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4 Ways to Recognize a Nonprofit Organization

Getting Beyond the Myths About Nonprofits



One defining sign of a charitable nonprofit is that people are willing to volunteer to help, from building low income housing to being a docent at a museum.

Yellow Dog Productions/The Image Bank/Getty Images

It's astonishing that one of the most frequent questions about forming a nonprofit comes from business owners who wonder, because their business is not profitable, if they can turn it into a nonprofit.

The term "nonprofit" is really unfortunate because it leads to wide misunderstanding of what charitable organizations do, and the role they play in our society. It's really not about having or not having a profit.

Here are four sure-fire ways to recognize a nonprofit (also known as a charitable organization).


Many people think that nonprofit means that the organization cannot make a profit. This is not true. In order to survive, nonprofit organizations, just like businesses,  must make sure that the organization's revenues exceed its expenses.

We use the term nonprofit because these organizations are not set up for the sole purpose of making a profit. Rather, they pursue public benefit purposes that are recognized under federal and state law.

What makes an organization a nonprofit is that:

  • its mission is to undertake activities whose goal is not primarily for profit
  • no person owns shares of the corporation or interests in its property
  • the property and income of the nonprofit corporation are never distributed to any owners, but are recycled back into the nonprofit corporation's public benefit mission and activities.


A nonprofit organization is, in a way, owned by the public. It belongs to no private person and no one person controls the organization.

The assets of a nonprofit are irrevocably dedicated to the charitable, educational, literary, scientific, or religious purposes of the organization.

The cash, equipment, and other property of a nonprofit cannot be given to anyone or used for anyone's private benefit without fair market compensation to the nonprofit organization.

In fact, a nonprofit's property is permanently dedicated to exempt purposes. When and if the organization dissolves, any remaining assets after debts and liabilities are satisfied, must go to another nonrofit organization...not to members of the former nonprofit or other private individual.


Control of a nonprofit is exercised by a governing board of directors or trustees. The responsibility of that board is to see that the organization fulfills its purpose. Board members do not act as individuals, but must act as a group.

No one can be guaranteed permanent tenure on a board, and the board can, if necessary, fire an executive or remove board members.

This means that no one, not even the founder of the organization, can control a nonprofit. In some states, such as California, there are rules governing the pay of directors of a nonprofit. Most boards of directors are not compensated, except for expenses such as travel to and from board meetings.


Nonprofit organizations are accountable to the public and must file annual information returns with the federal and state governments.

The federal form that nonprofits must file is IRS Form 990. On it the nonprofit must report information regarding its finances, including the salaries of the five highest paid non-officer employees.

IRS Form 990 must be made available to the public. Most nonprofits have them available at their headquarters and on the web. The tax forms are also easily obtained through certain websites such as Guidestar.

At the state level, nonprofits are usually overseen by the State's Attorney General's Office. That office commonly has the power to take a nonprofit corporation to court to make sure it complies with the law.

Back to 7 Tips for Starting a Nonprofit Organization

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  5. Getting Started
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