Foundation (United States law)
A foundation in the United States is a type of charitable organization. However, the Internal Revenue Code distinguishes between private foundations (usually funded by an individual, family, or corporation) and public charities (community foundations and other nonprofit groups that raise money from the general public). Private foundations have more restrictions and fewer tax benefits than public charities like community foundations.
The two most famous philanthropists of the Gilded Age pioneered the sort of large-scale private philanthropy of which foundations are a modern pillar: John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. The businessmen each accumulated private wealth at a scale previously unknown outside of royalty, and each in their later years decided to give much of it away. Carnegie gave away the bulk of his fortune in the form of one-time gifts to build libraries and museums before divesting almost the entirety of his remaining fortune in the Carnegie Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Rockefeller followed suit (notably building the University of Chicago) and gave nearly half of his fortune to create the Rockefeller Foundation.
Meanwhile in 1914, Fredrick Goff, a well-known banker at the Cleveland Trust Company, sought to eliminate the "dead hand" of organized philanthropy and so created the first community foundation in Cleveland. He created a corporately structured foundation that could utilize community gifts in a responsive and need-appropriate manner. Scrutiny and control resided in the "live hand" of the public as opposed to the "dead hand" of the founders of private foundations.
Starting at the end of World War II, the United States's high top income tax rates spurred a burst of foundations and trusts being created, of which many were simply tax shelters. President Harry S. Truman publicly raised this issue in 1950, resulting in the passage later that year of a federal law that established new rigor and definition to the practice. The law did not go very far in regulating tax-exempt foundations, however, a fact which was made obvious throughout the rest of that decade as the foundation-as-tax-refuge model continued to be propagated by financial advisors to wealthy families and individuals. Several attempts at passing a more complete type of reform during the 1960s culminated in the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which remains the controlling legislation in the United States. For more details on that legislative history, see .
In the United States, an entity with "foundation" in its name would generally be expected in most cases to be a charitable foundation. However, an organization may have the word "foundation" in its name and not be a charitable foundation of any sort. However, state law may impose restrictions. For example, Michigan permits its use only for nonprofits with "the purpose of receiving and administering funds for perpetuation of the memory of persons, preservation of objects of historical or natural interest, educational, charitable, or religious purposes, or public welfare." The distinction between charitable organizations and non-profit organizations elaborates on this point.
The Internal Revenue Code defines many kinds of non-profit organizations which do not pay income tax. However, only charitable organizations can receive tax-deductible contributions and avoid paying property and sales tax. For instance, a donor would receive a tax deduction for money given to a local soup kitchen if the organization was classified as a 501(c)(3) organization, but not for giving money to the National Football League, even though the NFL is a 501(c)(6) non-profit association. Neither a public charity nor a foundation can pay for or participate in partisan political activity, unless they surrender tax-exempt status including voiding the deductibility of any tax deductions for donors after the surrender or revocation date.
Tax-exempt charitable organizations fall into two categories: public charities and private foundations. A community foundation is a public charity. The US Tax Code in 26 USCA 509 governs private foundations. Meanwhile 26 USCA 501(c)(3) governs public charities.
Community foundations are instruments of civil society designed to pool donations into a coordinated investment and grant-making facility dedicated primarily to the social improvement of a given place. In other words, a community foundation is like a public foundation. This type of foundation requires community representation in the governing board and grants made to improve the community. Often there will be a city that has a community foundation where the governing board comprises many leaders of the business, religious, and local interests. Such grants that the community foundation would then make would have to benefit the people of that city.
Express public involvement and oversight in community foundations allow their classification as public charities rather than private foundations.
Private foundations typically have a single major source of funding (usually gifts from one family or corporation rather than funding from many sources) and most have as their primary activity the making of grants to other charitable organizations and to individuals, rather than the direct operation of charitable programs. When a person or a corporation founds a private foundation frequently family members of that person or agents of the corporation are members of the governing board. This limits public scrutiny over the private foundation, which entails unfavorable treatment compared to community foundations.
The differing treatment of private foundations compared to public charities including community foundations is as follows: (a) foundation must pay out 5% of its assets each year while a public charity does not; (b) donors to a public charity receive greater tax benefits than donors to a foundation; (c) a public charity must collect at least 10% of its annual expenses from the public in order to remain tax-exempt while a foundation does not.
Operating and non-operating
For tax purposes, there are a few variants of private foundation. The material difference is between "operating" foundations and "grant-making" foundations. Operating foundations use their endowment to achieve their goals directly. Grant-making foundations use their endowment to make grants to other organizations, which indirectly carry out the goals of the foundation. Operating foundations have preferential tax treatment in a few areas, including allowing individual donors to contribute more of their income and allowing grant-making foundation contributions to count towards the 5% minimum distribution requirement.
The Tax Reform Act of 1969 defined the fundamental social contract offered to private foundations. In exchange for exemption from paying most taxes and for limited tax benefits being offered to donors, a private foundation must (a) pay out at least 5% of the value of its endowment each year, none of which may be to the private benefit of any individual; (b) not own or operate significant for-profit businesses; (c) file detailed public annual reports and conduct annual audits in the same manner as a for-profit corporation; (d) meet a suite of additional accounting requirements unique to nonprofits.
Administrative and operating expenses count towards the 5% requirement; they range from trivial at small unstaffed foundations, to more than half a percent of the endowment value at larger staffed ones. Congressional proposals to exclude those costs from the payout requirement typically receive much attention during boom periods when foundation endowments are earning investment returns much greater than 5% (such as the late 1990s); the idea typically fades when foundation endowments are shrinking in a down market (such as 2001-2003).
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- MCL 450.2212(3)
- Council on Foundations Guide to Tax Treatment of Charities (pdf)
- Council on Foundations overview of Foundation Basics
- IRS Overview of Types of Foundations