Charitable Giving: Private Family Foundations and their Alternatives

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Private Family Foundations

Private family foundations are charitable organizations created by families to manage and distribute their philanthropic funds. The IRS classifies every section 501(c)(3) organization as either a private foundation or a public charity. Private foundations are funded by the family and are managed by a board of directors, which is often comprised of family members. Example: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Private Foundations that are classified as operating are directly engaged in managing and running a charitable project or enterprise, like a museum. On the other hand, non-operating foundations fulfill their charitable mission mainly by providing financial grants to other charities. While they can also administer programs, it is not their primary focus.
Private Foundations enjoy similar tax benefits as public foundations; they are, however, less generous. Running a Private Foundation is a complex, costly, and time-consuming undertaking with substantial reporting requirements. For more detail, see The Pros and Cons of Starting a Private Foundation.

There are several alternatives to private family foundations that families can consider when deciding how to structure their charitable giving. These include donor-advised funds, community foundations, and charitable trusts.

Donor-advised funds (DAF)

Donor-advised funds are like private family foundations in that they allow families to make contributions to a charitable fund and then make recommendations about how those funds are distributed, therefore, ‘donor-advised’. However, donor-advised funds are managed by a third-party organization, which can make the process of managing the fund simpler for families.

Donor-advised funds allow donors to consolidate their giving in one place and simplify their charitable giving process. Instead of making multiple donations to various charities, donors can make one contribution to their DAF, receive a tax deduction for the full amount, and then recommend grants to multiple charities over time without having the administrative burden that operating a Family Foundation entails. This can be especially helpful for donors who want to support a variety of causes but don’t have the time or resources to research and vet individual charities.

Donor-advised funds (DAFs) are typically administered by community foundations, national charities, or financial institutions, such as Vanguard Charitable, Charles Schwab, and Fidelity Charitable.

Community Foundations

Community foundations are also a popular alternative to private family foundations. These organizations are often created to serve a particular geographic area, for example, The Community Foundation San Luis Obispo County, and are designed to support a broad range of charitable causes. Community foundations allow families to pool their philanthropic resources and benefit from the expertise of the foundation’s staff in identifying and supporting effective charitable programs.

Charitable Trusts

Charitable trusts are a great alternative to private family foundations. These trusts allow families to set aside assets that are used to support charitable activities over a specified period.

Charitable trusts can be structured in different ways; for a detailed overview, see our post Charitable Remainder Trusts, CRATs, and CRUTs. and can provide families with significant tax benefits.

We have created a table of advantages and disadvantages for each option, but you need to discuss the details and ramifications with an estate planner and your tax advisor.

Private Family Foundations Donor-Advised Funds Community Foundations Charitable Trusts
Advantages Provides a dedicated platform for charitable giving Simple and easy to manage Provides expertise in identifying and supporting effective charitable programs Provides significant tax benefits
Allows families to have control over the distribution of funds Can be established quickly and easily Allows families to pool resources with others to support charitable causes Can be tailored to meet the specific needs of the family
Can involve multiple generations of a family in philanthropy Provides flexibility in timing of contributions and grants Can help families develop a philanthropic strategy Allows families to support charitable causes over a long period of time
Disadvantages Requires significant time and resources to manage Donor-advised funds are subject to fees and minimum contribution requirements May limit the geographic area or types of causes that can be supported Can be complex and difficult to set up
Can be subject to complex tax regulations Limited control over the investment of funds May limit the ability to support specific causes May require significant legal and financial expertise
May be subject to public disclosure requirements Limited ability to involve multiple generations of a family May require a minimum contribution or grant amount May be subject to restrictions on the use of funds


In conclusion, private family foundations are a popular option for families looking to establish a long-term platform for their philanthropic giving. However, there are several alternatives available, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Families should carefully consider their goals and resources when deciding which charitable giving option is best for them.

Charitable Remainder Trusts, CRATs and CRUTs

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