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What is the difference between large and small foundations?

Most of the information presented below comes from the Foundation Center's 2012 survey of larger private and community foundations. Through its annual survey of foundations, the Foundation Center has identified four main differences between large and small foundations.

1. Local vs. National Giving

  • Most foundations, regardless of size, limit their giving to local charities
  • Over 1,100 foundations give nationally or internationally (these tend to be the very largest of the large independent and operating foundations, or corporate foundations with sponsoring companies that operate nationally or internationally)
2. Broad Giving vs. Defined Programs
  • Larger foundations commonly organize their giving through announced programs in specific fields (e.g., the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation publishes numerous reports and maintains a Web site describing its interests in the health field)
  • Smaller foundations tend to support a broad range of activities without a specific program focus (e.g., they may direct most of their funding to the arts one year and to education the next year)
3. Public Reporting
  • All private foundations, regardless of the size and scope of their funding, are required by law to file the IRS Form 990-PF and must make the document available to the public. These forms can be accessed at
  • Roughly 4,100 foundations issue statements of their program interests or guidelines for grant applications
  • About 1,700—mainly larger staffed foundations—state that they publish annual or biennial reports
4. Staffing
  • Large foundations are most likely to have paid staff to review proposals, develop projects, and work with the public
  • Nearly 3,200 foundations employ paid staff, and they account for roughly 20,000 staff positions
  • Close to three-fifths of staffed foundations have two or fewer employees
  • About 730, or 23.4 percent, of larger foundations have five or more paid staff members
The vast majority of foundations do not have paid staff, and their work is being done by lawyers, bank trustees, and family members on a part-time basis. What does that mean? When dealing with smaller foundations, it's important to be patient.
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