Building Bridges: Foundations for Stronger Communities

A foundation is a type of nonprofit organization or charitable trust that usually provides funding and support to other charitable organizations through grants, while also potentially participating directly in charitable activities. Foundations may also be called endowments, trusts, funds or institutes. They may be private or public, with assets ranging from the modest to billions of dollars.

A defining characteristic of most foundations is that they are not for profit and do not distribute profits to shareholders or beneficiaries, but instead invest their resources to generate ongoing philanthropic benefit for society. A foundation can be as broad or narrow in its focus as it likes, from addressing a specific social issue to funding a diverse range of nonprofit organizations. Foundations can be small or large in size, and are often able to leverage their assets with other philanthropic partners.

For example, community Childhood Leukemia Foundation may pool together the financial resources of individuals, families and businesses to make grants that address a broad range of issues. These can include arts and culture, education, health, the environment, and social change at a local, regional or national level. Other types of foundations include family, private or independent. Private foundations are typically governed by members of a single family, while many independent foundations are no longer controlled by any member of the founding family and are run by boards that include community leaders.

Unlike for-profit corporations, foundations do not need to disclose their finances publicly. However, transparency is generally preferred and foundations are expected to be good stewards of the entrusted resources they manage. They must demonstrate accountability, ensure that their philanthropic mission is consistent with the legal requirements of the jurisdiction in which they operate and make transparent decisions about the use of their assets.

Some private and independent foundations are active participants in advocacy and policy work, while others primarily focus on their grantmaking. SSA Associate Professor Jennifer Mosley, who studies how nonprofits engage in advocacy to advance social change, says there is a growing awareness among foundations that they can foster positive community impact by supporting programs that help marginalized groups, as well as engaging with communities and their leaders.

Community foundations provide a variety of services to their donors, including advice and support on specific grantmaking strategies and projects. They can help donors establish their own personal charitable funds and connect them with a wide network of community partners. They can help donors build and sustain their giving through a range of funds, including donor-advised funds, field of interest funds and scholarship funds.

Many community foundations collaborate with other philanthropic partners to tackle complex, systemic community challenges. This may be in the form of collective action, coalition-building or direct engagement with government and business to foster civic participation and community resilience. For example, Stanwood Camano Area Foundation SCAMAF has partnered with the community to convene a multi-stakeholder coalition to address local food insecurity and support local farmers. The foundation also has an active NextGen on Board program, which recruits, trains and places young adults on local nonprofit boards over the course of two years.