How do Nonprofits Make Money?

How do Nonprofits Make Money?

The nonprofit sector is an important group of organizations that tackle a range of social, environmental, and humanitarian needs across the globe. Differently to businesses in the for-profit sector, nonprofit organizations have the primary objective of serving a mission rather than generating and distributing profits to shareholders. Due to the nature of the organizations, nonprofits have to abide by a separate set of legal regulations and often function under a tax-exempt status. They rely heavily on donations, grants, memberships, and more to generate revenue and frequently enlist the support of volunteers to assist with day-to-day operations.

It is critical to understand nonprofit revenue streams because they directly affect how sustainable and effective an organization will be in the pursuit of its mission. Having a strong knowledge of revenue streams allows a nonprofit to focus on and uphold its financial stability. Successful nonprofits have a diverse set of revenue channels, which helps to protect the organization in times of economic hardship. When creating a plan to operate into the future, it is crucial that a nonprofit understands how much revenue to expect from each of its streams. This allows the organization to appropriately allocate funds and make informed decisions about activities and programs.

Understanding the Nonprofit Model

To fully comprehend how nonprofits make money, it is a good idea to understand the key differences between for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations:

  • Purpose: For-profit businesses have the primary goal of generating and distributing profits to shareholders, whereas nonprofit organizations have the primary goal of serving a mission.
  • Ownership: For-profit businesses are privately owned entities, whereas nonprofit organizations are not owned by individuals but governed by a board of directors.
  • Tax-Status: For-profit businesses are expected to pay tax on income, whereas nonprofit organizations operate under a tax-exempt status.
  • Revenue Sources: For-profit businesses generate revenue by selling a product or a service, whereas nonprofit organizations rely on donations, grants, earned income, and a variety of other sources.
  • Distribution of Profits: For-profit businesses distribute profits to shareholders, whereas nonprofit organizations are required to reinvest profits back into furthering their mission.

Despite the differences outlined above, not all nonprofits are the same. There is a misconception that all organizations of this type are unable to generate a profit, ran entirely by volunteers, and don't pay any tax. This is not true! Nonprofits are able to generate profits but they must be reinvested into the organization. Although volunteers play a huge role in the nonprofit sector, many organizations employ and pay a team of staff. Depending on the business activities that a nonprofit engages in, it may have to pay certain taxes on specific types of income.

Primary Income Sources for Nonprofits

How do nonprofits make money? Below is an overview of the most common revenue streams in the nonprofit sector.

Donations and Grants

Individual Donations: Individual donations are made by private citizens using their personal wealth and come in the form of one-time gifts, recurring contributions, in-kind donations, and more. For many nonprofits, individual donations make up a large portion of revenue and are heavily relied upon. These donations often vary in size from smaller amounts to large contributions from wealthy individuals.

Corporate Donations: Corporate donations encompass any contribution made to a nonprofit organization by a business or corporation. These donations take the form of monetary offerings, employee volunteer schemes, sponsorship, and in-kind contributions.

Government and Foundation Grants: Grants are funds provided to a nonprofit by federal, state, or local government entities and community foundations with a charitable cause. Grants from the government often take the form of contracts, combined agreements, or awards that are competed for by multiple organizations. Foundations may be set up by corporations, families, or individuals and tend to have a specific area of focus that heavily influences the nonprofit that each foundation decides to support.

Fundraising Events

Many nonprofits host fundraising events to generate revenue. Some common examples of fundraising events are galas, auctions, and charity runs/walks.

Galas: A gala is a formal event that is often held in a sophisticated venue. They are generally hosted in the evening and consist of dinner, entertainment, and a variety of other activities for guests. Those who attend the gala are required to pay an entry fee, which is donated to the nonprofit.

Auctions: An auction is an event that offers items or experiences to the highest bidder in an organized setting. There are various formats for an auction, including live auctions, online auctions, and silent auctions. Any funds raised from sales during the auction are donated to the organization.

Charity Runs/Walks: Charity runs/walks are generally in a recognizable format, such as marathon, half-marathon, or 5K. They require participants to run/walk the entirety of the specified distance. Those taking part will seek donations from family and friends as an incentive to complete the task. Funds raised are donated to the nonprofit.

Beyond generating revenue, the events listed above are a fantastic way for an organization to build strong relationships with stakeholders, honor its supporters, and showcase the positive impact of its work.

Membership Dues

A nonprofit may choose to offer supporters a membership option. Those who become members will be required to pay a recurring fee to the organization, typically on an annual basis, in order to maintain their membership status. A nonprofit membership will provide incentives to those who contribute. Members of a nonprofit can expect to receive exclusive access to activities and events hosted by the organization as well as a host of other benefits.

Product Sales and Services

Selling Merchandise: Nonprofits can partake in the sale of merchandise, including clothing and accessories, artwork, stationary, and any other goods related to their cause. Products can be sold through a variety of channels and an organization will generally choose to operate via a physical store or an online sales platform. Any profit made from the sale of merchandise can be used by the nonprofit to fund its operation.

Charging for Services: Organizations that have expertise in a certain field can choose to offer services in return for payment. These services may be in the form of workshops, educational programs, consultation, or professional training. Any revenue generated from these services can be used to cover associated expenses and assist with program costs.

Investment Income

A nonprofit can choose to invest money into a range of financial assets, including stocks, real estate, bonds, and more. Typically an organization will make use of an investment manager to ensure that its investments are generating income and/or capital appreciation. There is a risk involved with investments and a nonprofit has to strike a balance between risk and return. Revenue from investing comes in the form of interest, dividends, capital gains, and rent. Any revenue generated can contribute towards the organization's financial sustainability.

Corporate Sponsorship

Corporate sponsorship provides nonprofits with large injections of financial resources but the relationship must be beneficial for both parties in order to attract opportunities. A corporation or business can offer a nonprofit cash gifts, volunteer support, consultation, expertise, and a lot more. The organization must make the sponsorship mutually beneficial. This can be done by providing exposure to the corporation's brand through promotional activities and allowing the corporation to benefit from its association with a charitable cause.

Challenges in Making Money as a Nonprofit

Nonprofits are constantly vying for support in a crowded charitable landscape. Competition for donors is one of the largest challenges facing organizations in the nonprofit sector. There are countless nonprofits seeking the attention of potential supporters, which can make it difficult to engage the public and maintain relationships. It is a very saturated market and repeat attempts to win the support of donors can lead to donor fatigue, meaning that they become overwhelmed with requests for support and therefore become less receptive to them. It is vital for a nonprofit to provide clarity in their messaging and build a reputation of trust in order to overcome this problem.

All businesses, including nonprofits, suffer during a period of economic downturn. Harsh financial circumstances affect the revenue and operations of a nonprofit and this negatively impacts the communities that they serve. During these times individuals and businesses generally have less disposable income, which leads to a decrease in charitable donations. Volunteers often have to reduce their availability and prioritize paid work due to their weakened financial position. A nonprofit can reduce risk during periods of economic downturn by diversifying its income streams, creating a reserve of money to fall back on, identifying cost-saving measures, and bolstering relationships with its stakeholders.

Nonprofit organizations have to make transparency, trust, and, credibility their top priorities. If they fail to uphold these values then it can lead to a variety of issues, such as less financial support, legal trouble, and the inability to further their mission. Nonprofits can build a favorable reputation by maintaining open and honest communication with stakeholders and the general public. They should always ensure that information is readily available and easy to access. Financial transparency is paramount and governed by law, organizations must abide by regulations to avoid legal repercussions.

Key Strategies for Effective Fundraising

There are many strategies available to a nonprofit organization to guarantee that it will be able to raise funds successfully.

Building Strong Relationships with Donors

In order to form a consistent stream of donations a nonprofit should build strong connections with its stakeholders. These relationships will assist the organization with attracting monetary support, preserving donors, and completing objectives. The foundation of a sturdy relationship is personalization. Donors should be treated as individuals and not simply as a source of income. It is advised to grow an understanding of stakeholders, including their preferences, interests, and values. This information can be used to add a personal touch to messaging, helping donors to feel valued as people as well as supporters.

Utilizing Technology and Online Platforms

In this digital era it is crucial for nonprofits to adapt and extend their presence into online spaces. Fundraising opportunities continue to grow online and this trend is expected to expand into the future as technology becomes more prevalent and available. Organizations can make use of platforms, such as Paybee, to assist them with their online efforts to raise money. They can also create social media profiles, websites, and blogs to increase the reach of their message whilst growing their audience. There are a plethora of opportunities available in the digital landscape and it is quickly becoming one of the most effective ways to engage stakeholders.

Collaborative Efforts with Other Organizations

Collaborating with other organizations is a brilliant method for nonprofits to share expertise, grow their audience, and increase their impact. To get started with collaboration, an organization should identify other nonprofits that share its objectives and values. The most successful partnerships are formed by two parties with aligned priorities. The two organizations should share resources, facilities, ideas, funding, and staff in order to maximize the outcome of the collaboration. Nonprofits should aim to diversify their partnerships in order to bring a variety of benefits to the table.

Continuous Engagement and Feedback

Harnessing continuous engagement and feedback from donors, volunteers, and the public is extremely important for nonprofits. Using these strategies, organizations can strengthen their relationship with stakeholders, refine their operations, and more efficiently fulfill their goals. It is advised to maintain regular communication with donors through the use of newsletters, updates, and other channels to keep them informed about progress made by the nonprofit. Ensure that feedback can easily be provided by stakeholders and continuously analyze it to identify ways for the organization to improve.

Nonprofit Organizations: The Role of Marketing and Public Relations

A nonprofit should be continuously working to build and maintain its brand image. This can be achieved through marketing and forming positive connections with the public. The importance of defining an organization's mission and values is high when developing a good brand image. This image forms the foundation for how a nonprofit is viewed and helps to develop a layer of trust and credibility.

Marketing doesn't always have to cost money. A simple and free way to grow the audience and expand the reach of a nonprofit is through the use of social media and other digital platforms. Social media provides a unique experience for stakeholders that allows them to interact with an organization's news and updates in real time. This is a great opportunity for immediate feedback and efficient engagement. For the best results, a nonprofit should combine posts consisting of text, images, and video, sharing a variety of content that is informative and highlights the positive impact of the organization.

Sharing success stories is the ideal way for a nonprofit to highlight the work that it is performing in the pursuit of its overall mission. Providing stakeholders with evidence of an organization's impact helps to build trust because donors are able to see that their generous contributions are being used in the correct fashion. This will also help to strengthen the relationship between the nonprofit and its stakeholders, which garners further financial support in the future. Success stories have the power to inspire the public and motivate potential donors to make contributions whilst humanizing the mission and celebrating the achievements of the organization.

Legal and Ethical Considerations to Make in Relation to How a Nonprofit Generates Money

A nonprofit must conform to legal and ethical considerations to maintain a credible reputation, conserve its tax-exempt status, and preserve the trust of its stakeholders. Organizations with 501(3)(c) status fall under the constraint of IRS regulations. These regulations place limitations on an organization's ability to engage in political activity and lobbying. Failure to abide by these rules will cost the nonprofit its tax exempt status. Most nonprofits are required to file form 990 with the IRS annually and they must remain transparent with their financial reporting. This includes the maintenance of accurate financial records and statements.

Ethical fundraising is of the utmost importance to a nonprofit if it is to preserve its integrity, form a relationship of trust with its stakeholders, and guarantee that revenue is used for its intended purpose. An organization should always approach fundraising communications with honesty and should not overstate the impact of contributions or exaggerate the needs of the nonprofit. Potential donors should be well informed about the mission of the organization so that they can make contributions in good faith and the nonprofit should always be transparent with information regarding the utilization of funds.


Q: How do nonprofits ensure financial transparency?

A: Nonprofits can ensure financial transparency by implementing an array of practices that supply clear, comprehensible, and accessible information about the financial position and activities of the organization.

Q: Can nonprofits have profits at the end of the year?

A: There are no regulations against a nonprofit having a profit at the end of the year. The way in which the profits are made use of is where the regulations lie. A nonprofit is not able to distribute profits to shareholders but must reinvest them into the organization.

Q: How do nonprofits pay their staff?

A: Nonprofits pay their staff in a similar way to for-profit businesses. Organizations must adhere to employment laws and compensation is typically market-based in order to attract talented members of staff.

Q: What percentage of donations should go to the cause?

A: The percentage of donations that go to a nonprofit's cause will vary based on the size, operational costs, and needs of the organization. There exists a guideline within the nonprofit sector known as the 65-35 rule. It states that 65% of a nonprofit's expenses should go toward the cause and 35% should go toward administration costs. However, this is only a guideline and organizations do not have to abide by the 65-35 rule.


An ever-evolving nonprofit fundraising landscape means that it can be easy for an organization to be left behind if it cannot adapt. There is a constant shift in stakeholder needs and expectations, the nonprofit sector, and the communities that it supports. A nonprofit is best placed if it has access to a diverse set of revenue streams, has embraced the world of online and digital engagement, is collecting data and analyzing it to refine procedures, and is maintaining positive relationships with donors. As the nonprofit sector continues to change, the importance of adaptation continuously rises. For support with establishing great online fundraising practices, contact Paybee and sign up for their demo.

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