Comparing Foundations and Nonprofits

By Nancy Bilyeau · May 22, 2024 · 5 minute read

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Comparing Foundations and Nonprofits

While you may think that “foundation” and “nonprofit” are the same thing, there are distinct differences between the two. They both serve the needs of millions of Americans, and people in other countries too. The goal of a nonprofit and a foundation are often laudable.

How the two entities receive their funding differs, and how foundation vs. nonprofit operates too. There are important tax differences. Read on to learn the differences between a nonprofit vs. foundation.

What Is a Nonprofit?

A nonprofit organization is dedicated to furthering a social cause or advocating for a shared point of view. It is a business/corporation that has been given tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) because it pursues a religious, scientific, charitable, educational, literary, public safety, or cruelty-prevention mission or area of work.

How Nonprofits Work

Once you’ve registered your nonprofit, you must file IRS Form 1023, which is the formal request that the IRS recognize you as a 501(c)(3) organization eligible for tax exemptions under this rule.

Nonprofit organizations receive their funds from governments, various institutions, and individuals. The surplus received is mainly funded in its operations. None of the members or employees are supposed to get the benefit from surplus.

It’s called a nonprofit for this reason. Employees are not supposed to “profit.” In fact, many of the people who work for a nonprofit are volunteers.

Recommended: Funding Sources for Nonprofits

Pros and Cons of Nonprofits

Nonprofits can be highly fulfilling. You are pursuing a mission you believe in. When your organization has nonprofit status, particularly when recognized at the federal level by the IRS, it can take advantage of tax and financial benefits:

•   When donations to an organization are tax-deductible, donors have an incentive to contribute.

•   Nonprofit organizations may be given favorable terms and discounts by landlords, service providers and retail companies.

•   IRS-recognized nonprofit 501(c)(3) public charities do not have to pay corporate income tax

However, fundraising is difficult and you may find yourself in fierce competition for donations. You will also come under pressure to be very open, even revealing financial statements to the media and general public. This type of accountability can result in unflattering press coverage, particularly if your organization is experiencing some financial or administrative challenges.

Recommended: What Are Nonprofit Business Loans?

What Is a Foundation?

Foundations are charitable organizations, but they don’t qualify as public charities. Often funded by a person, married couple, family, or corporation, foundations enjoy tax-exempt status as long as they meet certain state and federal requirements.

Foundations are similar to nonprofits, except money for a foundation usually comes from a family or a corporate entity. In fact, the foundations can donate money to a nonprofit from their revenues, often in the form of grants or gifts.

How Foundations Work

Foundations make grants to other charities and nonprofit organizations. They can take the money they started out with, invest it, and then distribute it.

There are subsets of private foundations: operating and nonoperating. A private nonoperating foundation grants money to other charitable organizations and is the more common form. Foundations don’t directly perform charitable programs or services either. A private operating foundation distributes funds to its own programs that exist for charitable purposes.

Recommended: How to Start a NGO

Pros and Cons of Foundations

It’s easy to see why anyone would want to start a private foundation. Perhaps you want to support an important cause or establish a family legacy. Individuals who already donate large sums to charity may wonder if they could make a bigger impact by starting their own foundation. A foundation allows you to strengthen and focus your philanthropic ideas.

However, setting up a foundation requires a lot of work. You will usually need to hire outside professionals — such as attorneys and accountants — who can provide expert advice on how to form and run your foundation.

Private foundations must pay a 1% to 2% annual excise tax on their net income. The exact percentage depends on a foundation’s annual grantmaking. Your records will need to be meticulous.

While different states may have different annual reporting requirements, the IRS mandates annual reporting by all private foundations. This process typically takes eight hours to complete and often requires an accountant or attorney to finalize and submit the necessary paperwork.

Recommended: Nonprofit Financial Statements

The Takeaway

A nonprofit differs from a foundation in key ways. How you receive money is not the same – and what you do with the money you receive. Foundations often award grants to nonprofits and charities.

Like businesses, nonprofit organizations sometimes need cash to achieve their objectives and to expand. Many nonprofits qualify for grants, which is money you will not need to pay back.

Cash can also come in the form of a loan. Loans are a tool that can help a nonprofit grow and succeed. Nonprofits may qualify for small business loans, which are offered by banks, credit unions, and online lenders.

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What is the difference between a foundation and a nonprofit organization?

A nonprofit is a charitable organization with a specific social goal that uses its revenues and surplus to fund its operations rather than benefiting the organizations’ members, shareholders, or employees. A foundation refers to a charitable organization that sources funds from its founders, which could be a corporate entity or a family.

Is a foundation a nonprofit?

Yes, a foundation is a nonprofit corporation or a charitable trust that makes grants to organizations, institutions, or individuals for charitable purposes such as education, culture, education, science, and religion.

Can a nonprofit have “Foundation” in its name?

Yes, but it’s not recommended, because it could create confusion and deter donors. Foundations usually can’t accept private donations. It’s even more important to never imply that your nonprofit is a government entity. Refrain from using names that include words like “national” and “federal” as they are used for government purposes.

Photo credit: iStock/SDI Productions

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