From Dreams to Reality: Establishing Scholarship Programs for Private Foundations

by: Kyle Anderson
July 27, 2023
Cap and Gown Celebration

Operating scholarship programs can be a worthwhile endeavor for private foundations, offering the opportunity to positively impact the lives of deserving students in need of financial assistance. Nonetheless, it demands meticulous planning and strict adherence to IRS regulations to ensure the program's success and compliance. Unlike grants to individuals aimed at disaster relief or economic distress, scholarship programs necessitate explicit approval from the IRS, except when scholarships are awarded through reputable third parties such as high schools or community organizations.

Here's a walkthrough of the general steps to create and manage a scholarship program that remains objective, nondiscriminatory, and compliant with IRS rules:

Step 1: Review Governing Documents

Before proceeding, carefully review your foundation's governing documents, including articles of incorporation and bylaws, to ensure they allow grants to be awarded to individuals. If they don't, you'll need to make the necessary amendments to enable the implementation of the scholarship program. Additionally, you must seek IRS approval to operate the program. Interestingly, some foundations may already have obtained IRS approval during their initial application for tax-exemption with the IRS on Form 1023. The IRS responds to this form with a determination letter that may grant approval to operate a scholarship program. If your foundation hasn't received this approval yet, you'll need to formally petition the IRS for permission.

Step 2: Design Your Scholarship Program

To comply with IRS guidelines, the scholarships must align with specific requirements. They should be exclusively directed towards educational purposes, avoiding any involvement in political or non-charitable activities. Moreover, it is essential to ensure that the scholarships do not benefit insiders of the foundation, such as managers, substantial contributors, and their family members. While gender-specific awards are allowed, race-based criteria will be subjected to close scrutiny by the IRS. Craft well-defined guidelines for your program, keeping flexibility in mind to maximize its potential. Clearly specify eligibility criteria, such as minimum standardized test scores, academic achievement, financial need, or participation in specific activities. Establishing a selection committee and defining their relationship to the foundation will also contribute to a well-structured and effective program.

Step 3: Seek IRS Approval

Once your scholarship program is fully designed, you can seek IRS approval by submitting a detailed letter outlining your intended procedures for selecting and monitoring scholarship recipients. Remember, obtaining IRS approval is crucial, as failure to do so could lead to significant excise taxes for the foundation. As mentioned earlier, some foundations may attain this approval while applying for their original tax-exempt status with the IRS on Form 1023.

Step 4: Make Awards and Monitor Recipients

With IRS approval in hand, your foundation can begin awarding and closely monitoring scholarships. It's imperative to maintain comprehensive records for each recipient, including their name, address, award amount, grant purpose, and the criteria used to select them. Year-end grades or progress reports from educational institutions should be verified to ensure the proper use of the funds. Additionally, documenting the relationship between recipients and any disqualified persons associated with the foundation is essential to maintain transparency and compliance.

Step 5: Reporting and Compliance

To maintain compliance with IRS regulations, information regarding the foundation's scholarship program must be included in its annual tax return on Form 990-PF. This form should contain details such as the total number of scholarships awarded, the overall scholarship amount granted, and the criteria employed in selecting recipients. While individual names and addresses of recipients are not required on Form 990-PF, keeping records of this information is vital for the foundation's internal documentation and potential audits. These records should be retained for at least three years after the last reporting on Form 990-PF. Furthermore, if the grant includes payments for room, board, or travel expenses, additional reporting may be necessary to ensure comprehensive and accurate reporting.

Step 6: Handling Issues with Grantees

In the event that a grantee fails to comply with reporting requirements, misuses funds, or becomes ineligible, the foundation must conduct a thorough investigation. During this period, payments should be suspended until the issue is satisfactorily resolved, safeguarding the integrity of the scholarship program.

Establishing a scholarship program for your private foundation is a noble initiative that can positively impact the lives of many individuals. By following IRS guidelines and maintaining proper records, you can ensure your foundation's compliance and create a fair and successful scholarship program that leaves a lasting legacy for the future.

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