Independent Foundations

Private foundations make grants based on charitable endowments. The endowment funds come from one or a small handful of sources -- an individual, a family or a corporation. Because of their endowments, they are focused primarily on grantmaking and generally do not raise funds or seek public financial support the way public charities (like community foundations) must.

Private independent foundations are distinct from private family or corporate foundations in that an independent foundation is not governed by the benefactor, the benefactor’s family or a corporation. Of the largest private foundations in the United States, most are independent foundations, although they may have begun as family foundations or were converted from corporate foundations. There is no official IRS or legal definition of independent foundations, so it is difficult to arrive at statistics that are fully representative of the field.

Below is everything on our site for independent foundations. You can use the filtering options on the right to narrow these results.

Tax-exempt organizations must make annual returns and exemption applications filed with the IRS available for public inspection and copying upon request. In addition, the IRS makes these documents available. These FAQS relate to the public disclosure and availability of documents filed by tax-exempt organizations with the IRS.

Can we pay our board members? Should we?

Always a controversial topic, the issue of whether to pay foundation board members is likely to get even more attention. The precipitous decline in foundation assets has everyone trying to make the most effective use of their resources. Expect the media, regulators, general public, and even your grantees to scrutinize the decisions you make.

The Internal Revenue Code provides excise tax penalties that can be imposed by the Internal Revenue Service whenever unreasonable or excessive compensation is paid to high-level employees of charitable organizations.

The Council receives numerous inquiries each year about the amount of compensation paid to directors or trustees (members of the governing board) of foundations. Since 1969, board members of private foundations have been subject to excise tax penalties for receiving unreasonable compensation. In 1996, Congress passed the “intermediate sanction” rules that enable the Internal Revenue Service to apply similar penalties for excessive compensation paid by public charities.

Practice 1. The board (and investment committee and staff, if any) of a foundation should understand and fulfill their respective fiduciary responsibilities and duties under applicable law and the governing documents of the foundation and stay informed regarding any relevant changes in law, duties, or responsibilities.

Practice Tips:

The Council's Board of Directors released this guidance memorandum in March 2010 and strongly recommends that when reviewing and approving foundation investment policies and procedures practices, all foundations—private and public-consider these best practices in foundation investment management.

Things to do NOW – “An Ounce of Prevention...”

Grantmakers searching for more detailed information about the charitable status of their potential grantees may find the answers they need in the IRS’ Select Check tool.

This IRS online search tool allows the user to:

(1) search the IRS public charity list, known as IRS Publication 78, for data to determine if an organization is charitable,

(2) determine if an organization has filed a Form 990-N (required for smaller charities), or

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