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Foundations 101

As a Tier 1 research university, Vanderbilt receives over $650 million annually for sponsored research and project awards, which includes both private and governmental funds. The Foundation Relations team serves as a liaison between foundation executives and Vanderbilt leadership, as well as faculty and program directors to secure many of the foundation grants that contribute to this total.


What is a private foundation? 

A foundation is a non-governmental entity that is established as a nonprofit corporation or a charitable trust, with the principle purpose of making philanthropic grants to nonprofit organizations, institutions, or individuals for scientific, educational, cultural, religious, or other charitable purposes. Foundations are governed by a board of trustees or directors, who are responsible for ensuring their grantmaking aligns with the mission and vision of the foundation's founder(s). As of 2017, there are over 140,000 foundations nationwide with more continually being added.

Why is foundation funding important? 

  • Federal funding from entities like the National Institutes of Health continues to decrease
  • Foundations often fund research that is interdisciplinary, cutting-edge, or not yet funded by federal sources
  • Many foundations have funding mechanisms specifically for early career investigators

What kinds of foundations are there? 

There are many classifications of funders under the general umbrella of private foundations from whom we seek support including: public charities, operating foundations, charitable trusts, community foundations, and traditional private and family foundations. In general, they tend to function in one of two ways – as a scientific/peer-reviewed funder, or as a traditional private or family foundation. To learn more about corporate relations, please view Corporations 101.

Foundations that fund research:

  • Grants are reviewed by a Scientific Advisory Board or are peer-reviewed
  • Robust grant structure – similar to federal applications
  • Many fund research focused on disease cure or treatment
  • Often focused on fostering young scientific careers
  • Examples of Scientific Foundations: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Spencer Foundation, William T. Grant Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Included in this category are the nonprofit funding entities called public charities, which typically make research grants but also have a public advocacy mission. These include: American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, Autism Speaks, Michael J. Fox Foundation, Susan G. Komen for the Cure

Traditional, private, or family foundations:

  • Include private and personal/family foundations
  • Board members include family members or lay individuals from the community
  • Less formal grant structure requiring guidance and coordination from the Corporate and Foundation Relations team
  • Often focused on programs for: outreach/services, community, underserved populations
  • Examples of non-scientific foundations: W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Ford Foundation, Arthur Vining Davis Foundation

How do I partner with the Corporate and Foundation Relations Team? 

The Corporate and Foundation Relations team cultivates relationships with foundations that advance priority initiatives and generate financial support across Vanderbilt University. To improve opportunities to secure funding, our team draws on its experiences with foundations and utilizes a range of services and resources across campus to ensure that proposals are optimally positioned for success. We also coordinate with a number of campus entities including the office of the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs, Sponsored Programs, and Vice Provost for Research.

These working relationships are key to maintaining the internal communication that is essential for upholding Vanderbilt's reputation of excellence with external funders. This is one of the main reasons our office encourages all faculty and staff to contact us first when considering approaching a foundation.

Additional ways we assist faculty and leadership:

  • Disseminate Request for Proposals (RFPs) to specific divisions and departments
  • Identify potential foundation funders
  • Help articulate project ideas to improve funding potential
  • Create new relationships and steward existing partnerships with foundations
  • Meet with faculty members to discuss founding prospects and develop solicitation plans
  • Develop general and funder-specific cultivation strategies
  • Contact foundations to determine interests in proposed projects and/or programs
  • Coordinate meeting for Deans and/or faculty with appropriate foundation representatives
  • Review and edit proposals and letters of inquiry (LOI) and coordinate their submission
  • Navigate university and funder policies and procedures
  • Work with various offices on the grant submission process
  • Negotiate grant agreements
  • Develop stewardship strategies for funded projects
  • Track due dates for required grant reports and send reminders to faculty to ensure proper reporting

Please keep in mind that the Corporate and Foundation Relations team is happy to assist you with the proposal writing process. Since you know your work best, we ask you to provide the technical context of the proposal and we will work with you to ensure that the content is prepared according to the foundation's priorities and interests.