A family foundation might conjure up images of great wealth and multimillion-dollar endowments, of Rockefellers and Gateses, but the typical one is actually fairly modest.
Nationally, more than a third have less than $250,000 in assets. Nearly two-thirds have less than $1 million. And both here and across the country, they're multiplying at a fast clip.
"I don't see any minimal amount to starting a foundation," said Shoshana Shoubin Cardin, who gave to charity for years as an individual before launching the Baltimore County-based Shoshana S. Cardin Family Foundation in the late 1990s with $400,000 she had made from the sale of real estate. "Foundations aren't only for rich people."
Family foundations of all sorts will gather Sunday in Baltimore for a three-day conference organized by the Council on Foundations to discuss common issues, such making a difference with limited resources. The council, based in Washington, expects nearly 800 participants from around the country and overseas. "As the stock market remains strong, more people are able to give more," said Susan Price, the council's managing director of family foundation services.
About half of the foundations in the United States are run by families. Such groups aren't legally different from other types of private foundations, which makes them tricky to track, but the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers says family foundations make up about half of its membership and seem to be growing quickly.
Nationwide, their numbers rose nearly 40 percent between 2000 and 2005, according to preliminary estimates by the Foundation Center. And those years included a recession that dented stock portfolios.
Now, says the Council on Foundations, they're forming at a rate of about six a day.
"I would just stress what a wonderful vehicle they can be for families," said Betsy S. Nelson, executive director of the grantmakers association.
Baltimore is a patchwork quilt of buildings and programs made possible by contributions from family foundations - and independent foundations that got their start with family endowments - but such charity doesn't affect only the recipients, they can reinforce a sense of family, she added.
"The opportunity for different generations to have meaningful conversations about what they value, a little bit of from whence they came ... is a wonderful, wonderful legacy," Nelson said.
She's seeing more people start foundations in their 40s, 50s and 60s rather than establishing them in their wills.
Others are opting to start a charitable fund with a community foundation or with a financial institution that handles so-called donor-advised accounts, which typically offer administrative support in exchange for somewhat less flexibility. The T. Rowe Price Program for Charitable Giving, a donor-advised fund that formed six years ago, has grown to about 2,000 accounts. Average size: $25,000.
Cardin, a longtime leader in the Jewish community, recently decided to turn her foundation into a donor-advised fund at the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. As she's aged, the idea of less administrative work appealed, she said.
At the heavyweight end of the family giving spectrum is the France-Merrick Foundation. The largest family foundation in the state, it had more than $220 million in assets and made $10 million in grants in its 2005 fiscal year, the most recent report to the IRS. Its contributions helped make possible the restoration of the Hippodrome Theatre, renamed the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, a cornerstone of the city's west-side revival.
But small family foundations also are critical because their money adds up, said Courtney B. Wilson, executive director of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum. Every year, the nonprofit receives gifts from probably 50 of them, with donations ranging from $500 to $20,000, he said.
"They're important to us, they really are, those smaller gifts," Wilson said. "If a family foundation either has a connection to or likes what an institution is doing, they'll give pretty freely to it without restrictions."
The Delaplaine Foundation in Frederick, which began giving grants five years ago after the Delaplaine family sold two communications companies, is bigger than many with nearly $15 million in assets.
With grants of $770,000 last year to 64 charities, "it really does touch an awful lot of lives," said Marlene B. Young, administrative trustee of the foundation, who plans to attend the conference in Baltimore.
"As we are blessed, it is important that we be a blessing to others," she said.