What Is a Private Foundation?
Like public charities, private foundations are defined under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. In fact, "private foundation" is the default status given to organizations granted 501(c)(3) status.
Unlike a public charity, a private foundation typically makes donations, called grants, to other charities. It usually does not conduct its own charitable operations. Private foundations make grants either to fund an organization's general operating expenses or to fund a specific program.
They can also make grants to individuals if they follow IRS rules. The activities of a private foundation, like those of a public charity, must benefit the public in order for the foundation to maintain its tax-exempt status.
How Starting a Private Foundation Works
If you regularly donate large sums of money, you might be wondering whether you should start your own private foundation. Perhaps you see a social need that hasn't been met. Or perhaps the prestige associated with running a charitable foundation in your own name intrigues you.
- "Private foundation" is the default status given to organizations granted to tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
- Unlike a public charity, a private foundation typically makes donations, called grants, to other charities.
- A public foundation can consistently fund a select cause and provide cumulative benefits to the recipients over many years of donations.
- Starting a private foundation is much like starting any business, and requires defining your purpose; applying for tax-exempt status, licensing, and filing federal and state tax documents; and defining your organizational structure.
The most common type of foundation is the grant-making foundation. This type of private foundation is a not-for-profit organization primarily funded by one individual, married couple, family, or corporation. The private foundation's assets are called an endowment, which is invested to generate income for the foundation. The endowment is used to fund its operations and make grants.
While private foundations can be time-consuming and expensive, the thousands of individuals, families, and corporations who have established private foundations believe these sacrifices are worthwhile.
How To Start Your Own Private Foundation
How to Establish Your Foundation
First, define your private foundation's purpose and the guidelines it will follow in making its grants. This definition will guide your organization's activities and is necessary to gain tax-exempt status.
Next, decide whether to structure your foundation as a charitable trust or a nonprofit corporation. According to the Association of Small Foundations, a charitable trust can be easier to establish and operate, but may not provide the trustees with as much legal protection as a nonprofit corporation.
Nonprofit corporations have stricter operating requirements but are more common than charitable trusts since they limit personal liability and have more flexibility in how they may use their funds.
If you organize as a trust, appoint trustees. If you organize as a corporation, follow the usual steps for establishing a corporation, including writing your articles of incorporation and bylaws, naming officers and directors, and filing with the state.
Regardless of how you decide to structure your private foundation, apply for an employer identification number (EIN). The IRS requires that you have an EIN even if you don't anticipate hiring employees. This number will act as a tax identification number for your foundation as a Social Security number does for an individual.
The next step is to file organizing documents with the IRS. Fill out Form 1023, Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and prepare all of its required supporting documentation. This form asks for the basic identifying information about your foundation and how it will be organized and operated. It also requires applicants to pay a fee.
Finally, once the IRS approves your tax-exempt status, file any additional required paperwork to obtain tax-exempt status from your state.
Benefits of Having a Private Foundation
If you want to contribute to a good cause, the easiest way to do it is to write a check. So why do tens of thousands of people go to the trouble of starting up and operating private foundations?
For one, a foundation can consistently fund a select cause and provide cumulative benefits to the recipients over many years of donations. So, people starting a foundation are often seeking permanence, according to Exponent Philanthropy, formerly called the Association of Small Foundations.
Some families start foundations to create a legacy, according to Exponent Philanthropy. A foundation established in a loved one's name can honor that individual even after they have passed away. Establishing a foundation in a family name can also encourage family members to participate in a common—and often bonding—cause.
Tax benefits are another reason for starting a private foundation. When organized as a 501(c)(3), private foundations are tax exempt. They can collect contributions of cash and appreciated property without paying taxes on those contributions, and the contributors can claim their donations as tax deductions (with some restrictions).
To qualify for the tax exemption, the foundation's purpose must be charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, foster national or international amateur sports, or prevent cruelty to children or animals. The foundation may assist the poor, advance education, or maintain a public building.
The IRS defines three key differences between a public charity and a private foundation. Private foundations must:
- Make grants worth at least 5% of the foundation's investment assets each year.
- Must provide grants only to other nonprofits (though under some circumstances it is possible to make grants to individuals, such as for educational scholarships).
- Must pay a 1% to 2% excise tax on the organization's investment assets.
Is Your Own Foundation Worth the Trouble?
Setting up your private foundation is a lot of work. So is maintaining it, which entails following IRS rules. Your foundation must avoid prohibited activities, which the IRS defines as:
- Allowing more than an insubstantial accrual of benefits, including non-monetary benefits, to individuals or organizations
- Allowing income or assets to accrue to insiders (for example, paying an unreasonable salary to an officer, director, or key employee)
- Participating in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office, including making campaign contributions and making official public statements
Your foundation also must limit restricted activities, which the IRS defines as:
- Self-dealing with disqualified persons (defined as substantial contributors, foundation managers, and certain other related persons)
- Investment activity that might jeopardize the carrying out of exempt purposes
- Lobbying or attempting to influence legislation through actions or spending
Both the foundation and any entity that improperly benefits from a prohibited or restricted activity may face taxes and penalties for violating these rules. The foundation could even lose its tax-exempt status.
Running a private foundation also entails many of the same responsibilities and expenses as running a business. You must keep records, file annual tax returns using Form 990-PF (a detailed, 13-page document), and hire and manage employees (who may be your family members).
Most people should hire legal and accounting professionals to handle startup and ongoing regulatory and compliance matters like bookkeeping, tax preparation, and corporate filings. Many aspects of starting and running a private foundation are governed by complex rules and/or require specialized knowledge.
How much money do you need to donate for it to be worth the effort to start and maintain a foundation? There is no hard-and-fast rule here, but most family foundations have assets of at least a few hundred thousand dollars, according to the Council on Foundations.
If you're not sure whether a private foundation is the most effective way to meet your philanthropic goals, however, you can always engage in simpler alternatives to giving like writing a check to your favorite nonprofit, donating your time, or contributing to a donor advised fund.