Most private foundations in the United States were established with funds from individuals. Private independent foundations are governed by a board of directors, may employ professional staff to manage grant making, and are guided by a strategic plan that reflects the donor’s interest.

Foundation grants are funded primarily through the earnings on a foundation’s invested assets. This means the performance of the markets affects the amount of money available for making grants. By law, a foundation is required to give away 5% of its assets annually.

Family foundations carry the same funding distribution requirements as independent foundations but are governed by the donor, the donor’s will, or family members whose personal interests shape the grant-making agenda. Since funding decisions are made by the donor or family, approaches to family foundations are similar to approaches to individual donors.

A corporate foundation derives its grant-making funds primarily from the contributions of a profit-making business. The company-sponsored foundation often maintains close ties with the donor company, but it is a separate legal organization, sometimes with its own endowment, and is subject to the same rules and regulations as other private foundations. Corporate Relations has two offices, one serving the Danforth Campus and one serving the School of Medicine.

Operating foundations, public charities, and community foundations require strategies different from those described here for private, independent foundations.

Private foundation grant-making 

Compared to federal agencies, seeking funding from private foundations generally differs in several respects:

  • Proposals and budgets may be shorter
  • Proposals may not be peer-reviewed
  • Writing may need to be less technical
  • Presubmission dialogue can be helpful but is not always possible
  • Guidelines and criteria can be less transparent
  • Formal feedback on declined proposals is rare
  • Grant-making budgets are limited by foundations’ investment performance and/or prior multiyear commitments
The end and the means of grant-making

There are foundations that seek to advance an academic field, the careers of its best scholars, or its students. The objectives at many other foundations, however, are to more immediately advance real-world solutions to important societal issues. There is increasing demand by foundations for research universities to convey the applied outcomes or even direct-service components of proposals.

Large foundations are staffed by individuals with doctorates (though final funding decisions are made by the board). They welcome innovative approaches to the issues their programs address. In some cases, the foundation may have identified types of solutions or methodologies it believes are required or offer the most promise.

Structure: Multiple buckets of money

Most large foundations operate multiple, distinct grant programs, each with its own budget and staff responsible for inviting, reviewing, and recommending proposals for funding. Each grant program is dedicated to a broad discipline or issue but will generally target its grant-making to precise dimensions of that issue. Separate proposals to different grant programs often are allowed by a foundation, making multiple grants to the university possible. Smaller foundations more often will make only one grant at a time to the university.


Each foundation is distinct. A foundation’s culture can be traced to its founder, history, leadership, and mission. The resulting culture may manifest itself in the foundation’s political, geographic, topical, and ideological preferences.


The training and career of a foundation president can influence what issues are emphasized and what methodologies are preferred.

Transitional targets

Past giving can be an indicator of foundations’ grant-making preferences. However, changes in leadership and/or new strategic planning are not uncommon and can produce less clarity on the direction of grant-making for foundation staff and grant seekers alike.

Guidelines and criteria

Generally, foundations have two means of inviting proposals: open submissions and requests for proposals (RFPs).

Websites contain guidelines and deadlines, if any, for each grant program. The published guidelines often are broad and may not reflect the specific current or upcoming criteria sought in proposals. Having an advance discussion or seeking feedback on a short concept paper can provide more clarity.

RFPs offer more specific proposal guidelines, criteria, budget ranges, and deadlines. An internal competition is held when the university is invited or allowed to submit a limited number of applications.

Other limitations

Some foundations have preferences, or restrictions, that guide grant-making. These can be related to geography, budgets, indirect costs (overhead), collaborations, tenure, institutional commitment, or funding from other sources for the project. If a foundation states that it does not accept unsolicited proposals, consult with our office to identify the best course of action.