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Back to Archives | Back to March 2010 Contents 

Thoughts on Launching a Police Foundation

Chief Rob Davis, San Jose, California, Police Department

The Foundation column is hosting a series of guest authors for several articles covering topics related to establishing and running police foundations.

n these challenging economic times, some fortunate law enforcement executives have been approached by citizens who are both interested in public safety and philanthropically inclined. There are many anecdotal instances of police chiefs receiving offers from affluent residents to help offset the costs of agency resources such as vests for K9 dogs, supplies for mounted patrol officers’ horses, or unusual department items such as ATVs. However, these kinds of offers often come with confusing and conflicting expectations and restrictions.

In response to these situations, and to better address the changing needs of police agencies across the United States, one of the best solutions in many instances has turned out to be the establishment of a police foundation as a separate 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. The text that follows is a brief but helpful synopsis of basic information about police foundations and the advantages and cautions to be considered when contemplating a foundation as an auxiliary funding source for an agency.

First Steps

When considering a police foundation, consider the following elements to guide efforts:

  • Plan a year ahead, as it probably will take that long to get going.

  • Find an internal champion. It is hoped that the police chief or other department executive supports the idea, is influential in the community with both citizens and potential donors, has good relationships with officers throughout the ranks, and can devote a few hours a week to the foundation effort.

  • Identify someone who is detail oriented and is skilled at analyzing, completing, and properly submitting tremendous amounts of paperwork to assist the internal champion.

  • Identify community leaders who may be candidates for the board; these might be individuals who are already involved in supporting the department.

  • Research best practices. Many successful police foundations exist in the United States—several of which are members of the IACP’s Police Foundations Section.

Developing Criteria for a Police Foundation

A police foundation, like any organization, requires some basic organizational elements. It is helpful for the clarity of the mission, and for recruiting board members and donors, to establish the following items at the beginning of the incorporation process:

Mission statement: Explain the fundamental purpose of the foundation.

Vision statement: Generally visualize the role the foundation plays in the community and for the agency.

Major objectives: Identify short- and long-term goals (for example, equipment, technology acquisition, defraying training costs, and support for fallen officers’ families).

Board governance and policy: Establish a sound set of guiding documents.

Fiscal responsibility and transparency: Identify what financial reports will be generated, by whom, and how often. Also ensure stewardship of funds and acknowledgement of donations.

Policies and procedures: Include documents that will evolve with the foundation and should be persevered both in hard-copy and electronic format for frequent and immediate reference.

Meeting schedule: Determine how often the foundation board will meet. Consider meeting off department premises to maintain the appearance of independence.


Police foundations allow their respective departments to take advantage of several benefits, such as the following:

Tax Exemption: Organizations that qualify as public charities under IRS Code 501(c)3 are eligible for federal exemption from payment of corporate income tax and, typically, are exempt from similar state and local taxes. Tax exemption is not automatic for organizations that incorporate as nonprofits; they must apply to the IRS and to appropriate state and local governments for tax-exempt status.

Eligibility for Public and Private Grants: Nonprofit organizations are in a unique position to solicit donations from the public, resulting in tax benefits to individuals; and are better situated to petition other public and private foundations and government agencies for grants.

Formal Structure: A police foundation usually stands separate from an agency or from the individuals who formed it and exists as a legal entity in its own right. Incorporation, along with the 501(c)3 status, establishes the mission and structure of the nonprofit as a freestanding body with distinctive goals.

Limited Liability: In most cases under the law, creditors and courts are limited to the assets of the nonprofit organization. The founders, directors, members, and employees are not personally liable for the nonprofit’s debts. Obviously, there are exceptions, and it should be emphasized that directors have a fiduciary responsibility to perform their jobs in the best interests of the nonprofit.

Public Perception: A police foundation provides a unique vehicle for both major donors and citizens to become involved in their state or local law enforcement efforts. Many potential supporters are wary of telemarketing or mailing solicitations for unknown fund-raising organizations, but an established police foundation provides a clear, obvious, and trustworthy method to channel support from the community to the department.


Police foundation initiators certainly can create successful organizations, but they should be aware of the following potential pitfalls before embarking on such a mission:

Cost: Foundations bring with them both fiscal and personnel costs. Creating a nonprofit organization takes time, effort, energy, interest, and money. Establishing a police foundation, applying for federal tax exemption, and legally incorporating in the agency’s respective state typically necessitates the use of an attorney, accountant, or other professional to ensure accuracy, compliance, and transparency.

Paperwork: Nonprofits are required by the state in which they are incorporated to keep detailed records. Certain documents, such as IRS Form 990, articles of incorporation, bylaws, annual reports, financial records, and donor lists must be prepared in a specific manner and filed with specified agencies by certain deadlines.

Shared Control: Although the individuals who create police foundations do so to further an identified and noble cause, it is critical to remember that once the organization is up and running, personal control is limited. For example, in some states, the nonprofit is required by law to have several directors, who in turn are the only individuals permitted to elect or appoint foundation officers who determine policy.

How to Distinguish the Police Foundation

Aside from police foundations, other valuable community organizations also exist to assist police departments in their efforts to build and keep safe and secure communities. The Police Athletic League, Law Enforcement Explorers, DARE programs, and police youth camps are just a few examples of those beneficial entities.

It is important to distinguish the foundation early on from other police-affiliated organizations. Clearly communicated mission and vision statements help to do this, but the real work comes from the communication efforts of the chief, intra-agency champions, and foundation board members with prospective individual, local business, and corporate donors.

Creating a brief elevator speech1 that crystallizes what the foundation is and what it does is a critical initial exercise for a first board meeting. The elevator speech is the board’s and the staff’s two-minute opportunity to quickly and clearly illustrate the mission and goals of the foundation to anyone who asks. Bringing in a fundraising professional to assist with this exercise is extremely valuable and often can be accomplished as an in-kind gift of time and services.

In all cases, communication vehicles, such as brochures and the organization’s Web site, should be clear on the foundation’s purpose.

Conclusion and Resources

The IACP Police Foundations Section has been able to identify approximately three dozen operating police foundations throughout the United States. They are in varying stages of growth and maturity, and some face more challenges than others. But success stories such as the Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York City police foundations readily attest to the mutual benefit provided to the departments they assist and the communities they enrich.

Many police foundations, with instrumental support from public-private partnerships that are so often the hallmarks of these organizations, are credited with developing, funding, and bringing to fruition highly effective department and community programs. ■


1The elevator speech gets its name from the short opportunity to tell, and sell, a story during a brief elevator ride. Its purpose is not to close a deal, but rather to pique the listener’s attention enough to agree to move to the next level of commitment. Nick Wreden, “How to Make Your Case in 30 Seconds or Less,” Harvard Business Review (January 2002), (accessed January 29, 2010).

The IACP Foundation is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization established to solicit, receive, administer, and expend funds for law enforcement–related charitable and educational purposes. Donations may be tax deductible; please check with your personal tax adviser. The foundation’s federal tax ID number is 54-1576762.

Please cite as:

Rob Davis, IACP Foundation, "Thoughts on Launching a Police Foundation," The Police Chief 77 (March 2010): 10–11, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 3, March 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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