The community foundation concept is, at the same time, both simple and complex. 
It is simple in the sense that a community foundation mobilises and connects resources to needs in a community.  It is complex, however, because this mission can be accomplished in various ways.  As a result, attempts to define a community foundation are boundless.  The Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Supports (WINGS), a global network of membership associations and support organisations serving grantmakers, has identified characteristics that distinguish a community foundation from other not-for-profit entities.  Community foundations are philanthropic organisations which:

  • Seek to improve the quality of life for all people in a defined geographic area
  • Are independent from controls or influence by other organisations, governments, or donors
  • Are governed by a board of citizens who are broadly reflective of the communities they serve
  • Make grants to other non-profit groups to address a wide variety of emerging and changing needs in the community
  • Seek to build a permanent resource for the community, most often through the creation of endowed funds from a wide range of donors, including local citizens, corporations, governments, and other foundations and non-profits
  • Provide service to donors to help them achieve their philanthropic goals
  • Have open and transparent policies and practices concerning all aspects of their operations
  • Are accountable to the community by informing the public about their purposes, activities, and financial status on a regular basis
  • Engage in a broad range of community leadership and partnership activities, serving as catalysts, conveners, collaborators, and facilitators to solve problems and develop solutions to important community issues.

These functions and characteristics distinguish community foundations from all other types of foundations and not-for-profit organisations. Yet it is important to note that no two community foundations are exactly alike. While some display most of the attributes listed above, others place greater emphasis on one characteristic over another. Even in countries with a long history of community foundations, significant variations exist with respect to their organisational structure, governance, and role in the community. Consequently, as the concept has spread to different countries it has been adopted and modified to relate to different societal and cultural contexts.

(Shared and adapted from: Local Mission, Global Vision: Community Foundations in the 21st Century, authored by Peter Hero.)