Are non-profits private or public? This question depends on how the non-profit organization is set up and its function. According to IRS classifications, all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations will either be set up as public charities or private foundations.

Definition of a Public Nonprofit Organization Vs. a Private Nonprofit Organization

The factors that determine whether the organization is public or private are dependent on the following:

  • The activities in which it participates and engages
  • Where it receives its funding

The classification of your organization determines how much IRS oversight it is subject to, along with the requirements for tax reporting that apply.

Private Foundations

Private foundations are non-profit organizations classified by the IRS as 501(c)(3) organizations. These companies typically have fewer sources of funding than public charities and tend to grant assistance to other charitable organizations rather than operating their own services.

A private foundation often receives it funding from the following:

  • Corporations
  • Families
  • Single individuals

The money for a private foundation is often held and controlled by its directors or trustees. These organizations tend to rely on investment funds to pay for activities and initiatives. By default, the IRS classification for a non-profit organization is as a private foundation unless the organization proves that it has met the requirements for classification as a public charity.

Public Charities

A public charity receives its funding from members of the public. The monetary support can come from several sources:

  • Grants from private foundations
  • Donations from individuals
  • Grants from the government

In order to be classified as a public charity, an organization must align with all requirements outlined in the Internal Revenue Code section 509(a). Some of the most common public charities include hospitals, schools, and churches, and these organizations typically provide services to their recipients directly. However, some charities also serve in supportive roles to other public charities, aiding in the operation of programs that offer services to members of the public.

Non-profit organizations previously had to go through a waiting period before they were designated as public charities by the IRS. A recent ruling allows the IRS to immediately classify an organization as a public charity if it can prove that it will be able to receive enough support from the public to operate and achieve its mission.


Private control and funding allow private foundations to participate in activities that may benefit those in leadership positions in the organization, rather than using the funds to engage in charitable activities. There are additional regulations and rules placed by the IRS on private foundations to prevent these types of activities from occurring.

One example of a rule placed on a private foundation is that the IRS requires it to pay at least five percent of the value of its investments every year. Certain risky investments are also prohibited, as is the option to take tax deductions on certain contributions to the private foundation.


The rules implemented by the IRS govern how non-profit organizations are classified, and those rules can be complicated and confusing. Failure to follow these rules could result in fines and penalties, so it's important to understand them fully before submitting any paperwork. You might want to meet with an experienced attorney to be sure everything is correct before you move forward in the classification process.

The Difference Between Public and Private Non-Profit Organizations

Both public and private non-profit organizations are critical to the economic and social well-being of any country or region. These organizations offer benefits to members of society in ways that businesses in the private sector often aren't able to provide, which is one of the main reasons that the Internal Revenue Code allows most non-profit organizations to be exempt from federal taxes. The level of public involvement of each organization will determine how the IRS distinguishes and classifies it.

Public Charities

Public non-profit organizations are more common than private organizations, according to the IRS classifications. When someone thinks of a traditional non-profit, they are likely thinking of one that is classified as public. Common examples include hospitals, homeless shelters, and churches, although medical research institutions and universities can also be classified as public organizations. These examples are considered to be statutory public charities.

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