Key Points

Charitable activity is a core tenet of most faith traditions, and many charitable organizations have a religious identity. However, little is known about the prevalence and scale of faith-based foundations, and how they differ from secular foundations.

This article identifies the field of public foundations, differentiates between faith-based and secular foundations, and compares their characteristics by analyzing Form 990 data. An analysis of these data estimates that 24% of all public charities operate as foundations and that 17% of public foundations are faith-based. These findings are used to generate first-ever estimates for the entire field of public foundations.

This analysis and calculations using nonprofit sector data indicate there are approximately 300,000 public foundations in the United States and that 52,000 of them are faith-based. Collectively, these faith-based public foundations have at least $90 billion in assets and, in 2015, they contributed at least $8 billion to charitable causes. Additional analyses comparing faith-based and secular foundations indicate that faith-based foundations tend to be older, have greater revenue and more assets, receive less money from government sources, and distribute more money in grants, especially to international causes.

This article provides an important lens through which to examine the field of public foundations and better understand similarities and differences among faithbased and secular foundations. It can help scholars analyze relationships between religion and philanthropy, help grantmakers assess foundations through a faith-based– secular grid, and help grantees identify funders that share a similar orientation toward religion. Overall, this study reveals the meaningful presence of faith-based foundations, indicates the scale of their impact, and underscores the enduring and significant influence of religion in the philanthropic sector.

Open Access