Starting a Foundation: A Step-by-Step Guide

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October 16, 2023

Last Updated:

October 16, 2023

Are you interested in making a lasting positive impact on something you believe in within society? Establishing and managing a foundation is an effective way to mobilize your resources

This is not an easy endeavor, and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight, but creating a foundation could be incredibly rewarding.

This article will explore the step-by-step process of how to start a foundation. It will also delve deeper into the confusing “5% rule” and explain some best practices.

Let’s get started!

What Is a Nonprofit Foundation?

What Is a Nonprofit Foundation
A foundation is a nonprofit organization or trust that provides funding (usually in the form of grants) to a particular cause. These grants almost always go to other nonprofit organizations to support charitable programs and initiatives.

Both public charities and private foundations hold 501(c)3 IRS status. However, public charities receive a greater portion of their financial support from the public.

Private foundations are generally started and financially supported by individuals, couples (think of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), families, or even corporations.

In general,

  • private non-operating foundations support charitable causes monetarily but don’t carry out the operations for those causes themselves (like a public charity might).
  • They provide funding to other nonprofits that carry out charitable causes for society.

What Are the Benefits of Starting a Foundation?

What Are the Benefits of Starting a Foundation

Before we explain how to start a foundation, let’s spend some time going over some of the benefits and advantages of doing so.

Making a Positive Impact on Society


Starting a foundation can be a great way to make a positive impact on your community and society in general.

For example, maybe you have a deep passion for helping stray animals.

  • You could start a foundation that specifically donates money to organizations that help find homes for abandoned cats and dogs.
  • As long as you have the grant money available, you can distribute it to specific organizations that share in your passion and cause.

The Coca-Cola Foundation is a good example of a foundation that has made a huge impact. Over the years, the foundation has allocated more than $94 million to more than 300 organizations around the world:

The Coca-Cola Foundation

However, you don’t have to be a multi-million or billion-dollar organization to start a foundation and help society.

Individuals and families also start foundations to leave a legacy for either themselves or someone they love.

For example, if your grandfather died of cancer, you could start a foundation that supports nonprofit organizations that work with cancer research in his name. That way, you are honoring your loved one while also helping others.

Gaining Tax Advantages and Financial Incentives


Private foundations qualify as a 501(c)3 organization with the IRS, which means your foundation will be exempt from taxes. So, the contributions you receive can be allocated to causes you care about, removing a lot of the tax burden.

Not only that, but you can entice potential donors with tax advantages—they can claim their donations as tax deductions on their Form 1040. Just be aware that your private foundation must benefit the public in one of the following ways in order to be considered “private”:

  • Educational
  • Religious
  • Scientific
  • Testing for public safety
  • Literary
  • Prevent cruelty to animals
  • Promote national or international amateur sports

You will need to submit IRS Form 1023 to ensure the federal government considers your foundation as tax-exempt.

This form can get complicated, so you may want to find an expert or professional in tax law to help you so that you complete it correctly and receive your 501(c)3 determination letter from the IRS.

Enhancing Personal and Corporate Branding


Probably the main benefit of starting a foundation is being able to support an endeavor that you are passionate about.

When you have your own foundation, you control exactly where the grants and funding are going. You can directly support initiatives that you care about and that are important to you personally.

An added bonus is that this support can enhance your personal or corporate reputation.

For example, The Ford Motor Company started the “Ford Foundation” in 1936 to support public welfare, education, and scientific advancement.

Ford Foundation

This long-running foundation has also enhanced the corporate branding of the car manufacturer.

Pro Tip: If you are looking for corporate grants to support your nonprofit, check out this guide on how to tailor your grant proposals to fit their funding needs.

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Preparing to Launch a Foundation

Preparing to Launch a Foundation

Now that you know what a foundation is and the benefits of starting one, you should understand that launching a foundation can be a laborious process.

Fortunately, there are some ways you can prepare to make the process more streamlined.

What Are the Key Considerations Before Starting a Foundation?


Before starting a foundation, you should have a clear understanding of your assets.

  • How much money do you have to start your foundation
  • How will you maintain the incoming funds?
  • You will need someone you trust to help you budget your foundation’s money, adhere to the 5% rule in allocating grants (to be discussed more below), and understand all of the IRS legalities.

You will also need to determine who will actually run the foundation (whether that is you or someone you trust).

What Is the Required Amount to Establish a Private Foundation?


There is no set amount needed to establish a private foundation. It really just depends on how much money your endowment fund needs to generate an adequate amount of investment income to fund your chosen grants.

Most foundations will start off with anywhere from several hundred thousand dollars to millions of dollars. However, you need to understand how you can maintain this funding so that you can use it to help your community.

There are also costs associated with filing your 501c(3) status and maintaining the IRS requirements. However, you can actually fundraise from the public to support these costs.

If you are establishing a corporate foundation, some of the funding could even come from the corporation itself.

A Step-by-step Guide: How to Start a Foundation

How to Start a Foundation

It’s finally time to explain how to start a foundation. We will give you a step-by-step guide to ensure you understand the best practices, potential challenges, and how to navigate through them.

Define Your Purpose and Mission


The first step to starting your foundation is defining your purpose and mission. Your purpose and mission will guide your foundation’s activities to ensure your grant monies are supporting the right causes and organizations.

In order to do this, you should ask yourself these two questions:

  • Why are you starting your foundation in the first place?
  • What urgent social need is your foundation supporting?

Once you answer the questions above, you can develop a clear and concise (and memorable!) mission statement.

A good example of a clear and straightforward mission statement is from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

Gates Foundation

Choose Your Foundation Structure


Your purpose and mission of your foundation are clear, so now you need to choose your foundation structure. You can set up your foundation as a trust or a nonprofit 501(c)3.

In the end, they both have their pros and cons:

  • Trusts have less regulations, so they are usually easier to establish and manage. On the downside, they may also provide less legal protection to your appointed trustees.
  • Nonprofit organizations have more regulations—you need bylaws, articles of incorporation, officers, directors, etc. But, they also offer more protection from any liabilities that may arise. This is why nonprofits are usually more common than trusts.

Acquire Necessary Identification and Legal Standing


To attain your 501(c)3 status at the federal level, you will need to apply for an employer identification number (EIN) through the IRS. This number is basically the social security number for your foundation and identifies it on all tax forms.

You will also need to fill out Form 1023: Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)3 for your tax-exempt status.

In addition to the federal IRS requirements, you will want to check your state to see what requirements they have for filing your foundation at that level as well.

Draft a Foundation Charter


The foundation charter is a critical part of establishing your foundation.

In general, your foundation’s charter should include:

  • An overview of your foundation. Why did you decide to create your foundation?
  • An outline of the scope and the purpose of your foundation.
  • The amount of assets and capital that have been endowed to the foundation.
  • The key stakeholders.

You will also need to finalize the proper name of your foundation, the location of your headquarters, and the overall management structure.

Remember that you should take your time developing your charter so that it can help guide your foundation moving forward.

Establish a Board of Directors


You will also want to establish your Board of Directors with individuals you trust to ensure your foundation’s mission will be met.

Board members will represent your foundation in important social circles, so you want to make sure they are credible and can connect with other leaders in the community. In addition, they need to have the same passion for your mission as you do.

The IRS requires that a nonprofit has at least three board members and expects that the board meets at least once a year (although we suggest meeting at least every quarter). A board member's term may run anywhere from one to five years typically.

As the head of your foundation, you should also have a presence on the Board of Directors. Then, you should surround yourself with colleagues and influential people who are also passionate about your mission and cause.

Develop a Fundraising and Operations Strategy


You have probably already started with seed money or an endowment, but those funds only go so far. You will need to have a fundraising and operations strategy to ensure that your foundation can continue running.

Many foundations operate off of investment income, though you can also engage in fundraising strategies to raise money for your cause.

Your operations strategy will structure how your funds are distributed and what goals should be prioritized over others.

Diving Deeper: Understanding the 5% Rule

Understanding the 5% Rule for Foundations

Have you ever heard of the 5% rule for foundations? We will explain what it is and how it works below!

What Is the 5% Rule for Foundations?

Once you receive tax-exempt status from the IRS, they will require your foundation to essentially “payout” monies in charitable grants that are at least 5% of the foundation’s annual assets. If you don’t, you could lose your tax-exempt status.

It might be difficult to ascertain how much this number is each year; therefore, we recommend working with a tax or accounting professional to determine what amount of funds meets this 5% rule.

Why 5%? This was an agreed-upon number way back in 1969 when lawmakers passed the Tax Reform Act. Essentially, they figured private foundations could sustain permanence (i.e., last forever), while also ensuring they meet their mission’s needs and benefit society.

Why Is the 5% Rule Important for Foundation Sustainability?


The 5% rule is important to your foundation’s sustainability because it will guide how much you donate during your fiscal year through what the IRS calls a “payout.” This payout includes two things:

  1. The amount of grants that are approved and paid to qualifying 501(c)3 organizations.
  2. The amount of eligible expenses incurred by your foundation (what expenses are needed to carry out your charitable activities).

Remember that the 5% is a minimum; that is, most foundations choose to distribute more than the 5% each year to better help their communities.

Best Practices for Running a Successful Foundation

Best Practices for Running a Successful Foundation

Finally, let’s go over some recommendations and tried-and-tested strategies that should help you run a successful foundation.

Establishing Clear Mission and Vision Statements


You must be very clear about what you want your foundation to do and who exactly you want to help.

Remember, the mission and vision statements will guide everything you do. Knowing exactly what you want to accomplish will make it easier to make a positive impact.

Ensuring Effective Governance and Leadership


Your foundation should have a strong leadership base.

Make sure that you Board of Directors and your foundation’s leadership team are committed to your mission and passionate about your cause.

You can check out this list of 11 board member responsibilities for more insight into nonprofit leadership and governance.

Fostering Transparency and Accountability


You also want to make sure your foundation is financially transparent and accountable.

That is, people who donate to your foundation want to make sure their monies are being used responsibly and going to the cause you promised.

Now, foundations do need to file Form 990 (if you are unsure which 990, the IRS discusses the different types here), which are public documents detailing how you spend your money for your tax-exempt status. These forms are another great way to ensure you are staying accountable to the public.

Engaging With Stakeholders and the Community Effectively


As a foundation, it’s important to engage with your community effectively.

Participate in other philanthropic activities, start your own events, or even promote your foundation through social media.

It’s important for your community and your foundation’s stakeholders to be engaged with your mission and want to support your cause.

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Wrapping Up: The Next Steps

Starting a Foundation

Creating a foundation can be one of the most rewarding things you can do with your money and time. You can create a legacy for yourself or someone you love, while also helping society.

However, establishing a foundation can be a lengthy and detailed process—but it’s worth the time and effort. Up next, pair this article with a rundown on the different types of grants that you can offer. Then, watch how a grantor reviews grants from nonprofits seeking funding.

Stephanie Paul Morrow

Stephanie Morrows holds a Ph.D. in Media and Communications and is a professor at PennState Harrisburg.

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