Foundation basics

What is a private foundation?

A private foundation is a tax-exempt charitable organization primarily established and funded by an individual, family, or corporation. Its core mission is to support charitable, educational, religious, or other philanthropic activities for the greater public good. Unlike public charities, private foundations typically refrain from directly operating their own charitable programs, though it is legally permissible. Instead, they generally allocate funds to operating charities like the American Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity in the form of grants. Foundations can provide grants to a wide range of organizations and causes, including public charities, educational institutions, research organizations, and other entities aligned with their mission. These grants may serve various purposes, such as program support, capital projects, scholarships, or general operating expenses. The focus on providing grants, coupled with variations in funding sources and governance, distinguishes private foundations from their public charity counterparts.

Funding and Establishment

Private foundations find their roots in the generosity of individuals, families, or corporations. Unlike public charities, which often rely on a diverse range of contributors, private foundations are typically established and sustained by a single source. While private foundations do offer benefits to the founder, such as a tax deduction for contributions, experts generally emphasize that these incentives alone aren't considered sufficient justification for creating and funding a foundation. The primary driving force is a genuine charitable intent. The IRS grants special tax status to a foundation only when its foundational documents clearly demonstrate a commitment to fulfilling a charitable mission and it meets specific federal and state requirements. Well-known examples include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, each bearing the distinct imprint of a specific benefactor.

Governance and Control

The founder and their designated directors and trustees play a pivotal role in shaping the direction and focus of private foundations. This ensures that the foundation's activities stay true to the founder's initial vision. Often, founders kickstart the foundation with a substantial financial contribution that forms the endowment. This endowment is typically invested in a diverse portfolio of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and other financial instruments. This endowment model serves as the financial backbone, allowing investments to generate income dedicated to charitable endeavors while preserving the principal amount, securing the foundation's long-term ability to make a meaningful impact in its chosen areas of focus.

Tax-Exempt Status and Obligations

The foundation itself, being a tax-exempt entity, is generally exempt from standard income tax. However, non-operating foundations (i.e., grant-making foundations) pay a very modest excise tax of 1.39% on their investment income. Non-operating foundations must annually distribute approximately 5% of their endowment through grants and foundation operating expenses. All expenditures must relate to the private foundation’s exempt charitable purposes. Expenditures made for any kind of personal gain of foundation insiders are not allowable.

Forms of Private Foundations

Private foundations come in various forms, each with distinct characteristics and approaches to philanthropy. Family foundations are among the most common, established by families or individuals to manage and distribute their charitable giving. These foundations are often governed by family members and reflect the values and interests of the founding family. Corporate foundations, on the other hand, are typically established by corporations as a means of formalizing their philanthropic efforts. They are separate legal entities from the corporation itself and may receive funding from the company, but can also solicit donations from employees, customers, and other stakeholders. Independent foundations, as the name suggests, operate without the influence of a specific family or corporation. They are typically established by an individual or group of individuals with a shared philanthropic vision. Independent foundations can have a broad scope and may support a range of causes based on the founder's interests.

In terms of structure, family foundations may have a more informal governance structure, often managed by family members who serve as trustees or directors. Corporate foundations might have a governance structure that involves a board of directors that includes both corporate leaders and external experts. Independent foundations often have a board of directors that reflects the diversity of their philanthropic interests, including experts in the chosen fields of giving. Funding sources for these foundations vary accordingly. Family foundations are primarily funded by the assets of the founding family, while corporate foundations may receive contributions from the parent corporation, as well as external donations. Independent foundations often rely on a combination of the founder's initial endowment and subsequent donations from various sources, including individuals, corporations, and grants from other foundations. These differences in structure, funding, and governance shape how each type of private foundation operates and makes philanthropic decisions.

Legal and Regulatory Requirements

Private foundations are subject to a comprehensive set of legal and regulatory requirements to maintain their tax-exempt status and ensure responsible and ethical philanthropic practices. One of the key obligations is the annual filing of a tax return (Form 990-PF) with the IRS. This detailed document provides a comprehensive overview of the foundation's financial activities, including its assets, expenditures, and grants awarded. This form is required each year regardless of endowment size or amount of investment income. Additionally, private foundations generally must meet specific distribution requirements, which stipulate that they must distribute at least 5% of their endowment's average net investment assets each year for charitable purposes. This requirement is in place to ensure that foundations actively engage in charitable activities rather than solely accumulating assets.

Furthermore, private foundations must adhere to stringent guidelines to avoid conflicts of interest. This includes prohibiting transactions known as self-dealing between the foundation and disqualified persons, who are typically foundation insiders or those with significant influence over the foundation's decisions. Such transactions might involve the sale of property, lending money, or the provision of goods or services. Foundations are also obligated to make investments that are inherently prudent, ensuring that the foundation's charitable purpose is not jeopardized—this obligation is codified by the jeopardizing investment rules. These rules strongly discourage engaging in high-risk or speculative investments (e.g., avoiding high-risk investments like penny stocks or racehorses). There are also explicit limits regarding the ownership of private businesses (as opposed to public securities which are generally allowable) – this is known as the excess business holdings rules. Adhering to these legal obligations is crucial, as any violation can result in severe penalties. Such breaches may also jeopardize the foundation's ability to sustain its charitable activities by potentially leading to the loss of its tax-exempt status.


Private foundations play a vital role in philanthropy, providing a stable source of funding for various causes. Their primary mission is to support various philanthropic activities for the public good. Their ability to focus on specific areas of interest empowers individuals, families, and businesses to make a positive impact on society. Through responsible governance, ethical practices, and a commitment to their missions, private foundations continue to be pillars of philanthropy, addressing pressing social issues and shaping a better future for all.

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Foundation basics