What is a foundation?

Please be aware that "foundation" is not a legal term. If an organization has the word in its name, do not assume it makes grants.

Broadly speaking, a foundation is a nonprofit corporation or a charitable trust that makes grants to organizations, institutions, or individuals for charitable purposes such as science, education, culture, and religion.

There are two foundation types: private foundations and grantmaking public charities.

  • A private foundation’s money comes from a family, an individual, or a corporation. An example of a private foundation is the Ford Foundation. Private foundations must meet a "payout requirement," meaning they have to give away a certain amount of their assets every year. That's why when you're looking for potential funders in our database, Foundation Directory Online, the private foundations you see are all active grantmakers.
  • A grantmaking public charity (sometimes called a "public foundation") gets its money from many different sources, such as foundations, individuals, and government agencies. An example of a grantmaking public charity is the Save the Children Federation. Most community foundations are also grantmaking public charities.

All U.S. tax-exempt organizations submit annual filings to the IRS. Private foundations file Form 990-PF; public foundations file Form 990, like other public charities. These filings are public documents and have valuable information about an organization's finances, board members, and key employees.

Private foundations must list all grants paid in that year. Some public foundations will list their grants voluntarily. Find out more about how this information can help you find grants.

For more details about the different types of foundations and their history, watch or attend Introduction to Finding Grants, our free class offered in-person or online.

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Topic(s) Foundation Giving Government Giving

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