What’s a nonprofit, anyway? A primer for job seekers

With over one million nonprofits in the United States, it can be hard to define such an enormous sector. However, The Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University has conducted research on nonprofits (PDF) and developed the following list of characteristics:

  • (i) Organizations, that is, institutionalized to some extent;
  • (ii) Private, that is, institutionally separate from government;
  • (iii) Non-profit-distributing, that is, not returning profits generated to their owners or directors;
  • (iv) Self-governing, that is, able to control their own activities; and
  • (v) Voluntary, that is, non-compulsory and involving some meaningful degree of voluntary participation.

The purposes of nonprofits

Beyond the above mentioned characteristics, the work of nonprofits is pretty diverse:

  • The nonprofit sector is comprised of organizations working towards a better world, as defined by each of these organizations’ missions. This also includes organizations that work to fill gaps left by government and business sectors by directly or indirectly working with communities.
  • Within the nonprofit sector, organizations have missions that directly contrast with one another — for example organizations on opposing sides of social or environmental issues. The work of many more organizations however are guided by similar values, goals, and visions.
  • Nonprofit organizations have varying levels of government oversight depending on the country in which they are located.
  • Third sector organizations address issues such as poverty, the environment, youth development, community service, health care, workers’ rights, public policy, violence prevention, the arts, economic development, and many more. People often think of nonprofits as youth centers and soup kitchens, but they also include religious institutions, universities, hospitals, trade associations and unions, and museums.

Types of nonprofits

In the United States, as recognized by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) there are three main types of nonprofit organizations:

  • 501(c)(3) – majority of nonprofits, must show broad public support, donations are tax-deductible (e.g., Idealist.org)
  • 501(c)(4) – advocacy work, donations not tax-deductible (e.g., AARP)
  • 501(c)(6) – professional and trade associations, donations not tax-deductible (e.g., Chamber of Commerce)

According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, approximately 1.5 million nonprofit organizations are registered in the United States.

The Independent Sector reports that 10% of people in the US are employed by nonprofits.

In some parts of the world there are specific laws, regulations and customs that create a policy framework within which identifiable nonprofit organizations operate. Such organizations may be formally recognized by the government; usually, there specific limitations, privileges and exemptions that apply to these recognized groups concerning taxes, political activities, the employment of volunteers, and so forth.

Nonprofit job titles

Some have the identical titles as professionals working in the corporate or government sector:

  • Accountant
  • Administrative Assistant
  • CEO
  • Event planner
  • Manager
  • President
  • Programmer
  • Researcher
  • Salesperson
  • Teacher

Overlapping titles show that similar skills and opportunities available within other sectors are also useful in nonprofits. However, many other titles are unique to the nonprofit sector:

  • Advocate
  • Community organizer
  • Grant writer
  • Program director
  • Volunteer resources administrator

To learn more about this work in the U.S., check out these websites:

Go back to our resources.

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