channeling maximum resources toward their cause.

Nonprofits come in many forms, including charities, which focus on philanthropic goals, and foundations, which often provide funding and support for other charitable activities. Each type plays a vital role in addressing societal needs and contributing positively to communities and various sectors.

What is a not-for-profit organization? 

Not-for-profit organizations differ from nonprofits primarily in their operational focus. While they do not operate for profit, their activities typically center around serving the interests of their members rather than the general public. 

These organizations engage in a wide range of activities, from social clubs and sports teams to special-interest groups and community service clubs. They provide a framework for individuals with common interests to come together, often contributing to their personal development and enjoyment rather than focusing on broader societal issues.

Nonprofit vs. not-for-profit: The key differences 

Understanding the differences between nonprofit and not-for-profit organizations is crucial for grasping their unique legal, financial, and operational frameworks, especially regarding:

  • Tax implications
  • Governance structures
  • Handling of profits and donations

Nonprofit organizations are structured to operate under a specific mission that serves the public good, such as education, charity, or religion. They can have a separate legal entity, allowing them to conduct business, own assets, and incur liabilities independently from their founders or members. Nonprofits are managed like for-profit businesses but aim to reinvest any profits back into the organization’s mission. They often have paid employees and volunteers and are accountable to a board of directors that oversees the organization’s activities​​.

In contrast, not-for-profit organizations typically serve the interests of their members rather than the public good. They do not have a separate legal entity like nonprofits do, which affects their operational and legal capabilities. Not-for-profits are usually managed by volunteers and may not have the structured governance that nonprofits do, often lacking a formal board of directors​​​​.

Tax implications

Both types of organizations can apply for tax-exempt status, but they operate under different sections of the IRS code. Nonprofits generally qualify under IRS 501(c)(3), allowing them to be exempt from federal income taxes. Additionally, donations to 501(c)(3) organizations are tax-deductible for the donor. This tax-exempt status requires nonprofits to adhere to strict transparency, making their financial and operational records public​​.

Not-for-profit organizations can also be tax-exempt but typically fall under other sections of the IRS code, such as 501(c)(7), which includes social and recreational clubs. Donations to these organizations are not generally tax-deductible. The tax-exempt status of not-for-profits entails fewer requirements for operational transparency compared to nonprofits​​.

Handling of profits and donations

The core difference between the two lies in their handling of profits and donations. Nonprofits are driven by a mission to serve the public good and use their funds to further this mission. They rely on donations, grants, and fundraising activities, with all profits reinvested into the organization to support its cause​​.

However, not-for-profits primarily aim to serve their members and their specific interests. While they also reinvest profits back into the organization, the focus is on supporting the activities and objectives of the membership rather than the broader public. They can receive donations and conduct fundraising, but these activities are geared towards benefiting the internal operations and interests of the group. 

Similarities between nonprofit and Not-for-profit organizations

Despite their differences, nonprofit and not-for-profit organizations share several key similarities that are fundamental to their operations and contributions to society, including:

  • Primary goal is not profit
  • Tax exemptions
  • Societal contributions
  • Potential for receiving donations

Primary goal is not profit 

Both types of organizations are not designed to earn profits for owners or shareholders. Instead, they focus on furthering their missions, whether serving the public good or the interests of their members. This foundational principle distinguishes them from for-profit entities, which aim to generate profits for owners or investors​​​​.

Tax exemptions 

Nonprofits and not-for-profits can qualify for tax-exempt status, although they may operate under different sections of the IRS code. This exemption allows them to focus more on achieving their missions rather than paying taxes. For nonprofits, this often means exemption under the 501(c)(3) code, allowing for tax-deductible donations from the public. Not-for-profits might fall under different codes, like 501(c)(7), with varying benefits and limitations regarding tax-deductible contributions​​​​​​.

Societal contributions 

Both organization types contribute significantly to society, albeit in different ways. Nonprofits tend to serve the public good on a broader scale, addressing social issues, education, health, and welfare needs. Not-for-profits might focus more on the interests of their members but still play essential roles in communities, such as promoting sports, education, or cultural activities. Despite their different approaches, both aim to improve societal well-being in their unique capacities​​​​​​.

Potential for receiving donations

They rely on donations, grants, and other forms of funding to operate and pursue their objectives. While the nature of their work and the tax deductibility of contributions can vary, both depend on the generosity of individuals, businesses, and other organizations to sustain their activities. This reliance on external funding underscores the importance of community support for both nonprofit and not-for-profit organizations​​​.

Choosing the right structure for your organization

The decision of which structure to choose should align with your long-term vision for the organization, how you plan to fund your activities, and the level of regulatory oversight you’re prepared to navigate. Both structures have their own unique set of pros and cons, and your choice will significantly impact your organization’s operational dynamics, fundraising abilities, and legal responsibilities.

Key considerations

  • Mission and purpose: If your goal is to impact the public or a specific community positively, a nonprofit might be the right choice. If you’re focused on serving a closed group or membership base with common interests, a not-for-profit could be more appropriate.
  • Funding and financial strategy: Nonprofits have access to a broader range of funding opportunities, including tax-deductible donations and grants. Not-for-profits may rely more on membership dues and activities revenue.
  • Legal and tax implications: The 501(c)(3) status for nonprofits comes with stringent compliance and reporting requirements but offers significant tax advantages and donor incentives. Not-for-profits have more flexibility but fewer tax benefits and donor incentives.

Impact on taxes and donations for nonprofits

Nonprofit organizations, recognized under IRS 501(c)(3), are eligible for tax-exempt status because they operate to further a social cause and provide public benefits. This status exempts them from paying federal income taxes on money received through fundraising. Additionally, individuals or businesses that donate to 501(c)(3) organizations can deduct their donations from their tax returns, providing a significant incentive for contributions. Nonprofits must make their financial and operational information public to maintain transparency with donors and supporters​​​​​​.

Grants and tax benefits for donors to nonprofits

Nonprofits can apply for a variety of grants from both governmental and private sources since their operations usually align with broader public benefits such as education, welfare, health, and culture. The tax-deductible nature of donations to nonprofits benefits the donors and enhances the nonprofit’s ability to attract more significant contributions, which can be crucial for funding their operations and projects​​​​.

Impact on taxes and donations for not-for-profits

Not-for-profit organizations may also apply for tax-exempt status under different sections of the IRS code, such as 501(c)(7), depending on their activities and purpose. However, they do not generally qualify for 501(c)(3) status because they do not operate primarily for the public benefit but rather to serve the interests of their members. Consequently, donations made to not-for-profit organizations are not typically tax-deductible for the donor. This can affect the type and amount of donations not-for-profits might receive compared to nonprofits​​​​.

Implications for receiving donations and applying for grants

While not-for-profits can receive donations and potentially apply for certain grants, their eligibility is more limited compared to nonprofits. The lack of tax-deductible donations may influence the willingness of individuals and businesses to contribute, potentially limiting the resources available to not-for-profits. However, they can still support their operations through membership dues, service fees, and specific types of fundraising activities​​.

Also read: Nonprofit Accounting Software: 7 Top Solutions

Leveraging CRM software in non-profit and not-for-profit organizations 

For non-profits, CRM software is not just a luxury but a necessity for established organizations. It streamlines donor management, enhances fundraising efforts, tracks volunteer engagement, and boosts overall operational efficiency. Non-profit CRMs offer a comprehensive suite of tools, including donor databases, fundraising and marketing tools, membership and event management, volunteer management, analytics and reporting, and workflow automation.

Not-for-profit organizations, while focusing on serving their members rather than the public at large, also find immense value in CRM software. It plays a crucial role in managing membership databases, organizing events, and facilitating communication within clubs, associations, or interest groups. CRM systems help not-for-profits in keeping detailed records of members, scheduling events, sending reminders, and maintaining active communication.

Key features of nonprofit and not-for-profit CRMs

  • Donor database and fundraising tools
  • Marketing and membership management
  • Event and volunteer management
  • Analytics and reporting
  • Workflow automation
  • Grant management

Considerations for implementation

  • Does it align with organizational needs?
  • How scalable is it?
  • Is it easy to use?
  • Does it provide essential integration capabilities?

For more information on nonprofit and not-for-profit CRMs, check out our Nonprofit CRM Software Guide

Weighing the options

In choosing between both structures, organizations must carefully weigh their mission, goals, and the financial and operational implications of each structure. Both play indispensable roles in their communities, yet understanding the distinctions can guide organizations to the structure that best fits their mission, enabling them to achieve their goals and extend their impact.

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Featured partners: Nonprofit CRM software


The main difference is that nonprofit organizations are dedicated to furthering a social cause or advocating for a shared point of interest, whereas not-for-profit organizations focus on activities for the personal benefit of their members, without the primary goal of profit distribution.

Yes, both not-for-profit and nonprofit organizations can be eligible for tax exemptions, though they must meet specific criteria set by tax authorities like the IRS.