10 Rules Every Foundation Should Know About Compliance

A Guide to Issues and Potential Pitfalls


Running a private charitable foundation can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences—a chance not only to make a real difference in the community but also to carry out your philanthropy with the personal signature and control that only a private foundation can offer.

Yet it can also be a daunting task. It can be difficult to keep up with regulations, which are always changing, as well as the required paperwork and IRS filings. That’s why so many philanthropists outsource these responsibilities to Foundation Source, the leading provider of comprehensive administrative and compliance monitoring services for private foundations.

No matter how you administer your foundation, a basic understanding of the rules that govern private foundations can help you steer clear of trouble.

This booklet summarizes 10 common issues and pitfalls we encounter in the daily administration of nearly 2,000 private foundations.

This information is provided to make donors, directors, staff, and advisors more aware of some of the factors that govern private foundations. It is not intended as a substitute for legal, tax, or investment advice, nor should it be construed as a comprehensive guide to foundation rules.

We hope you find this booklet worthwhile and informative.


These ten things can be sources of trouble for unwary foundations.


Foundation Source ensures that our clients’ proposed grantees are recognized by the IRS as valid 501(c)(3) public charities in good standing at the time of the grant.

Just because a charity attained tax-exempt status from the IRS at one time does not mean that it maintained that status. For example, if the charity does not continue to maintain its broad public support, it may be reclassified by the IRS as a private foundation.

The IRS lists all tax-exempt organizations in IRS Publication 78. (Although some organizations that are considered public charities, such as schools, houses of worship, and instrumentalities of the government, such as parks and municipalities, aren’t listed in this publication.) Foundations may make grants to public charities listed in this publication without exercising “expenditure responsibility,” a multi-step process to ensure grant funds will be used for a charitable purpose only.

But what if the charity’s status had been revoked in an Internal Revenue Bulletin issued since the date of the last publication? If a private foundation makes a grant to an organization that is not a public charity in good standing with the IRS, and does not exercise expenditure responsibility, the foundation may be subject to a penalty, and the grant will not count toward satisfying its annual distribution requirement.


Since universities are 501(c)(3) public charities, and grants made to them do not require the advance approval of the IRS, many foundations believe that they can fund a specific student’s scholarship without advance approval from the IRS—as long as the grant is paid directly to the university and not to the student. In fact, this is false.

It is the foundation’s act of choosing the scholarship recipient (instead of having the university make that choice) that triggers the need for advance approval, regardless of whether the funds are paid to the individual or directly to the university. It is only when a foundation funds a university’s existing scholarship program and does not involve itself in the selection process that advance approval by the IRS is not required.

We can help you design a scholarship program that meets legal requirements and also obtain required advance approval from the IRS.

If a foundation wishes to take an active role in selecting scholarship recipients, it must apply for advance approval from the IRS. In doing so, the foundation must determine the group of individuals who are eligible to apply for a scholarship and develop an objective and non-discriminatory plan for selecting the final recipients. If the IRS does not contact the foundation within 45 days of the foundation’s submission of its scholarship plan and procedures, the foundation may begin making scholarship grants.


A common problem arises when a foundation insider makes a personal pledge to a church, synagogue, mosque, etc., and the foundation satisfies that pledge. Since churches are indeed public charities, many foundation personnel incorrectly assume it is perfectly legitimate for the foundation to cover a charitable pledge made by a founder or other board member.

A foundation may make a charitable grant or pledge to a church when that pledge was initiated by the foundation. However, there is a subtle distinction between a foundation making its own charitable grant and a foundation satisfying the personal obligation of a board member or other insider. Insiders are not allowed to obtain a personal benefit from their dealings with the foundation. To the extent that the foundation relieves an insider of such a financial obligation, that person is considered to have benefited.


We inform clients about federal, state, and local laws governing charitable fundraising.

Events can be an effective way to raise additional funds, but foundations commonly fail to develop a budget for the event. As a consequence, many foundations lose money, break even, or raise much less than they had anticipated. It’s worth consulting with a professional event planner or advisor in advance to develop realistic financial projections.

Foundations that host fundraising events seldom realize that they are required to comply with federal, state, and local laws governing charitable fundraising. Many states require foundations to report fundraising events and register with the attorney general’s office of the state where the event is held. Also, the IRS requires foundations to ascribe a value to the benefits provided to attendees as well as provide a tax receipt for each attendee at year-end. This is so the attendee knows what portion of the donation is actually tax deductible.

For example, say an attendee pays $150 for a golf tournament hosted by the foundation, and the usual greens fees are $50. The foundation must provide a tax receipt letter to that attendee stating that the value of goods and services provided was $50 (the value of the greens fees). The proper tax deduction for the attendee to claim is the ticket price minus the value of the greens fees, or $100. If the attendee does not obtain this tax receipt by the time he files his income tax return, the charitable deduction may be lost.

Sometimes foundations raise additional funds at these events by selling merchandise, such as T-shirts, sweatshirts, or other accessories. Depending upon where the event is held and where the foundation conducts its business, the foundation may be required to charge state and local sales tax. Although the foundation itself may be exempt from paying sales tax, that doesn’t necessarily mean it does not have to charge a sales tax when it sells merchandise to others. The requirement to charge and remit sales tax varies from one locality to another. Some localities permit a foundation two or three days per year in which it may sell merchandise free of sales tax in connection with a fundraising event. Often, the best solution is to make an arrangement with a local merchant to charge, collect, and remit sales tax to the appropriate taxing authority on behalf of the foundation.

If a foundation chooses to raise funds through a live or silent auction, it must clearly document the fair market value of all items for sale before the auction begins. For example, the foundation may attach price tags to items available for bidding or publish a list of such items with their respective values. This is crucial, because only the portion of the amount paid at auction in excess of an item’s fair market value may be treated as a charitable gift. For example, if a grandfather clock has a fair market value of $1,200 and is purchased at auction for $1,300, the purchaser would be limited to only a $100 charitable deduction.

A foundation must record the names and addresses of all attendees of an event, so that it may provide those who pay over $250 with tax receipts at the end of the year. Failure to provide a tax receipt to an attendee before she files her income tax return may cause the attendee to lose the charitable deduction.


Many private foundations support local charitable institutions that conduct fundraising events. Persons attending or “buying tables” at such events typically receive food and entertainment. If a private foundation purchases tickets for such an event (or is given tickets), a question arises as to whether self-dealing results when a board member, other insider, or their relatives or friends attend.

As a basic rule, all direct and indirect financial transactions between a private foundation and those persons who control and fund it are prohibited. It is immaterial whether the transaction results in a benefit or a detriment to the foundation. However, the foundation is permitted to pay expenses resulting from the participation of its insiders in meetings and events on the foundation’s behalf.

Some argue it is necessary and appropriate for foundation directors, trustees, and staff to attend fundraising events and, therefore, no self-dealing has occurred when its insiders use the tickets. Logically, if a foundation’s board member or officer attends the event to represent the foundation in an official capacity, there should be no private benefit, so long as the attendance is work-related, necessary, and allows the foundation to effectively show support for the organization at a public function.

Impermissible self-dealing may arise, however, if the table seats are given to friends and family members. To remove any question of self-dealing, it is preferable for a private foundation to decline to accept tickets for persons other than board members, trustees, senior staff members and their spouses. A foundation could conceivably furnish the charity with a list of persons to whom tickets may be furnished, but only with the clear stipulation that the charity must decide which individuals are awarded the tickets.


We continually update our clients’ progress toward satisfying their foundation’s minimum distribution requirement via their password-protected online platform.

Generally, a private foundation is required to distribute 5% of the average value of its investment assets for the previous year. The IRS prescribes a specific method for averaging a foundation’s securities and the balances in its savings and checking accounts on a monthly basis. The 12-month average allows for market fluctuations over the year. Special rules apply to the valuation of real estate and all other assets.

Grants to qualifying organizations and all reasonable administrative expenses necessary for conducting a foundation’s charitable activities—other than investment management or custodial fees or bank charges—count as qualifying distributions toward satisfying the annual 5% payout requirement. Reasonable administrative expenses may include office supplies, telephone charges, consulting fees, certain legal and accounting fees, training and professional development, employee compensation, publication of the foundation’s annual report, and modest travel expenses associated with foundation business. These calculations can be complex. When performed incorrectly, as is often the case, they can result in under or over payment, so special care must be taken when determining the 5% requirement.


It is commonly believed that a foundation may not make grants to an individual without advance approval from the IRS (such as for a scholarship program). However, grants made to relieve human suffering may be made without advance approval under certain conditions, provided that the foundation makes the grant on an objective and nondiscriminatory basis, complies with basic record-keeping requirements showing how and why a particular individual was selected for assistance, and does not require the recipient to spend the grant funds in a particular way.

The IRS divides such grants into two broad categories in Publication 3833: emergency and hardship assistance. Emergency assistance usually is provided after there has been a natural catastrophe, such as an earthquake, tornado, hurricane or flood. By contrast, hardship assistance is provided based upon established economic need, and may be used, for example, to purchase food or cover health insurance premiums for a low-income family. Foundation Source has created a streamlined process for our clients to easily make these types of grants while complying with all IRS requirements.


Foundation officers, trustees, and other insiders generally are not permitted to reap any economic benefit from their dealings with a foundation. An exception is made for compensation—provided the compensation is reasonable. The reasonableness of compensation is judged on a list of factors, including qualifications, experience, job responsibility, duties, and the time dedicated (part-or full-time) by the insider to his position. Additional factors can include the size of the foundation, the local labor market, the cost of living in the area, and the salary paid by similarly situated charitable organizations for comparable positions. Foundation Source offers a Compensation Benchmarking program to help donors follow best practices in determining whether the compensation to be paid to the insider falls within the norm.


We recommend that our clients avoid engaging in activities that would generate UBTI, unless the potential for profit is considerable.

Unrelated business taxable income (UBTI) is commonly associated with revenue that a charity generates through an activity that has no direct connection with its charitable mission. To the extent that a foundation has UBTI, it must be taxed as if it were a for-profit organization. The UBTI rules were enacted to ensure that non-profit, charitable organizations do not compete with for-profit companies, gaining an unfair competitive advantage. Foundation staff often doesn’t realize that if a foundation borrows money (for example, on margin) to purchase an investment asset (not related to performing its charitable activities), some or all of the income flowing from that asset usually will be deemed UBTI.

In addition to paying taxes at a for-profit tax rate, a private foundation with significant UBTI must also file an additional tax return, Form 990-T, along with its 990-PF.

Many professional advisors counsel their foundation clients to avoid engaging in activities that would generate UBTI, unless the potential for profit is considerable.


Grantmakers are often unaware that one private foundation may make a grant to another private foundation, as long as the granting foundation exercises expenditure responsibility. This may be desirable when the grantee foundation runs its own special programs (for example, a scholarship program approved by the IRS).

We facilitate the process of expenditure responsibility for clients who wish to make a grant to another foundation.

When one foundation makes a grant to another, and the recipient foundation follows by disbursing those funds, the IRS will allow only one of the foundations to count those funds toward satisfying the annual 5% payout requirement. Unless the foundations otherwise agree, the recipient foundation will be the one that will count the disbursement of the funds toward its 5% payout requirement.

In order for the granting foundation to count the grant proceeds toward its own 5% payout requirement, the recipient foundation must agree to (1) make a special election on its annual return not to count the disbursement of the proceeds toward its 5% requirement; and (2) disburse all of the granted proceeds by the end of its fiscal year following the year in which the funds were received.

Why Foundation Source?

We provide full management and philanthropic services to nearly 2,000 family, corporate, and professionally staffed foundations, making us the largest independent foundation services firm nationwide. To learn more about Foundation Source and the services we offer, call us at: 800.839.0054.


Full administrative and support services to keep your foundation running smoothly and compliantly. Our services include administration, compliance monitoring, transaction processing, tax preparation and filing, and financial and regulatory reporting.


Personalized support from a dedicated Private Client Advisor who gets to know you and your foundation. He or she is backed by in-house philanthropy, tax, legal, and accounting professionals who provide expert guidance and responsive service.


Your foundation’s own secure online command center gives you full transparency and control, so you can manage your foundation anytime, anywhere.

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Foundation Source is the nation’s largest provider of management solutions for private foundations. We empower people and companies to create a better world with their philanthropy through a configurable suite of administrative, compliance, and advisory services complemented by purpose-built foundation management technology and private foundation experts.

We work in concert with financial advisors, legal and accounting professionals, consultants and family offices, as well as directly with individuals, families, and corporations to bring philanthropic visions to life. As we celebrate our 20th year of service, Foundation Source supports nearly 2,000 family, corporate, and professionally staffed foundations of all sizes and has enabled more than $7 billion in charitable grants.

© 2021 Foundation Source Philanthropic Services Inc. All rights reserved.
The information provided in this document is for general information purposes only, and does not constitute legal, tax or investment advice.