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Small, flaky, needy, poor... nonprofits really can’t provide you much income, and they can’t pay, right?

Let’s stop here. Because the more people who think that, the more business for me and my friends!

Oh, alright. I’ll give it up: nonprofits are a great market for any freelancer at any level - and for real, paid work, not just to build an early career pro-bono-based portfolio.

Remembering a little economics goes a long way here: Businesses (in the USA, at least) are often divided by size. There’s the small sole proprietor (maybe you?) on one end of the scale to the largest are C Corps on the other, and whole bunch in between. Put simply, you and Apple are both in business, but few would confuse you.

By contrast, nonprofits divide by mission, like education, healthcare, environmental and much more. Discerning their ability to hire you, at first glance, is more difficult. You may not realize that some of the biggest employers in your town are nonprofits, because they don’t look like your image of a typical nonprofit.

For example, here in Philadelphia, some of the biggest employers are nonprofits. The University of Pennsylvania is a 22,000+ employer with a budget of more than $8.75 billion. They’re only one of a number of major nonprofit universities, hospitals, and social service providers and other significantly sized nonprofits in our community.

Plus, know that 30% of nonprofits are not 501(c)3s! There are nearly 30 other kinds, like credit unions, mutual insurance companies, chambers of commerce, and labor unions, just to name a few. (See them here)

What’s that mean for you, the freelancer? Easy. Nonprofits can be a major source of revenue.

To start, nonprofits use a lot of the same services as business, but sometimes with a different twist.

  • Accounting? Of course, but nonprofit accounting is different from business accounting.
  • IT? Yup, but the computer programs serving nonprofits can differ from business programs, depending on the department.
  • Marketing? For sure, but nonprofit marketing might be more complicated since there are at least two “customers:” clients, and revenue contributors, like donors or government entities, all with different needs and perspectives.

Then there’s the work that businesses don’t have. The most obvious? Fundraising. Yet be careful here. More than 35 states require you to register with them if you do any nonprofit fundraising related freelance work or consulting in their state. If you do any work that touches fundraising, check, even if you don’t think your work will require it. The same job in one state may require registration, while in others, it doesn’t.

Still, I can hear you now… “that’s all great, but nonprofits don’t pay. That’s why they’re called ‘nonprofits!’”

Actually, they don’t pay bad. Remember, “nonprofit” only means that it has no shareholders. Their “profits” (or “surplus” in nonprofit-speak) gets plowed back into the organization, not distributed to owners - because there are no owners. (A nonprofit’s board guides the organization and does not own it.)

While some nonprofits have a sacrificial mentality, more enlightened ones pay as much for freelance work as any business of their size. They may ask you for a “nonprofit rate,” but who can blame them for asking? If you want to give them a break, it’s up to you. Personally, I find that small businesses are stingier than any nonprofit I’ve worked for. (Want some stats on this? See this Bureau of Labor Statistics summary)

Yet before you jump headlong into nonprofit freelance work, there’s an essential point to keep in mind: mission is paramount. To hire you, a nonprofit may expect you to have at least some care about, if not enthusiasm for, their mission. There’s a lot of legal issues I won’t (nor am I qualified) to get into on this point. But consider that if you love their mission, you’ll probably do better work for them - especially if you’re in marketing, fundraising or program delivery.

I could go on and on, but suffice to say that yes, nonprofits ARE a great market for freelancers - but let’s keep it between you and me!

Matt Hugg is nonprofit consultant’s consultant at NonprofitConsultant.Zone a business and educational resource for consultants and freelancers to nonprofit organizations. He is author of “The ThinkNP Guide to Nonprofit Consulting: A Practical Workbook for Your Success,” (available on Amazon).