Nonprofit with Income-Generating Activities

Nonprofit organizations that incorporate some form of revenue generation through commercial means into their operations. Income-generating activities are not conducted as a separate business, but rather are integrated into the organization's other activities.These activities usually realize little revenue relative to the organization’s overall budget and traditional fundraising contributions.

There are two types of income-generating activities, delineated here by purpose:

  • Cost Recovery (discrete)--a means to recuperate all or a percentage of the costs to deliver a nonprofit service or fund a discrete activity related to the organization's mission. Special events, conference fees, paid training, and fee-for-service are examples. Cost recovery activities are linked to programs; once a program ends, the related cost recovery activities are terminated.
  • Earned Income (ongoing)--provides a stream of unrestricted revenue to the organization, generated through activities both related and unrelated to the mission. Membership dues, sales of publications and products, and consulting services are examples. Earned income activities are rooted in operations; they may progress into social enterprises when implementation is accompanied by a business plan.

    When is an Earned Income Activity a Social Enterprise?

    Is it the size of the income-generating activity; the amount of revenue earned; its legal structure, or type of staff involved that determines whether or not a income-generating activity can be considered a social enterprise? Though subtle, and subject to debate, the defining characteristic is that an income-generating activity becomes a social enterprise when it is operated as a business. The following characteristics apply: the activity was established strategically to create social and/or economic value for the organization. It has a long-term vision and is managed as a going concern. Growth and revenue targets are set for the activity in a business or operational plan. Qualified staff with business or industry experience manage the activity or provide oversight, as opposed to nonprofit program staff.

    More than half of all nonprofits are engaged in some form of income generation, though few have the tools, knowledge, expertise or desire to develop these activities into enterprises, thus realizing their potential social and economic benefit for the organization. The example below demonstrates how elephant waste was turned into an earned income activity in one zoo and a social enterprise in anther.

    An Example of Earned Income Activity versus Social Enterprise

    The National Zoo in Washington DC sells Elephant dung to the public as exotic fertilizer. Although the humorous product is popular among local organic gardeners, the "Zoo Doo" venture is not treated as a business and the income it earns is insignificant. Opportunities to scale Zoo Doo into a viable enterprise by selling the product in nurseries and gardening catalogues, as well as adding other "zoo products" to the line have not been realized. Instead Zoo Doo functions as an innovative public relations and marketing strategy used to attract visitors and patrons to the National Zoo. The small amount of money it generates is considered a plus.

    Using the same raw material, Zookeepers in Bangkok, Thailand turned their Elephant dung into lucrative business. The Thais transform the animal excrement into high-quality handmade paper which are sold in stationary stores, nature shops, and used in premium paper products in domestic and export markets. The enterprise employs several people who process the organic pulp to produce handmade paper. To keep up with demand, Thai zookeepers source dung from other zoos and elephant habitats. Unlike Zoo Doo, the Elephant dung products are not advertised to consumers as such; rather, socially-conscious consumers are sold on organic nature of the product and the fact that proceeds from sales are used to fund zoo activities and animal protection organizations.