Foundation basics

What is the difference between a public charity and a private foundation?

Under the Internal Revenue Code, public charities and private foundations collectively make up the universe of 501(c)(3) organizations. While both share the aim of advancing charitable causes, they vary significantly in funding sources, governance, and operations.

Public charities, as their name implies, are mandated to actively seek donations from a wide range of sources including the government and the general public at large. These funds support initiatives like operating homeless shelters or providing essential medical care. To effectively fulfill their mission, public charities require steady and sustained support from these channels.

In terms of governance, public charities are structured to prevent concentrated control by a closely related group, like a family. This is achieved through a crucial requirement: at least 51% of voting board members must have no familial or personal financial interests that might compromise decision-making. This assures a more diverse representation and fosters an environment of unbiased decision-making. Additionally, to better serve the community, their board composition must reflect the demographics of the population they assist.

In contrast, private foundations enjoy greater latitude for concentrated control because they can be exclusively managed by their primary donors and immediate family members. This grants a notable level of autonomy, allowing a small group or family to personally designate beneficiaries and allocate resources as they deem appropriate. Private foundations generally rely on a single-source endowment, often originating from an affluent family, as their primary financial base. Their main focus lies in providing grants to support various charitable initiatives and programs.

Regarding regulation and reporting, public charities face fewer restrictions compared to private foundations, enjoying more operational flexibility and less stringent IRS oversight. Private foundations, however, are subject to more rigorous rules and regulations, including mandatory annual payout requirements and restrictions on activities that could be perceived as self-serving (i.e., the self-dealing rules). Donors to public charities generally receive more favorable tax implications, as they can deduct a higher percentage of their contributions from their taxable income. In contrast, donations to private foundations may have more limited tax deductions for donors due to stricter rules regarding charitable deductions.

The chart below highlights some of the major differences between public charities and private foundations:

Classifications of 501(c)(3) Organizations:

All 501(c)(3) organizations are classified as either private foundations or public charities. Upon their inception, all charitable organizations are initially categorized as private foundations by default. To achieve the status of a public charity, an organization must demonstrate its eligibility to the IRS. Additionally, private foundations can be subcategorized into non-operating foundations and operating foundations. Similarly, public charities can be classified into 509(a)(1), 509(a)(2), and 509(a)(3), with a few exceptionally rare categories omitted for clarity. The chart below offers a visual representation of these classifications, effectively distinguishing between private foundations and public charities.

Subcategories of 501(c)(3) organizations:

Operating vs. Non-Operating Foundations:

Non-operating foundations: These organizations are funded by a private source and usually generate revenue from an invested endowment. Their primary function is to provide grants to other charitable organizations rather than directly operating their own programs. These foundations play a crucial role in the philanthropic ecosystem, as they allocate financial resources to support a wide range of charitable initiatives.

Prominent examples, such as the Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation, are renowned for their substantial contributions to global causes. In essence, non-operating foundations are essentially grant-making foundations, as their primary focus lies in disbursing grants to various charitable organizations.

Operating foundations: These organizations are also funded by private sources but they distinguish themselves by directly overseeing and operating charitable programs. These foundations are less common but equally important in terms of their impact. They are actively involved in the implementation and management of programs and initiatives that directly serve their chosen causes. Examples of operating foundations include non-profit research facilities, libraries, and other entities that are directly involved in providing services or conducting research for the betterment of society. These foundations often have a specific area of expertise or a unique approach to addressing social or community issues.

Public Charities: 509(a) Organizations:

509(a)(1) Organizations: These exist for the public benefit and are primarily supported by public sources such as the government, the general public, and grant-making foundations. In fact, they must receive a significant portion of their funding from public sources. They encompass what people most often think of when they hear the term “non-profit”, including churches, hunger-relief organizations, and anti-poverty organizations.

509(a)(2) Organizations: These organizations share similarities with 509(a)(1) organizations, as they both serve the public and rely significantly on contributions from the general public. However, what sets a 509(a)(2) organization apart is its capacity to generate income through activities that align with its exempt purpose. In other words, these organizations can provide services in pursuit of their charitable mission that result in substantial revenue. Museums and zoos are prime examples of such organizations.

509(a)(3) Organizations: These organizations are subordinate to and support another 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The support is often in the form of fundraising though it can extend to various other types of assistance as well. One common example of a 509(a)(3) organization is a separate endowment created to provide sustained financial support to entities like libraries, universities, and hospitals. These endowments are established with the specific purpose of generating income or providing funding for the activities and initiatives of the supported nonprofit. In addition to fundraising, 509(a)(3) organizations may engage in activities such as grant-making, advocacy, and program development to further the mission of their parent organization. They essentially act as an auxiliary force, contributing essential resources and support to enhance the impact of the primary nonprofit.


Public charities and private foundations play vital roles in the philanthropic sector, each with its unique strengths and characteristics. Public charities often have a direct impact on communities through their programs and services. Private foundations, endowed by individuals or families, possess significant resources that they allocate towards charitable causes, often through grants to other organizations. Understanding the differences between these two types of organizations enables donors and stakeholders to make informed decisions about where and how to direct their philanthropic efforts.

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