One of the fastest-growing areas in philanthropy, community foundations are nonprofit, philanthropic organizations that help improve the lives of people in a specific geographic area. By pooling together the financial resources of individuals, families, and businesses, community foundations are able to generate sustainable and permanent assets to support charitable activities and local nonprofits. In many communities they are a newer construct, however in many parts of the country they have quite a history. In 2014, the oldest community foundation, The Cleveland Foundation, turned 100.

In a 2008 publication entitled The Balancing Act, The Mott Foundation outlined the three main roles of a community foundation as follows:

Community Foundations as Grantmakers.

Community foundations build local capacity by raising charitable dollars that can be granted to other nonprofits in the community. Whether it is in the area of arts and culture, community development, education, environment or health services, community foundations pool resources that can be used to address community needs or support a charitable activity. Community foundations are knowledgeable about local nonprofits and are in an ideal position to identify organizations addressing a need or making positive contributions to the community.

Community Foundations as Vehicles for Philanthropy.

Community foundations help individuals, nonprofits, businesses and communities fulfill their charitable goals. Instead of creating their own expensive infrastructure, many individuals and entities work with a community foundation in order to receive the maximize the tax benefits, keep administrative costs down and leverage the grantmaking knowledge of the community foundation. Many community foundations have hundreds or thousands of different charitable funds, each established to fulfill a different purpose or address a different need in a community.

Community Foundations as Community Leaders.

Community Foundations play a key role in identifying and solving community problems. Because community foundations work with a wide variety of nonprofits, donors, grantees and government entities, they have special insight into community issues and are able to leverage financial and human resource to provide community leadership when needed.

The community foundation field is diverse and vibrant; with over 700 community foundations across the United States each one is a little different. The National Standards for Community Foundations is a national certification program that ensures a foundation is exemplifying best practices in each area of work.