Foundations and charities are crucial in addressing social issues and promoting charitable causes. 

While the terms “foundation” and charity are often used interchangeably, they have distinct characteristics and legal implications. 

Understanding the difference between them is essential for individuals, organizations, and philanthropists aiming to impact society positively.

This comprehensive guide will explore the definitions, characteristics, funding sources, and real-life examples of foundations and charities. 

By the end, you’ll clearly understand the nuances between these two entities and be better equipped to make informed decisions regarding your philanthropic endeavors.


Definition and Characteristics

A foundation is a legal entity created to support charitable purposes. It is typically established by an individual, a family, or a group of individuals intending to provide funding and resources for a specific cause. Foundations are independent entities and can operate indefinitely, even beyond the lifetimes of their founders.

Foundations are known for their dedication to long-term philanthropic initiatives. They often have substantial endowments, which are invested to generate income. This income is then used to fund charitable activities, such as grants, scholarships, research, and community development projects.

Types of Foundations

1. Private Foundations

Private foundations are primarily funded by a single individual, family, or corporation. They are often established using personal funds or endowments, and their operations are typically controlled by the founders or their designated trustees. Private foundations have more flexibility in choosing charitable activities and can focus on specific causes or communities.

2. Public Foundations

Public foundations, also known as public charities, rely on funding from multiple sources, including government grants, corporate sponsorships, and individual donations. 

They have a broader support base and are often accountable to a larger community. Public foundations generally engage in a wider range of charitable activities and may distribute grants to other nonprofit organizations.

Funding Sources

Foundations acquire funding from various sources, depending on their type and purpose. Some common funding sources for foundations include:

Endowments: Foundations receive donations, gifts, or assets invested to generate future income.

Donor Contributions: Individuals, families, or corporations may directly contribute funds to support the foundation’s activities.

Investment Returns: Foundations earn income from their investment portfolios, which is then used for charitable purposes.

Corporate Sponsorships: Foundations may establish business partnerships to secure financial support for specific programs or initiatives.

Government Grants: Certain foundations receive grants from government entities to promote specific causes or social initiatives.


Definition and Characteristics

Charities are organizations dedicated to improving the well-being of others by providing goods, services, or financial assistance to those in need. 

Unlike foundations, charities are typically focused on direct service provision and engagement with the target beneficiaries. Charities work toward achieving their charitable objectives through programs, initiatives, and community outreach.

Charities often operate not-for-profit, utilizing resources to address specific social issues, such as poverty, education, healthcare, or environmental conservation. They rely heavily on public support, donations, and grants to fund their operations and charitable activities.

Types of Charities

1. Public Charities

Public charities, also known as public nonprofit organizations, receive funding from diverse sources, including government grants, individual donations, corporate sponsorships, and fundraising events. 

These organizations are designed to serve the broader public interest and often have a wide scope of activities and beneficiaries.

2. Private Operating Foundations

Private operating foundations are similar to private foundations but differ in their primary activities. 

While private foundations primarily provide grants and financial support to other organizations, private operating foundations directly engage in charitable activities. They actively implement programs and initiatives related to their charitable mission.

Funding Sources

Charities rely on various funding sources to sustain their operations and charitable activities. Some common funding sources for charities include:

Individual Donations: Charities often receive financial contributions from individuals who support their cause and mission.

Corporate Sponsorships: Businesses may sponsor charities as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives, providing financial support or in-kind donations.

Government Grants: Charities can receive grants from government agencies at local, regional, or national levels to fund specific projects or initiatives.

Fundraising Events: Charities organize events, such as galas, auctions, or walks, to raise funds and increase public awareness of their cause.

Philanthropic Foundations: Some charities receive grants or donations from foundations or trusts supporting specific causes or communities.

Differences between Foundations and Charities

While foundations and charities share the common goal of supporting charitable causes, there are significant differences between them in structure, purpose, public support, and tax benefits.

Structure and Governance

Foundations are typically controlled by a board of directors or trustees, often consisting of the foundation’s founders, their family members, or individuals appointed by the founders. This grants the foundation more autonomy and flexibility in decision-making and strategic planning.

On the other hand, charities often have a broader base of governance and may involve a board of directors or trustees representing various stakeholders, including community members, experts in the field, or representatives of government entities. This diverse governance structure ensures transparency, accountability, and public interest representation.

Purpose and Activities

Foundations primarily focus on providing financial support through grants, scholarships, and funding for research and initiatives carried out by other nonprofit organizations. They aim to allocate resources strategically to maximize impact and advance the causes they support.

Charities, on the other hand, are more directly involved in implementing charitable activities. They often have programs, projects, and initiatives to serve their target beneficiaries or communities directly. Charities actively work on the frontlines, providing goods, services, and support to those in need.

Public Support Test

Public support is important for foundations and charities, but the requirements differ. To maintain their tax-exempt status, foundations must pass a public support test, which ensures that they receive a significant portion of their funding from the public rather than a limited number of sources. 

Private foundations, in particular, must demonstrate that they have a broad base of public support.

Charities, on the other hand, are generally assumed to have a broad base of public support by default, as they rely on donations, grants, and public contributions to sustain their operations. 

However, they still need to maintain transparency and accountability to the public, as they are entrusted with resources for the public good.

Tax Benefits and Reporting Requirements

Both foundations and charities enjoy certain tax benefits, but the specific benefits and reporting requirements vary.

Foundations, particularly private foundations, often have more stringent tax regulations and reporting obligations. They may be subject to excise taxes on their investment income and must meet specific distribution requirements, ensuring that a minimum percentage of their assets is distributed for charitable purposes annually.

Charities, being more directly engaged in charitable activities, generally enjoy greater tax benefits. They are often fully tax-exempt, meaning they do not pay taxes on their income. However, they must meet reporting obligations, providing details on their activities, financial statements, and compliance with legal requirements.

Examples and Real-Life Cases

To illustrate the distinction between foundations and charities, let’s explore a few well-known examples:

A. Well-Known Foundations

1. Catholic Community Foundation

The Catholic Community Foundation is an example of a foundation associated with a religious institution. It operates within the Catholic Church and supports charitable activities aligned with Catholic values and teachings. 

The foundation often provides grants to Catholic organizations, schools, and initiatives that promote education, ministry, social services, and spiritual development.

2. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the world’s largest private foundations. It was established by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his ex-wife Melinda Gates. 

The foundation focuses on improving healthcare, reducing poverty, and enhancing education worldwide. The foundation grants various organizations and initiatives aligned with its philanthropic goals through its endowment.

3. Ford Foundation

The Ford Foundation is another prominent private foundation. Founded by Henry Ford’s son, Edsel Ford, and his wife, the foundation aims to promote social justice, economic equality, and the advancement of human welfare. 

The foundation supports initiatives in education, arts and culture, economic development, and civil rights.

B. Prominent Charities

1. Catholic Charities

Catholic Charities is a well-established nonprofit organization dedicated to providing a wide range of social services to those in need. With a strong presence in many communities, Catholic Charities offers assistance in areas such as food assistance, housing support, disaster relief, and refugee resettlement. The organization relies on public support and donations to fund its vital programs.

2. Catholic Relief Services

Catholic Charities is a well-established nonprofit organization dedicated to providing a wide range of social services to those in need. With a strong presence in many communities, Catholic Charities offers assistance in areas such as food assistance, housing support, disaster relief, and refugee resettlement. The organization relies on public support and donations to fund its vital programs.


In summary, while the terms “foundation” and “charity” are often used interchangeably, they represent distinct entities with unique characteristics, purposes, and legal considerations. 

Foundations primarily focus on providing financial support through grants, while charities are more directly involved in implementing programs and services. Foundations and charities are vital in addressing social issues and promoting charitable causes.

Understanding the differences between foundations and charities allows you to make informed decisions regarding your philanthropic endeavors. 


Can a foundation also engage in direct charitable activities?

While foundations primarily provide financial support through grants, some may also engage in direct charitable activities. 
These foundations are known as private operating foundations. They directly implement programs and initiatives related to their charitable mission.

Are foundations and charities eligible for tax deductions?

Foundations and charities may be eligible for tax deductions in many jurisdictions. 
Foundations often receive tax-exempt status, allowing them to allocate their funds for charitable purposes without paying taxes on their income. Similarly, individuals and corporations that donate to charities may claim tax deductions for their contributions, encouraging philanthropic support. For legal and tax advice, please contact your attorney and/or tax advisor.

Can a foundation or a charity change its focus or mission over time?

Yes, foundations and charities can change their focus or mission over time. 
However, any significant changes in purpose or activities may require legal and regulatory considerations, such as amending governing documents, notifying relevant authorities, or seeking approval from the appropriate regulatory bodies.

Can a charity provide grants to other organizations?

Yes, charities can provide grants to other organizations to support their charitable objectives. 
By offering financial assistance to other nonprofits or community groups, charities can extend their impact and collaborate with organizations working towards similar goals.