Nonprofits--or 501(c)(3) public charities--are largely mission-driven to make a difference for people in their communities. They work across many sectors and exist to support the public good.

How are nonprofits related to health?

We know that a person’s zip code is a stronger determinant of their health than their genetic code. The root causes of poor health are influenced by factors such as education, income, community safety, and housing. While only 13 percent of public charities are in the category of health, more are focused on a range of factors that influence health.1

Nonprofit leaders touch health in a variety of ways. Nonprofit organizations:

  • Provide services to support individuals, families or communities (e.g., people experiencing homelessness, in need of mental health or acute care, or involved with the criminal justice system, etc.).
  • Advocate for policies to address the root causes of poor health (e.g., stable housing, quality education,  access to healthy food, etc.).

The majority of nonprofits (35.5 percent) are "human service" organizations. These include groups that provide food and shelter, assistance in times of disaster, services for children and the elderly, and much more. Other nonprofit groups focused on education, community and civil rights, the environment, faith, and arts also play a role in building healthy communities.

What can nonprofits do to build healthy communities?

Nonprofit leaders have the power to influence a range of groups in the community including those who work with the nonprofit, like board members, funders,  partners, and the people they serve. Nonprofit influence also extends to key decision-makers and community members.

Start at home

Ensure your board reflects your community. BoardSource’s 2017 Leading with Intent report found that nonprofit boards do not reflect the growing diversity of the U.S. population. The report includes responses from a broad cross-section of the nonprofit sector. Respondents say they are not satisfied with current board demographics — particularly racial and ethnic diversity. Yet, boards are not prioritizing demographics in their recruitment practices.2

This is important because diverse groups make better decisions. Diverse groups are those that vary in race, ethnicity, gender, experience, sexual orientation, and in other ways.3

Groups of people who look the same or have the same life experiences are more likely to have blind spots. Rick Moyers, chair of BoardSource’s board of directors writes: “For organizations working at the intersection of race and poverty, these blind spots may involve undiscussed and perhaps faulty assumptions about the root causes of poverty; the needs, assets, and aspirations of the people and communities being served; and what constitutes a successful outcome. Poor decisions on these important questions can have significant consequences for mission and impact.”4

Include a focus on the health of employees. Nonprofits account for 10.3 percent of total private sector employment in the U.S.5 Nonprofit organizations set internal policies and practices that impact the health of the people they employ. For example, as employers, these organizations can ensure:

  • All of their employees earn a living wage.
  • Employees have access to quality health care, among other benefits.
  • The work environment supports healthy choices.

Explore these and other things employers can do to impact the health of their workforce in What Works for Health.

Advocate for policy change

Nonprofits are key decision-makers for several strategies listed in What Works for Health. They can influence policies within their organizations and in the broader community.

Advocating for evidence-informed strategies is one way changemakers can influence health. Policy change happens at all levels of government. Taking time to learn how decisions are made and by whom is key for advocates from any sector.

Resources for Advocacy and Lobbying

Many nonprofit organizations are restricted from lobbying by the IRS, based on their specific tax codes. Before getting involved with a policy change process, it’s important to know what rules may apply to your advocacy effort.

Some resources to help you navigate laws and rules that govern advocacy and lobbying include:

  • Bolder Advocacy’s IRS Lobbying Flowchart can help you determine if your communication is considered lobbying.
  • Need more? The Connection goes further to clarify the federal rules and illuminate the ways charities, social welfare organizations, PACs and other types of nonprofits can work together to accomplish common goals.

Bolder Advocacy, an initiative of the Alliance for Justice, aims to demystify and decode advocacy by equipping nonprofits and foundations with knowledge and tools.

Use your network

Nonprofits are often part of formal or informal networks working on the same or similar issues. Some are local branches of a national nonprofit which may have resources and support for local health improvement efforts.

Nonprofit networks also extend deep into the community. They may be able to connect other leaders with community members. For example:

Partner with others. Nonprofits are among the most common and most trusted members of community partnerships focused on health.6 Local nonprofits often take a lead role in coordinating and supporting partnerships. Nonprofits also contribute things like community connections, information, expertise, and advocacy.

How can you connect with nonprofits?

Do your research

Identify which nonprofits you’re interested in partnering with, then start with their websites. Here are some things to look for:

  • What kind of work do they do? Most nonprofits have some type of strategic plan or focus area. 
  • How do your efforts align with their areas of focus?

Look for common ground and common language. As communities work to address root causes, the common ground between many nonprofits and health is clear. Issues like housing, community safety, and quality education are ripe for collaboration.

Get connected

Once you have some context, look for a way to connect with a person. Ideally, you’ve identified one or more key changemakers in the organization. This could be someone in the organization’s leadership team or the person who heads community outreach.

  • If you have a mutual partner, ask for a warm introduction.
  • Hold a discovery meeting where you simply listen to the interests and passions of stakeholders first. Then find out where there are shared values or goals.
  • Volunteer with the nonprofit’s fundraising efforts. This can be a positive way to build relationships, learn more about their efforts, and contribute in a meaningful way.

Smaller local nonprofits might struggle with funding and may be tied to funded project timelines, but they can offer rich experience with community engagement.

Not sure where to start?

Nonprofit associations

  • The National Council of Nonprofits has a network of state-level associates that provide resources and professional development to their local members.
  • Some communities have their own local nonprofit associations. If you’re not sure, try a simple internet search for a nonprofit association in your community.  

National reach, local presence

Examples of some well-known national nonprofits that have a local presence in many communities across the country include:

  • Boys & Girls Clubs of America is connected to more than 4,000 local affiliates.
  • National Urban League has more than 80 local affiliates and a presence in more than 300 communities.
  • UnidosUS, formerly National Council of La Raza, has more than 250 affiliates that directly serve Latino population across the country.
  • United Way Worldwide supports more than 1,800 local United Ways around the world.
  • Y-USA has more than 2,700 YMCAs serving more than 10,000 communities.

What’s in it for them?

Mission. Making a difference in communities is core to the mission of most who work in nonprofits. Connecting with other changemakers can help to build their network and support the work they already do.

Data. Public health and health care partners often have data that can help drive decisions about where efforts will have the greatest impact. This data can also be used to attract funding and other supports for their work.

Leverage resources. Nonprofits are often interested in ways to leverage resources.

  • Is there similar work that staff in each organization are doing?
  • Does one organization have an expertise in a particular area that could strengthen either the coalition or partnership?


  1. What is a "Nonprofit"? National Council of Nonprofits. Accessed September 7, 2017.
  2. BoardSource. Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices. Washington, D.C.: BoardSource; 2017.  Accessed September 21, 2017.
  3. Galinsky AD, Todd AR, Homan AC, et al. Maximizing the Gains and Minimizing the Pains of Diversity. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2015;10(6):742-748. doi:10.1177/1745691615598513.
  4. Moyers R. A Stronger Case for Board 2017. Accessed September 21, 2017.
  5. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Nonprofits account for 11.4 million jobs, 10.3 percent of all private sector employment: The Economics Daily. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Published October 21, 2014. Accessed September 7, 2017.
  6. Hogg RA, Varda D. Insights Into Collaborative Networks Of Nonprofit, Private, And Public Organizations That Address Complex Health Issues. Health Aff (Millwood). 2016;35(11):2014-2019. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2016.0725.

Learn From This Community

2016 Culture of Health Prize Winner: Louisville, Kentucky

In Louisville, KY, the city’s arts, business, health, education, law enforcement and social service sectors have come together to turn statistics and data into tools to rectify health inequity, respond to neighborhood violence and make the city’s impressive health resources available to everyone. Nonprofits working within these different sectors have played a significant role.

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