There is a big misconception with first time business owners and entrepreneurs about non-profit businesses. Many first time business start-up owners think that they would rather start a for-profit over a non-profit because they want to make money. The thought is that they do not want to start a non-profit because they (incorrectly) think that non-profits cannot make money.
The fact is that there are more streams of revenue in a non-profit organization than a for-profit business. Although not all types of businesses are eligible for the non-profit tax-exempt status, there are some types of businesses that can easily be formed as a for-profit or non-profit. Perhaps the best example is a child day-care center. Regardless the type of business entity the child day care center can charge the same rates and fees for the same services. The staff can receive the same rate of pay and benefits. The same profits (surplus) can be gained.
In addition to generating the same revenue through the sale of products and services the 501c3 non-profit can receive tax-exempt donations from fund raising, in-kind donations of products and labor (volunteers), endowments, and grant funding. The 501c3 tax-exempt organizations are also exempt from paying federal income tax, federal unemployment taxes (FUIT), and in some states, sales tax.
Non-profit organizations can purchase capital assets such as property, buildings, and investments. Non-profit organizations can pay employees benefits, insurance, and retirement plans. Non-profits can pay for additional employee benefits and perks as long as they generate enough revenue to do so.
Non-profit organizations do have a limit as to the amount of revenue they can receive in a tax year. The limit is three times the amount of their estimated budget for that year. For example, if a non-profits budget was $500,000 for the next tax year they could legally generate up to $1.5 million before adjusting their budget and reporting.
A couple of examples of excellent non-profits and their ability to generate revenue are: the Girl Scouts of America (501c3) which sells cookies, and the NFL (National Football League, a 501c6) which is a kind of membership association of privately owned for-profit businesses.
These organizations generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year through their business efforts.