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What Is a Community Foundation, You Ask?

by Andrea DeBerry on October 23, 2017
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Happy volunteers with donation boxes in park on a sunny day.jpegA community foundation is a charity run by local citizens committed to supporting the best interests of the place they call home. Founded in 1919, The Cleveland Foundation has the distinction of being the first such institution. Community foundations complement, but are not identical to, organizations like the YMCA and United Way. Contributions can be used to fund various missions and projects that meet local needs. I like to think of a community foundation as being similar to a community organizer: they gather a plethora of ideas from community members and put them into action. Every community needs a vision that carries through the generations, and community foundations can be the catalysts to manifest that vision.

Community vs Private Foundations

A major difference between a community foundation and a private foundation is that the former receive funds from a diverse group of many different donors, including individuals and private organizations. The latter are nonprofits established with funds from a single source, such as a family or corporation. Community foundations solicit donations from community members, and their niche is that donors can choose different cause-based funds to donate to. For example, contributors may be able specify that they want their money used for local music programs or environmental education. Not all private foundations, on the other hand, accept donations from the public, as they distribute funds to their own charitable programs. Those familiar with the grants they provide already know that funding is usually limited to their specific areas of interest.


Another unique feature of community foundations is their option to use endowments. According to the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties:

A nonprofit endowment is a long term fund held and managed by the Community Foundation on behalf of a nonprofit organization…having an endowment fund provides a constant source of annual income while demonstrating security and long-range financial planning.

In other words, donors make contributions and those contributions are invested and the income is distributed to community nonprofits. Since the original donation exists in perpetuity, donors  have a sense that their contributions last "forever."

Community Foundations and Local Government

Although the major requirement to receive community foundation funding is to be a 501(c)(3), that does not mean municipalities cannot benefit from them as well. Some community foundations work very closely with their local governments to supplement vital services. For instance, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis has a long history of partnering with government agencies in their area. Its contributions include:

  • Administering the Sexual Assault Resource Fund to avoid rape kit backlogs.
  • Administering the City's Small Business Revolving Loan Fund.
  • Acting as a fiscal agent for the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team.
  • Acting as a fiscal agent for the Memphis Police Foundation.
  • Hosting government functions at their physical location.

The Ultimate Reward

As I look at the great resources available to residents in Evanston, IL, then compare them with the the numerous organizations the Evanston Community Foundation supports, I see what an important role the foundation plays. My daughter is a part of the the Evanston Symphony Orchestra, which brings classical music to the students of Evanston and arranges for them to perform at community events. The Evanston Symphony Orchestra Association Fund helps support these activities. The ultimate reward is that donor's get to see what their donations are actually contributing toward: the greater good of the community. They can feel proud that they are planting seeds to grow for others in their own backyards, even if they wish to remain anonymous.

Further Resources

To find the locations of accredited community foundations in your area: https://www.cof.org/community-foundation-locator

To see examples of the types of funding categories typically available to donors, check out the Community Center of Greenville, although offerings through individual centers may vary:


To learn more in general about the functions of these organizations, explore the Community Center of Brevard's FAQ page:



Andrea DeBerry.jpgAbout Andrea: Andrea DeBerry is a novice grant writer who received her Bachelor of Science in Speech Communications from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, Integrated Marketing Communications professional certificate from DePaul University, and her Master of Science in Communications from Northwestern University. She currently is a program specialist at one of the nation’s largest private non-profit community action agencies.


Topics: Grant Articles & News

3 min read time