Accounting in Different Organizations

We can classify organizations into three categories: for profit, governmental, and not for profit. These organizations are similar in several aspects. For example, each of these organizations has inflows and outflows of cash and other resources, such as equipment, furniture, and land, that must be managed. In addition, all of these organizations are formed for a specific purpose or mission and want to use the available resources in an efficient manner—the organizations strive to be good stewards, with the underlying premise of being profitable. Finally, each of the organizations makes a unique and valuable contribution to society. Given the similarities, it is clear that all of these organizations have a need for accounting information and for accountants to provide that information.

There are also several differences. The main difference that distinguishes these organizations is the primary purpose or mission of the organization, discussed in the following sections.

For-Profit Businesses

As the name implies, the primary purpose or mission of a for-profit business is to earn a profit by selling goods and services. There are many reasons why a for-profit business seeks to earn a profit. The profits generated by these organizations might be used to create value for employees in the form of pay raises for existing employees as well as hiring additional workers. In addition, profits can be reinvested in the business to create value in the form of research and development, equipment upgrades, facilities expansions, and many other activities that make the business more competitive. Many companies also engage in charitable activities, such as donating money, donating products, or allowing employees to volunteer in the communities. Finally, profits can also be shared with employees in the form of either bonuses or commissions as well as with owners of the business as a reward for the owners’ investment in the business. These issues, along with others, and the associated accounting conventions will be explored throughout this course.

In for-profit businesses, accounting information is used to measure the financial performance of the organization and to help ensure that resources are being used efficiently. Efficiently using existing resources allows the businesses to improve quality of the products and services offered, remain competitive in the marketplace, expand when appropriate, and ensure longevity of the business.

For-profit businesses can be further categorized by the types of products or services the business provides. Let’s examine three types of for-profit businesses: manufacturing, retail (or merchandising), and service.

Manufacturing Businesses

manufacturing business is a for-profit business that is designed to make a specific product or products. Manufacturers specialize in procuring components in the most basic form (often called direct or raw materials) and transforming the components into a finished product that is often drastically different from the original components.

As you think about the products you use every day, you are probably already familiar with products made by manufacturing firms. Examples of products made by manufacturing firms include automobiles, clothes, cell phones, computers, and many other products that are used every day by millions of consumers.

Later, you will examine the process of job costing, learning how manufacturing firms transform basic components into finished, sellable products and the techniques accountants use to record the costs associated with these activities.




Think about the items you have used today. Make a list of the products that were created by manufacturing firms. How many can you think of? Think of the many components that went into some of the items you use. Do you think the items were made by machines or by hand?

If you are in a classroom with other students, see who has used the greatest number of items today. Or, see who used the item that would be the most complex to manufacture.

If you are able, you might consider arranging a tour of a local manufacturer. Many manufacturers are happy to give tours of the facilities and describe the many complex processes that are involved in making the products. On your tour, take note of the many job functions that are required to make those items—from ordering the materials to delivering to the customer. 

Retail Businesses

Manufacturing businesses and retail (or merchandising) businesses are similar in that both are for-profit businesses that sell products to consumers. In the case of manufacturing firms, by adding direct labor, manufacturing overhead (such as utilities, rent, and depreciation), and other direct materials, raw components are converted into a finished product that is sold to consumers. A retail business (or merchandising business), on the other hand, is a for-profit business that purchases products (called inventory) and then resells the products without altering them—that is, the products are sold directly to the consumer in the same condition (production state) as purchased.

Examples of retail firms are plentiful. Automobile dealerships, clothes, cell phones, and computers are all examples of everyday products that are purchased and sold by retail firms. What distinguishes a manufacturing firm from a retail firm is that in a retail firm, the products are sold in the same condition as when the products were purchased—no further alterations were made on the products.

Did you happen to notice that the product examples listed in the preceding paragraph (automobiles, clothes, cell phones, and computers) for manufacturing firms and retail firms are identical? If so, congratulations, because you are paying close attention to the details. These products are used as examples in two different contexts—that is, manufacturing firms make these products, and retail firms sell these products. These products are relevant to both manufacturing and retail because they are examples of goods that are both manufactured and sold directly to the consumer. While there are instances when a manufacturing firm also serves as the retail firm (Dell computers, for example), it is often the case that products will be manufactured and sold by separate firms.




NIKEiD is a program that allows consumers to design and purchase customized equipment, clothes, and shoes. In 2007, Nike opened its first NIKEiD studio at Niketown in New York City.[1] Since its debut in 1999, the NIKEiD concept has flourished, and Nike has partnered with professional athletes to showcase their designs that, along with featured consumer designs, are available for purchase on the NIKEiD website.

A picture of the inside of a NIKEiD store showing shoes on shelves by glass windows with a view of many tall buildings.
NIKEiD Launch Store in Shanghai. By KimChi, Dr. Beezy, Thay Thay. Wikimedia CC BY

Assume you are the manager of a sporting goods store that sells Nike shoes. Think about the concept of NIKEiD, and consider the impact that this concept might have on your store sales. Would this positively or negatively impact the sale of Nike shoes in your store? What are steps you could take to leverage the NIKEiD concept to help increase your own store’s sales?

Considerations like this are examples of what marketing professionals would address. Nike wants to ensure this concept does not negatively impact the existing relationships it has, and Nike works to ensure this program is also beneficial to its existing distribution partners.


Service Businesses

As the term implies, service businesses are businesses that provide services to customers. A major difference between manufacturing and retail firms and service firms is that service firms do not have a tangible product that is sold to customers. Instead, a service business does not sell tangible products to customers but rather provides intangible benefits (services) to customers. A service business can be either a for-profit or a not-for-profit business. The figure below illustrates the distinction between manufacturing, retail, and service businesses.

Examples of service-oriented businesses include hotels, cab services, entertainment, and tax preparers. Efficiency is one advantage service businesses offer to their customers. For example, while taxpayers can certainly read the tax code, read the instructions, and complete the forms necessary to file their annual tax returns, many choose to take their tax returns to a person who has specialized training and experience with preparing tax returns. Although it is more expensive to do so, many feel it is a worthwhile investment because the tax professional has invested the time and has the knowledge to prepare the forms properly and in a timely manner. Hiring a tax preparer is efficient for the taxpayer because it allows the taxpayer to file the required forms without having to invest numerous hours researching and preparing the forms.

The accounting conventions for service businesses are similar to the accounting conventions for manufacturing and retail businesses. In fact, the accounting for service businesses is easier in one respect. Because service businesses do not sell tangible products, there is no need to account for products that are being held for sale (inventory). Therefore, while we briefly discuss service businesses, we’ll focus mostly on accounting for manufacturing and retail businesses.

Three pictures show an auto manufacturing plant, a car sales lot, and a taxi.
Manufacturing, Retail, and Service. An auto manufacturing plant, a car sales lot, and a taxi represent three types of businesses: manufacturing, retail, and service. (credit left: modification of “Maquiladora” by “Guldhammer”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0; credit center: modification of “Mercedes Benz Parked” by unknown/Pixabay, CC0; credit right: modification of “Taxi Overtaking Bus” by “Kai Pilger”/Pixabay, CC0)



Categorizing Restaurants

So far, you’ve learned about three types of for-profit businesses: manufacturing, retail, and service. In some cases, firms such as Dell serve as both manufacturer and retailer.

Now, think of the last restaurant where you ate. Of the three business types (manufacturer, retailer, or service provider), how would you categorize the restaurant? Is it a manufacturer? A retailer? A service provider? Can you think of examples of how a restaurant has characteristics of all three types of businesses?


Answers will vary. Responses may initially consider a restaurant to be only a service provider. Students may also recognize that a restaurant possesses aspects of a manufacturer (by preparing the meals), retailer (by selling merchandise and/or gift cards), and service provider (by waiting on customers).

Governmental Entities

governmental entity provides services to the general public (taxpayers). Governmental agencies exist at the federal, state, and local levels. These entities are funded through the issuance of taxes and other fees.

Accountants working in governmental entities perform the same function as accountants working at for-profit businesses. Accountants help to serve the public interest by providing to the public an accounting for the receipts and disbursements of taxpayer dollars. Governmental leaders are accountable to taxpayers, and accountants help assure the public that tax dollars are being utilized in an efficient manner.

Examples of governmental entities that require financial reporting include federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration, state agencies such as the Department of Transportation, and local agencies such as county engineers.

Students continuing their study of accounting may take a specific course or courses related to governmental accounting. While the specific accounting used in governmental entities differs from traditional accounting conventions, the goal of providing accurate and unbiased financial information useful for decision-making remains the same, regardless of the type of entity. Government accounting standards are governed by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB). This organization creates standards that are specifically appropriate for state and local governments in the United States.

Not-for-Profit Entities

To be fair, the name “not-for-profit” can be somewhat confusing. As with “for-profit” entities, the name refers to the primary purpose or mission of the organization. In the case of for-profit organizations, the primary purpose is to generate a profit. The profits, then, can be used to sustain and improve the business through investments in employees, research, and development, and other measures intended to help ensure the long-term success of the business.

But in the case of a nonprofit (not-for-profit) organization the primary purpose or mission is to serve a particular interest or need in the community. A not-for-profit entity tends to depend on financial longevity based on donations, grants, and revenues generated. It may be helpful to think of not-for-profit entities as “mission-based” entities. It is important to note that not-for-profit entities, while having a primary purpose of serving a particular interest, also have a need for financial sustainability. An adage in the not-for-profit sector states that “being a not-for-profit organization does not mean it is for-loss.” That is, not-for-profit entities must also ensure that resources are used efficiently, allowing for inflows of resources to be greater than (or, at a minimum, equal to) outflows of resources. This allows the organization to continue and perhaps expand its valuable mission.

Examples of not-for-profit entities are numerous. Food banks have as a primary purpose the collection, storage, and distribution of food to those in need. Charitable foundations have as a primary purpose the provision of funding to local agencies that support specific community needs, such as reading and after-school programs. Many colleges and universities are structured as not-for-profit entities because the primary purpose is to provide education and research opportunities.

Similar to accounting for governmental entities, students continuing their study of accounting may take a specific course or courses related to not-for-profit accounting. While the specific accounting used in not-for-profit entities differs slightly from traditional accounting conventions, the goal of providing reliable and unbiased financial information useful for decision-making is vitally important.



Types of Organizations

Think of the various organizations discussed so far. Now try to identify people in your personal and professional network who work for these types of agencies. Can you think of someone in a career at each of these types of organizations?

One way to explore career paths is to talk with professionals who work in the areas that interest you. You may consider reaching out to the individuals you identified and learning more about the work that they do. Find out about the positive and negative aspects of the work. Find out what advice they have relating to education. Try to gain as much information as you can to determine whether that is a career you can envision yourself pursuing. Also, ask about opportunities for job shadowing, co-ops, or internships.


Answers will vary, but this should be an opportunity to learn about careers in a variety of organizations (for-profit including manufacturing, retail, and services; not-for-profit; and governmental agencies). You may have an assumption about a career that is based only on the positive aspects. Learning from experienced professionals may help you understand all aspects of the careers. In addition, this exercise may help you confirm or alter your potential career path, including the preparation required (based on advice given from those you talk with).


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