Public Foundations

Public foundations are grantmaking public charities that gain their funds from a variety of sources, which may include foundations, individuals, corporations, or public entities. Public foundations may engage in fundraising, and may seek broad public financial support. They may or may not have endowments. There is no legal definition of a public foundation, but most dedicate a significant portion of their annual budgets to grantmaking. Most community foundations are also grantmaking public charities.

Since public foundations may be defined in different ways, and there is no official IRS or legal definition of public foundations, it is difficult to arrive at statistics that are fully representative of the field.

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

This list highlights some of the ways that private foundations and public charities (including community foundations) may engage in public policy without lobbying. Public charities have further flexibility and may engage in lobbying activities not described below.

1.Direct communications with legislators or their staff about a general issue of concern. To use this lobbying exception these direct communications may not either refer to specific legislation or legislative proposal, or if specific legislation or proposal is referenced, no view may be expressed on such legislation.  

Grantmakers can legally participate in the political process by following guidelines established by the IRS. Here are some tips.

The Treasury regulations that limit lobbying make no specific reference to community foundations. Thus, the rules generally applicable to all public charities apply to community foundations, and those rules will differ accordingly depending upon whether or not a community foundation has elected to be treated by the "expenditure test."

If the community foundation elects, all actions excluded from the lobbying definition may be carried out in-house by a community foundation without fear of any legal violation, and the special exceptions to the lobbying rules will apply.

Sabbaticals are not too uncommon in the nonprofit world for foundation executives or senior management. It can be a useful time to reflect on past accomplishments, revitalize, and gain renewed inspiration for future work. Sabbaticals for board members likewise can have similar positive effects but should be approached with care.

When to Think Twice

Directors & Officers liability insurance provides financial protection for a foundation and its directors, officers, employees, and volunteers in the event of a lawsuit.

Under the rules applicable to private foundations, directors or trustees and staff members may be reimbursed for reasonable and necessary expenses incurred in connection with the foundation's charitable activities. Such expenditures fall under the heading of administrative costs and will generally count toward the foundation's minimum distribution requirement, or payout.

What do you do when a grantee—or potential grantee—asks someone on your board or staff to sit on their board? Does such a request constitute a conflict of interest? Are there times when such a situation can actually benefit one or both of the organizations involved?

Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of sharing board members.

Many foundation board members wear more than one philanthropic hat. In addition to serving on the board of a grantmaker, they may also serve on the boards of grantseeking charities—or even on their staffs. Several issues may arise when board members find themselves on both sides of a grant request.

In the May/June 1998 issue of Foundation News & Commentary, Jane Nober wrote "That's the Ticket"  about using foundation funds to pay for tickets to fundraising events. Six years later, questions about tickets and other tangible benefits paid for by the foundation are still among the most common inquiries received by the Council on Foundations' legal department. We thought it would be helpful to review the basic rules for private foundations and highlight some recent questions we've answered.