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Independent foundations, such as the Wallace Foundation, the Ford Foundation, or the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, are tax-exempt nonprofits or charitable trusts established to support the donor or donor family's philanthropic values and purposes. There are more than 70,000 independent foundations, with new ones established every day. They all have boards of directors, but otherwise vary greatly in purpose, structure, and operations. With notable exceptions, most independent foundations have little or no staff, and most have assets of less than $1M.

Larger foundations with the capacity for strategic planning periodically re-evaluate their grant making agendas. In light of contemporary challenges and emerging opportunities, they may revise those agendas and guidelines to ensure maximum impact. Some large foundations recently have redirected support to international development, peace, and other issues.

A family foundation, such as the Hill-Snowden Foundation or the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, is an independent foundation in which the founding donor or relatives of the donor play an important role in the governance and/or management of the foundation. Family foundations are the fastest growing sector in the foundation world, and because cultivating strong relationships with the donor and/or donor's relatives is key to working with family foundations, they can be excellent major gift prospects.

Community foundations, such as the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation or the Hampton Roads Community Foundation, are public charities funded by many donors who pool their contributions to support their community or region. Many of the nation's more than 700 community foundations also manage donor-advised funds, an alternative to a family foundation.

Corporate foundations, such as the Norfolk Southern Foundation, the Starbucks Foundation, or the GE Foundation generally are the philanthropic arm of a business or corporation. A growing number of the more than 2,600 corporate foundations closely tie their philanthropic programs to their corporate goals.

Operating foundations, such as the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching or the Pew Charitable Trusts, underwrite their own programs, research, or services, rather than making grants to other organizations. Currently, there are almost 5,000 operating foundations in the U.S.