Is The United Nations A Non-Profit? We Explain

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The United Nations is made up of 193 member states. The objective of the UN is to improve global security through international cooperation and to work to improve the lives of people around the world. The UN responds to many humanitarian crises and does huge amounts of poverty alleviation work globally. So, does that mean the United Nations is actually a non-profit? Well, not quite, let us explain…

Technically, the United Nations is a non-profit because it does not use its finances to make money. However, the UN is an international organization made up of member states. This means it is not a non-profit in the way and charity or NGO is.

…but that’s just an overview. In order to fully understand if the United Nations is a non-profit or not, we need to look in a bit more details.

Why Is The United Nations Not A Non-Profit?

So, it’s clear that although the United Nations is not a profit-making enterprise, it isn’t a non-profit in the same way an NGO or charity is. Really, there are four reasons for this:

  • The UN Is an international organization
  • The UN receives significant funds from member states
  • Most UN funds are allocated by the General Assembly
  • The UN is not an independent organization

Now, let’s take a quick look at each of these…

The UN Is An International Organization

A first reason why the UN is not a non-profit is because it is officially designated as an international organization.

There are many different types of organizations in the world. However, international organizations and non-profits actually have a range of differences. These include where they work, how they receive their funds, their structures and their relationship to governments around the world. Officially, the United Nations is an international organization. This means it is not a non-profit. 

The UN Receives Significant Funds From Member States

A second reason why the United Nations is not a non-profit is because it receives funds from member states.

The United Nations is made up of a 193 member states. These countries all contribute money to support the UN’s operations and programmes. Although some agencies receive additional funds from private foundations or the general public, the majority of the UN’s money comes from contributions from member nations. Countries that are part of the United Nations have to give funds to the UN. Contributions are determined by the size of a country’s economy. It is not possible for a nation to reduce, or stop, it’s financial contributions to the UN. This is different to the standard model of non-profit organizations, that only receive funds from the general public or philanthropic foundations.

Most UN Funds Are Allocated By The General Assembly

Another reason why the UN is not a non-profit is because the General Assembly allocates the UN’s funds to different parts of the organization.

The General Assembly of the United Nations is the organization’s main decision-making body. It is made up of representatives from every member state. The General Assembly votes on the UN’s budget, as well as how funds are to be portioned out to different UN entities. This is very different to how a non-profit operates its finances. Many funding decisions in the United Nations have a political element to them, as it is member state representatives taking the decisions. This is a key way that the UN differs from non-profit organizations.

The UN Is Not An Independent Organization

A final reason why the United Nations is not a non-profit is because it is not an independent organization.

Non-profits are organizations that are independent of nation states or national governments. They are not affiliated with government entities or politics. They use this independence to champion causes and advocate for those in need. Non-profits also raise funds independent of governments, usually through public donations or from private businesses and foundations.

…The UN is not independent of politics or governments. It is made up of member states that directly control its actions. This is a key reason why the UN is not a non-profit.

Does The UN Make A Profit?

The United Nations does not make a profit. All the funds raised by the UN, either from contributions by member state governments, or through donations to its agencies, are used to fund its programmes.

The objective of the United Nations is to improve cooperation between nations, address global issues and alleviate human suffering. All the money the UN receives goes towards funding programmes to achieve these aims.

The United Nations is made up of a number of different bodies. These include global forums such as the General Assembly, Security Council and Economic and Social Council. The UN also has 15 specialised agencies and another 15 funds, programmes and bodies, that focus on specific areas such as refugees, HIV/Aids, women’s rights and international development. However, no part of the UN is a profit-making enterprise. The UN does not have shareholders that receive part of its profits like. All the money the UN receives goes to funding its work.

Does The United Nations Run Non-Profits?

Some United Nations agencies, mainly those focused on humanitarian or poverty reduction work, do have charity arms that work to raise money for the agency’s programmes from the general public. However, these charities are not non-profits in the same way that independent non-profits are.

The UN as an organization is not characterized as a non-profit. However, there are UN agencies that have charity arms that raise funds for their work. Legally, these will be registered as charities or non-profits in the countries they operate in. Some examples of United Nations agencies that have non-profit arms that raise funds for them include:

  • UN High Commission for Refugees
  • UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
  • World Food Programme
  • UN Women
  • UN Populations Fund
  • International Organizations for Migration
  • UN Aids
  • UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

As we’ve said, the aim of these charity arms of UN agencies is to raise funds for their work from the general public. These funds supplement the money provided by United Nations member states.

Although some UN agencies do technically have non-profit elements, the United Nations is not considered a non-profit as whole.

United Nations Online Courses

If you want to learn more about the United Nations, including what type of organisation it is, we highly recommend the online course Global Diplomacy: The United Nations in the World offered by SOAS in London. We think it provides one of the best overviews of the UN and its role in the current global order. SOAS is also one of the top universities in the world for international relations and courses related to the UN. Click the link for more information.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) underpin all of the UN’s work. In order to fully understand the United Nations, you need a basic understanding of the SDG. We think the online short course The Sustainable Development Goals – A Global, Transdisciplinary Vision For The Future offered by the University of Copenhagen is one of the best introductions to the SDG. Follow the link to the course’s page.

The University of Leiden in the Netherlands offers an online short course on The Changing Global Order. It includes a specific look at how shifting international power dynamics are affecting the current global system and the United Nations. For those wanting to understand the UN, this online course is a must. We’ve linked to the course’s page.

What Is The Relationship Between The UN And Non-Profit Sector?

The United Nations is independent from the non-profit sector. However, many United Nations agencies do provide funding grants to non-profit organizations to implement projects on their behalf.

As we’ve said, the UN is not a non-profit. However, the UN often works with non-profits very closely.

Many UN agencies use a portion of their funding to give grants to NGOs. These non-profit organizations implement programmes on behalf of the United Nations. This allows the UN to remain stream-lined, whilst also portioning some of the risk of project implementation to independent organizations.

The organizations the UN provides funding to do not make a profit from the UN grants they receive. They must use all the funding provided to either implement the project, or cover staff or operational costs. The UN may contract private companies as suppliers. Sometimes these suppliers can deliver large projects for the UN, such as building infrastructure. These suppliers do make a profit by working with the UN and providing it goods or services. However, they are not the same as implementing partners, which are non-profit organizations.

If you want to learn more about the United Nations explore our list of the top UN online courses here.


Duncan is the founder of Humanitarian Careers. With over ten years experience in the aid industry across fifteen countries, Duncan set-up Humanitarian Careers to help people launch their own career in international aid.