Rethinking the way we look at non-profits

dallas cowan
Jun 22, 2017 · 6 min read

Hello, My name is Dallas Cowan. I work for a non-profit and get paid to help people who need it. I work directly with kids in the foster care system and writing this from a first-hand experience.

When I think of for-profit business, I think of many different types of businesses. There are big businesses and small ones. Tech ones and legal ones. Giant agencies and mom/pop shops. There are so many different types.

There is a wide range of nonprofits as well. Unlike in business, there is not such a clear distinction between nonprofits. If you went out and asked 20 people to name different types of nonprofits, I have a hunch that they would struggle. I see this as a problem. We have all these different types of nonprofits but no way to categorize them so we can understand who is doing what.

Over the last 11 months, I have had the honor to work in a non-profit that helps kids in the foster care system. During this time, I have come in contact with many non-profits that provide many different services. Since I started working in a nonprofit, I’ve come to a conclusion; It’s hard to understand what each non-profit does in their space. Even more, it’s hard to understand what the different spaces are!

This is my effort to explain what the different types of nonprofits are, with a provided example for each.

I believe the three main elements to a non-profit are:

  1. Awareness
  2. Service
  3. Direct Care

Every nonprofit has at least one of these elements, some could have two, and a couple may have all three. But it all comes down to these three elements. Let’s break them down.


An awareness based nonprofit is all about spreading awareness for a cause, often operating around a movement. These are very public-facing organizations, and invest a lot into their public image. One of the primary reasons for this is that awareness non-profits also raise money for their causes, or the movements that they started.

A majority of non-profits have some awareness tied into their strategy. An example nonprofit that is an awareness based one is Stand Up To Cancer.

Their one goal is to spread awareness about cancer and raise money for research, in which they deploy in a few different ways…one of those is deploying that money to service based nonprofits.

Other examples if awareness based non-profits:

Stand Up To Cancer: Raise funds to accelerate the pace of groundbreaking translational research that can get new therapies to patients quickly and save lives now.

To Write Love On Her Arms: To Write Love on Her Arms is a nonprofit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and invest directly into treatment and recovery.

Celebrity Fight Night: A star-studded evening presented in honor of our featured guest, Muhammad Ali.


Service based non-profits are nonprofits that produce resources or materials to people in need. For example, helping build a house in Mexico through 1Mission would be helping a service based non-profit.

These go hand in hand with awareness based non-profits. Often, the money raised by awareness non-profits is sent to service based nonprofits to help fund their operations.

As I mentioned earlier, it is possible to be multiple types of non-profits. Red Cross is an example of a non-profit that is focussed on awareness and service. They fund their operations through their website, and through that, they can put out massive campaigns to get people to donate their blood, which is a service based activity.

Although the service business is needed, it is also quite saturated, which gives new organizations a harder time to break through the noise. A company that has done a great job at breaking through the noice is Charity Water.

What do you think? Are they service based, awareness based, or both?

The answer is….

Drumroll, please!


Charity: Water does a great job of bringing awareness to the community about the need for clean water around the world AND they provide great tools for people to use to raise money to build wells. BUT, they do not build any of the wells themselves. They partner with the locals to have them build the wells.

Service based non-profits to check out:

  1. Charity: Water — A non-profit organization bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing countries. 100% of public donations go to water projects.
  2. Pencils Of Promise — A for-purpose organization that builds schools, trains teachers, and funds scholarships.
  3. Camp Swift — Swift Youth Foundation supports the social and emotional development of youth and enhances the social awareness and leadership skills of teens by fostering mutually beneficial mentor relationships in a fun and safe environment.
  4. Red Cross — Prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.​

Direct Care

Direct care is when someone provides service 24/7. This is total immersion, where the job is less considered work, and more considered a lifestyle. I’ll use myself as an example, as I work at a group home where we have nine teenage girls living with us who are in the foster system.

There are no weekend or holidays, because these girls depend on us. Consider direct care very similar to service, but the service never ends.

Unfortunately, there is less awareness for direct care non-profits when compared to the other two. One reason for this is that they don’t have the resources to raise awareness because they focus doing their day to day service and not bring awareness to their movement.

Additionally, working with broken and hurting people is extremely hard emotionally, spiritually, and physically. It is easier to raise money to give backpacks to kids in the foster care system then it is to work with the daily. I am not saying that the backpacks are not needed, I am saying that it is emotionally easier to do.

Other examples of direct care non-profits are:

  1. Phoenix Dream Center — Exists to serve the homeless, low-income, at risk youth and struggling individuals and families by providing resources, opportunities and supportive services to help them realize their dream of living a self-sufficient life.
  2. Comfy Cozy’s for Chemo: Bring dignity and comfort into
    the harsh world of childhood cancer.
  3. Phoenix Rescue Mission: Join the fight against hunger and homelessness in Phoenix.

Why does categorizing matter?

I believe this matters because as a non-profit collective we need to understand the roles we play within the movement we are working in rather then working alone. By understanding my position I can reach out to those around and help support each other.

One of the major differences between for profit business and non-profit work is in for profit work you are working to build repeat customers, in (most) non-profit work you are working to go out of business.

Next time you see a non-profit, try to figure out what type it is.

Thank you,

Dallas Cowan

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dallas cowan

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