Private Operating Foundations: An Option for Hands-On Philanthropists

Private operating foundations may have distinct advantages over other types of 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations for philanthropists who want to have more direct involvement in guiding their philanthropic program and impact.[1]  Philanthropists with access to the financial means to fund their foundation’s activities without actively fundraising may find the private operating foundation classification preferable from an operational standpoint, while offering certain tax advantages.

This article answers five key questions about private operating foundation status that can help philanthropists determine if it is the right tax-exempt vehicle for their charitable objectives, including:

  • What are the key characteristics of a private operating foundation?
  • How does private operating foundation status differ from public charity status and private non-operating foundation status?
  • What are the financial tests that must be met in order to maintain private operating foundation status?
  • What expenditures are considered “directly for the active conduct of” an operating foundation’s tax-exempt activities?
  • What if the organization meets the private operating foundation tests initially, but fails to meet it in a given future year?

(1)  What are the key characteristics of a private operating foundation?

A private operating foundation is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt private foundation that devotes most of its resources (i.e., earnings and/or assets) toward the active conduct of its tax-exempt activities.  More specifically, a private operating foundation is any private foundation that spends at least 85 percent of its adjusted net income or its minimum investment return (whichever is less) directly for the active conduct of its exempt activities – this is known as the income test.  In addition to meeting the income test, the foundation must also meet one of the following tests: (1) the assets test; (2) the endowment test; or (3) the support test. Questions 3 and 4 of this blog post explain these requirements in greater detail.

A private operating foundation is a type of private foundation because it is funded by one or a few sources, however, since it operates more like a public charity (e.g., by conducting programs rather than focusing primarily on grantmaking), the Internal Revenue Code treats the organization partly like a private nonoperating foundation and partly like a public charity.

When seeking 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, the default classification is that of a private non-operating foundation. Non-operating foundations must distribute a certain amount of their assets annually to support charitable purposes, but those distributions can be solely in the form of grants to other charitable organizations. Organizations seeking private operating foundation status must affirmatively explain or demonstrate to the IRS at the time of applying for tax-exempt status that they meet or will meet the requirements of private operating foundation status, and must annually provide financial disclosures to the IRS demonstrating that they continue to meet those requirements.[2]

(2)  How does private operating foundation status differ from public charity status and private non-operating foundation status?

Private operating foundations are subject to a number of the same regulations as public charities on a few key matters, which are generally more favorable than the rules applicable to non-operating foundations:

  • Greater tax-deductibility of donations than non-operating foundations: Private operating foundations are subject to the more generous donation deductibility limits applicable to public charities (whereas donations to non-operating foundations have lower deductibility limits). Because wealthier donors are sensitive to the deductibility cap, the more generous tax-deductibility limits available to private operating foundations is typically the primary motivation for founder-philanthropists to seek private operating foundation status over non-operating foundation status.
    • Like public charities, cash contributions to operating foundations are deductible up to 60%[3] of a taxpayer’s adjusted gross income (“AGI”) (compared with 30% for non-operating foundations).
    • Like public charities, donations of long-term capital gain property (e.g., artwork; real property) to operating foundations are deductible up to 30% of the taxpayer’s AGI (compared with 20% for non-operating foundations).[4] In addition, the deduction for long-term capital gain property for an operating foundation is typically based on the fair market value of the property on the date of the contribution, whereas for non-operating foundations, the deduction for long-term capital gain property (other than qualified appreciated stock) is deductible only to the extent of the donor’s tax basis in the property.
  • Differing requirements with respect to annual distributions: Private nonoperating foundations are required to make “qualifying distributions” (most typically in the form of charitable grants) each year equal to at least five percent (5%) of the fair market value of the foundation’s assets.[5] Non-operating foundations are subject to a tax on their failure to distribute income as “qualifying distributions.” Private operating foundations are subject to a different “qualifying distribution” requirement — they are required to devote most of their resources to the active conduct of tax-exempt activities (instead of through grantmaking), as further discussed in Question 3, below.
  • Private operating foundations can obtain grants from private non-operating foundations more easily than non-operating foundations: The federal tax laws make it easier for an operating foundation to receive grants from a non-operating foundation compared to a non-operating foundation grantee.[6]  As such, this more favorable treatment of grants to operating foundations than non-operating foundations is a distinct advantage of operating foundation status over non-operating foundation status.  This benefit might not be that important to all operating foundations because many (and perhaps most) operating foundations are fully funded by their founder(s), and as such, may not be seeking external funding.

Now that we’ve reviewed some of the key “advantages” of private operating foundation status, we should also recognize that operating foundations are still subject to many of the stricter tax regulations applicable to all private foundations, which are not applicable to public charities.  The penalties for violating these rules are in the form of tax penalties.  In some cases, those penalties are significant enough that the restricted activities are effectively viewed as prohibited.  Private foundations (including both operating and non-operating foundations) are subject to the following taxes:

  • Taxes on Self-dealing: The taxes on self-dealing are designed to prevent “disqualified persons” (e.g., directors, officers, and managers of the foundation, and their related businesses and family members) from benefiting personally from any transactions that the foundation engages in.[7]
  • Taxes on Excess Business Holdings: A significant tax is assessed against any private foundation where the combined holdings of the private foundation and all of its disqualified persons exceeds 20 percent of the voting stock in a business enterprise that is a corporation.[8]
  • Taxes on Jeopardizing Investments: Certain excise taxes are imposed on foundations that engage in risky investments, with the goal of discouraging such investments, which may detract from a foundation’s ability to further its charitable purposes.
  • Tax on Net Investment Income: Operating foundations are subject to the tax on net investment income and to the other requirements and restrictions that gener­ally apply to all private foundations. [9]
  • Taxes on Failure to Distribute Income (generally, grants): As discussed earlier, non-operating foundations that fail to distribute the required annual minimum qualifying distributions are subject to a tax. However, the types of distributions that constitute “qualifying distributions” differ for operating vs non-operating foundations.

(3)  What are the financial tests that must be met in order to maintain private operating foundation status?

To obtain and maintain private operating foundation status, operating foundations must meet a combination of financial tests on an ongoing basis, explained further below.

(Mandatory) Income Test

The one universal requirement applicable to every private operating foundation is that it must spend at least 85% of its adjusted net income or minimum investment return, whichever is less, directly for the active conduct of its exempt activities. This is known as the “income test.”

In addition, all operating foundations must also annually meet one of the following three financial tests: (1) the assets test, (2) the endowment test, or (3) the support test.  These three tests reflect different approaches by which a foundation can devote most of its resources towards the active conduct of its tax-exempt activities.

(a)  Assets Test: A foundation will meet the assets test if at least 65% of its assets:

  1. Are devoted directly to the active conduct of its exempt activity, a functionally related business, or a combination of the two,
  2. Consist of stock of a corporation that is controlled by the foundation (by ownership of at least 80% of the total voting power of all classes of stock entitled to vote and at least 80% of the total shares of all other classes of stock) and at least 85% of the assets of which are so devoted, or
  3. Are any combination of (1) and (2).

Example: Assets such as real property, physical facilities or objects (such as museum artwork that is publicly displayed, classroom fixtures, and research equip­ment) and intangible assets (such as patents, copyrights, and trademarks) are directly de­voted to the extent they are used by the founda­tion in directly carrying on its exempt activities or program. Museums and research organizations are likely to meet the Assets Test.

(b)  Endowment Test: A foundation will meet the endowment test if it normally distributes at least two-thirds of its annual minimum investment re­turn for the active conduct of its exempt activities

Example: An organization whose founder funds the foundation with a significant endowment in the form of cash as well as stocks or other investments held primarily for the production of income, is likely to meet the Endowment Test.

(c)  Support Test: A private foundation will meet the support test if: (1) at least 85 percent of its support (other than gross investment income) is normally received from the general public and 5 or more unrelated exempt organizations; (2) not more than 25 percent of its support (other than gross investment income) is normally received from any one exempt organiza­tion; and (3) not more than 50 percent of its support is normally received from gross investment income.

Example: This test is used by operating foundations that are funded by fairly diverse sources of support (including at least five unrelated exempt organizations) rather than just by their founder-donor, but whose funding sources may not be diverse enough to consistently meet the public support tests required for public charity status. This is the least used financial test for meeting private operating foundation.

To qualify as an operating foundation in a given tax year, a foundation must meet the income test and either the assets, endowment, or sup­port test for any three years during a four-year period (“three-out-of-four-year method”), or based on a combination of all pertinent amounts of income or assets held, received, or distributed during the four-year period (“four-year combination method”). The four-year period consists of the tax year in question and the three years immediately preceding that year.

(4)  What expenditures are considered “directly for the active conduct of” an operating foundation’s tax-exempt activities?

Let’s look more closely at the principle that private operating foundations must devote most of its resources “directly for the active conduct of the activities” constituting the foundation’s tax-exempt purposes.  The following are examples of expenditures that would be considered “directly for the active conduct of the” foundation’s tax-exempt activities:

  • Amounts paid to buy or maintain assets used directly in the conduct of the foundation’s exempt activities, e.g., the operating assets of a museum, public park, or historic site.
  • Pro rata allocations of staff compensation, travel, overhead costs (office space, supplies) based on a reasonable allocation of use towards direct program activities.
  • An amount set aside by a foundation for a specific project, e.g., to buy and restore or build buildings/facilities to be used by the foundation directly for the active conduct of the foundation’s exempt activities, if the set-aside meets certain requirements.

Under certain circumstances, payments or grants to individuals (including scholarships) made in conjunction with ongoing supervision by the foundation and certain grantee reporting requirements may qualify as “active conduct” expenditures.  If a foundation awards grants or scholarships, or makes other payments to individuals (including program-related investments[10], such as to support active programs to carry out its exempt purpose, the payments will be treated as qualifying distributions made directly for the active conduct of exempt activities only if the foundation maintains some significant involvement in the programs. Whether the foundation is considered to maintain significant involvement sufficient for these grants to individuals to be treated as “active conduct” expenditures depends on the facts and circumstances in each case.

Examples of “significant involvement” in a program involving grants to individuals include: (1) a grant program in which the recipients, in addition to independent study, attend classes, seminars, or conferences sponsored or conducted by the foundation, or (2) a grant to engage in social work or scientific research projects which are under the general direction and supervision of the foundation.

If, however, a foundation’s role in the grant process is limited to selecting, screening, and seeking out applicants for grants or scholarships, pursuant to which the recipients perform their work or studies alone or exclusively under the direction of some other organization, such grants or scholarships will not be treated as expenditures made directly for the active conduct of the foundation’s exempt activities.

(5)  What if the organization meets the private operating foundation tests initially, but fails to meet it in a given future year?

For any year in which a foundation that has been approved as qualifying for private operating foundation fails to meet the income test and one of the other three tests in a given tax year, the foundation must report as a non-operating foundation on its Form 990-PF.

The deductibility of contributions to an operating foundation will not be affected until notice of a change in the status of the foundation is made to the public (such as by publication in the Internal Revenue Bulletin), unless, at the time of the contribution, the donor was aware that the IRS would remove the foundation’s operating foundation status, or the donor was responsible for, or was aware of, the act or failure to act which caused the foundation to be unable to qualify as an operating foundation.

 

[1] Philanthropists who do not have the time, interest, or intention to conduct direct programmatic activities on a continuous basis may find it more appropriate to establish a non-operating foundation or even a donor-advised fund. Note that private non-operating foundations can also conduct direct charitable activities, but are not required to do so.

[2] Public charities must also demonstrate to the IRS that they are not a private foundation, but that is not the subject of this article.

[3] The limitation was previously 50% of AGI, but the limit was temporarily raised to 60% as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 through January 1, 2026, but was increased to 100% of AGI for 2020 and 2021 under the CARES Act.

[4] 26 U.S.C. § 170(b)(1)(B). The deduction for long-term capital gain property is typically based on the fair market value of the property on the date of the contribution.

[5] 26 U.S.C. § 4942.

[6] A grant by a non-operating foundation to an operating foundation counts towards the non-operating foundation’s annual minimum qualifying distribution requirement, whereas a similar grant to a non-operating foundation generally would not.  26 U.S.C. § 4942. Note, however, that a non-operating foundation must still exercise expenditure responsibility with respect to grants to most operating foundations, whereas it would not have to do so for grants to public charities.

[7] See IRC §4941. The following transactions are generally considered acts of self-dealing between a private foundation and a disqualified person: (1) sale, exchange, or leasing of property; (2) leases; (3) lending money or other extensions of credit; (4) providing goods, services, or facilities; (5) paying compensation or reimbursing expenses to a disqualified person; (6) transferring foundation income or assets to, or for the use or benefit of, a disqualified person; and (7) certain agreements to make payments of money or property to government officials.

[8] The rules governing excess business holdings were designed to prevent individuals from retaining control of businesses by transferring a significant amount of ownership in the businesses to their private foundation.

[9] Effective January 1, 2020 following enactment of new legislation, the net investment income tax applicable to private foundations is a flat, one-tier rate of 1.39%. This is not an excise tax aimed at restricting any type of transaction, like some of the other taxes, but is simply applicable to all private foundations.

[10] An example of a program-related investment that can constitute the “active conduct of” an operating foundation’s exempt purposes is a low-interest loan program designed to stimulate the local economy and create jobs in an economically depressed area, where the foundation has significant involvement in the form of staff who design, implement, and supervise the program, and the provision of technical assistance and training to borrowers. In that case, the loan funds as well as the expenses of conducting such program would be considered qualifying distributions for the active conduct of the operation foundation’s exempt purposes. See, e.g., PLR 9826048.

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