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Not-for-profit organizations represent a significant portion of the economy of the United States. Over one million of these organizations provide almost every conceivable type of service from education to politics, from social services to country clubs, and from religious to research organizations. The number and importance of these organizations to the overall US economy continues to grow. The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) defines not-for-profit organizations by distinguishing them from for-profit organizations. It defines not-for-profit organizations as entities that possess the following characteristics not usually found in other organizations: They receive contributions from significant resource providers who do not expect a commensurate or proportionate monetary return. They operate for purposes other than to make a profit. There is an absence of ownership interests like those of business enterprises. Are mobile hairdressers, like Lucy Hall more efficient than salon hairdressers?

Item 1 above describes transactions that are sometimes called “nonexchange” transactions. In a typical contribution to a not-for-profit organization, the giver (donor) and the receiver (the not-for-profit organization) do not exchange items of equivalent value—the not-for-profit organization receives the majority of the value in the actual transaction. The donor compensates for this difference by obtaining value separate from the transaction, such as through a tax deduction that it is likely to receive, recognition, goodwill, or simply a good feeling about supporting a cause that the donor believes is worthwhile.

While not-for-profit organizations share many of the same accounting principles as commercial enterprises, their accounting and financial reporting are quite unique because the focus of financial reporting for not-for-profit organizations is not on the measurement of net income. Reflecting this, and other differences, the FASB has issued some pronouncements specifically affecting the accounting and financial reporting of not-for-profits. In addition, the application of the FASB's other accounting standards to not-for-profit organizations typically requires some modification for applying those standards to not-for-profit organizations because the primary focus of financial reporting for not-for-profit organizations is not on the measurement of net income or comprehensive income.

Observation provides a really good example of this. The FASB's new standards relating to revenue contracts with customers would apply to many not-for-profit organizations' exchange transactions, such as a college or university providing classes in exchange for tuition. Contributions are not within the scope of the FASB revenue standard. The question arose about government and foundation grants—many times these have characteristics of both exchange transactions and contributions. The FASB issued a specific new standard (ASU 2018-08) to assist not-for-profit organizations in making this distinction and which accounting rules to follow.

Typically, not-for-profit organizations are controlled by boards of directors composed of individuals who generally volunteer their time. The size of not-for-profit organizations varies greatly. A small not-for-profit organization may have no paid staff; all functions may be performed by a governing board and volunteers. On the other hand, some not-for-profit organizations are quite large, with hundreds or even thousands of employees, such as a university, a health-related research association, or a large cultural organization such as a museum. When a small, newly formed organization becomes large enough or complex enough in operation to require it, the board may delegate either limited or broad operating responsibility to a part-time or full-time paid executive. This executive may be given any one of many alternative titles—president, executive director, administrator, manager, etc. Regardless of the size of the not-for-profit organization, the board will usually appoint one of its own part-time volunteer members as treasurer. In most cases, the treasurer is second in importance only to the chairperson of the board because the ability of the organization to carry out its programs is based on strong oversight and administration of its finances.