Community Foundations

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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Keeping donors interested and excited about their philanthropy is a fundamental task for a community foundation. After all, donors are your best source for additional gifts and larger “legacy” gifts in the future.

Community foundations provide donor services to achieve two main goals: to keep donors engaged (giving) and teach them how to give wisely. Beyond that, donor services can accomplish many smaller goals. Community foundations typically provide these donor services:

As needs in their communities continue to grow, community foundations recognize the importance of making the right investment decisions. That’s because good investments help attract donors, preserve the long-term purchasing power of assets, and increase the amount of money available for grantmaking.

A development plan outlines a foundation’s goals and strategies for developing resources. It explains how staff, board members, and other volunteers should focus their development efforts within a certain period (usually one or two years). A development plan also helps measure progress in the midst of a process that might take years or even decades to bring tangible results.

Frequently Asked Questions

Most community foundations operate a competitive grantmaking program that is responsive to their community—meaning they make grants in response to requests from those seeking grants. At times, however, you may ask: Is this approach the most effective use of our philanthropic dollars?

Some community foundations believe the answer is no. They spend time debating where and how their grant dollars can make the most difference. If you ask 10 different community foundations this question, you will get 10 different answers on which approach works best.

Both the board and CEO advance each foundation’s mission. They hold different responsibilities, but they need to support and balance each other.

An annual report is your foundation's report to the community—a year-end summary of your activities, a record of grants and issues funded, and a description of donor contributions. The annual report is likely your community foundation's most important public relations tool and part of your larger marketing plan. If yours is a smaller community foundation it may be the only publication you produce—and you'll want to make it count.

Community foundations have one thing in common: When it comes to administrative fee structures, no two are alike. While there is not one right answer, it is important to review and compare your foundation’s fee structure to other foundations of comparable size. Many community foundations are doing just that to streamline their own fee calculation and collection processes. In this edition, we have provided the tools and statistics you’ll need to get started.


Nonprofits place their endowment funds with community foundations for a variety of reasons, including investment expertise, efficiencies, and access to planned giving advice and services. As nonprofit organizations seek to place their assets and partner with the Foundation, questions arise as to the appropriate accounting for this relationship.

The Council on Foundations’ Foundation Management Series provides foundation boards and staff with the tools needed to benchmark their practices and operations against peers in the field. Containing data from the Council’s 2009 Foundation Management survey, the series consists of three reports: Board Composition and Compensation, Administrative and Investment Expenses, and Fiscal Oversight.

Board Composition and Compensation

Board Composition and Compensation offers findings on foundation policies regarding board compensation and diversity.

The Council on Foundations defines “international grantmaking” to include grants made by U.S. foundations and corporations to overseas recipients as well as grants made to U.S.-based organizations operating international programs. This includes grants made toward activities wholly within the Unites States that have significant international purpose and impact.

U.S. foundations and corporations interested in international grantmaking have several options: