Foundations in the United States

A foundation is a “nonprofit organization having a principal fund managed by its own trustees and directors that maintains charitable, educational, religious, or other activities serving the public good, primarily through the making of grants to other nonprofit organizations. (In addition), a foundation usually derives its principal fund from a single source, such as an individual, family, or corporation, and more often than not is a grant maker” (from the Cleveland Foundation Center Web site). This is distinct from a “public charity,” which usually gets money from the general public and conducts its own charitable activities.

Legal Materials

You can search for active private foundations through the National Center for Charitable Statistics. The Center provides basic information and posts tax returns called Form 990s. If a Form 990 is not available for a particular foundation, check the databases listed in the “Tax Returns” section of the Tax-Exempt Organizations entry.

The national organization for foundations is the Council on Foundations. For more foundation-related information, visit the Council’s Web site at

The Foundation Center is the leading source for information about foundations. The Center collects and publishes information about foundations, including information on individual foundations’ financial status and grant recipients in The Foundation 1000. Much of this information is taken from Federal and State filings that are not otherwise available to the public. In addition, a great deal of information is posted on the Foundation Center Web site. You can even order detailed profiles of the largest foundations online. Finally, the Center publishes a comprehensive list of foundations called The Foundation Directory, which is available by subscription to the Foundation Directory Online.

The Center has offices in Atlanta, Cleveland, New York, San Francisco and D.C. There is a substantial library in all five offices, which are open to the public. The Library’s online catalog and articles index, The Literature of the Nonprofit Sector ( is a great source for locating philanthropy-related books and articles.

The grants awarded by foundations are published in the Foundation Grants Index Annual and the Foundation Grants Index Quarterly. You can use these Indexes to look up grant-making foundations, individual grants, or grant recipients.

For a discussion of the tax treatment of private foundations, see Private Foundations: Tax Law and Compliance (Wiley) by Bruce Hopkins and Tax Management Portfolios #468, #473 and #876 though #880 (BNA).

Introduction to Foundations (State statute topic)

The purpose of Foundations is to provide a broad appreciation of the Foundations legal topic. Select from the list of U.S. legal topics for information (other than Foundations).


See Also

Nonprofit Organizations
Tax-Exempt Organizations

Further Reading

Foundations: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Foundations. This part provides references, in relation to Foundations, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Foundations by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Foundations and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Foundations or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Foundations and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Foundations. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Foundations should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Foundations when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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