Community foundations occasionally receive a request for money back from donors of advised funds and organizations that have established designated funds or agency endowments. This article discusses why the proper answer is a firm "no"—and some polite ways to communicate the community foundation's policies. The community foundation need not and should not refund donors' and designees' funds, and it should be clear from the start of any relationship that transfers to the community foundation are irrevocable.
Community foundations are grantmaking public charities that are dedicated to improving the lives of people in a defined local geographic area. They bring together the financial resources of individuals, families, and businesses to support effective nonprofits in their communities. Community foundations vary widely in asset size, ranging from less than $100,000 to more than $1.7 billion.
Community foundations play a key role in identifying and solving community problems. In 2011, they gave an estimated $4.3 billion to a variety of nonprofit activities in fields that included the arts and education, health and human services, the environment, and disaster relief. The Community Foundations National Standards Board confirms operational excellence in six key areas—mission, structure, and governance; resource development; stewardship and accountability; grantmaking and community leadership; donor relations; and communications. Foundations that comply with these standards can display the official National Standards Seal. Right now nearly 500 community foundations have earned the seal.
More than 750 community foundations operate in urban and rural areas in every state in the United States; currently, more than 570 belong to the Council on Foundations. The community foundation model also has taken hold around the world. According to the 2010 Community Foundation Global Status Report, there are 1,680 community foundations in 51 countries. Forty-six percent exist outside of the United States. You can use our Community Foundation Locator to view a list of community foundations in the United States.
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Community foundations are often faced with requests from donors or local volunteers who wish to express their support by raising money for the community foundation or for a particular fund. Allowing individuals or a group of volunteers to engage in fundraising activities on behalf of the community foundation (a practice called donor-initiated fundraising) can be a great way to increase foundation assets and boost name recognition in the community. However, this approach to fundraising also comes with risks.
A donor is considering starting a fund at the community foundation using a piece of jewelry instead of a cash gift. The jewelry cost her $1,000 (35 years ago) and is now worth $20,000. May the community foundation accept the gift? What documentation must the community foundation prepare? From the donor’s perspective, how does a gift of tangible personal property differ from a gift of cash or securities?
There is always the temptation, particularly among newly established community foundations, to accept any type of contribution. When a contribution consists of property other than cash, however, it must be determined if it is in the community foundation’s best interests to accept such property. Are there material restrictions or other significant liabilities associated with the property so that the community foundation should decline the contribution?
Raising money for community needs is the central function of community foundations. No surprise, then, that we receive more questions about fundraising than about any other topic. Following are some common inquiries we receive by telephone and e-mail and the replies we give.
Documents for Donors
Q: What sort of documentation does the foundation need to provide to donors?
Lawyers rarely tell foundation managers, "Relax, don’t worry so much!" But in the case of "tipping," that’s been our advice for more than 10 years. What is the so-called "tipping problem" and why are so many foundations (still) so worried about it?
Good relationships between grantmakers and grantees promote more effective philanthropy. But there's nothing that can mess up a good partnership faster than an overzealous lawyer. In seeking to protect their foundation clients, lawyers can sometimes impose excessive requirements on grantees, forcing them to spend unnecessary time and money. While grantmakers should always pay attention to their lawyers' advice, here are some legal recommendations you might want to question.
Requiring grantees to "re-certify" tax-exempt status
After September 11, 2001, many grantmakers and other charitable organizations that were not previously familiar with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), learned of its existence. As one of the key U.S. government agencies seeking to shut down terrorism funding around the world, OFAC has focused attention on charities as one mechanism for providing financial support to terrorists. As a result, grantmakers and others have dedicated more time and effort to OFAC compliance.
In an effort to ensure that charitable resources are used exclusively for charitable purposes and not used to support terrorist activity, organizations may choose to adopt practices in addition to those explicitly required by law. Among the practices that some charities choose to adopt is including language in their grant agreements requiring grantees to certify that they do not and will not knowingly provide material support to any individual or entity furthering terrorist activities.
Can we back out of a multiyear commitment we made in a prior year because our foundation’s assets have declined?
The answer in many cases is “no.” That is, unless your grantee is willing to release your foundation from its obligation.
Generally, an unconditional, multiyear grant is considered a pledge to the grantee organization. In many states, a pledge is a legally binding obligation. Therefore, your grantee could seek to take you to court should you stop paying the grant.