The 1980s could well be called the decade of austerity, as Americans make painful choices about how to employ their limited resources.

Even in affluent Washington, officials of worthwhile community programs and endeavors will find it difficult to expand or even maintain current levels of private sector and government support.

In fact, with less government money available, the Washington area faces a greater challenge than other large urban centers because of the absence of an extensive big business base here. Large corporations in New York, Detroit, St. Louis and other big cities provide a substantial base of private, philanthropic capital in their hometowns to support community programs, but the D.C. area is home to only a handful of the Fortune 500.

Fortunately, a little-known organization is paying attention to these issues and has established a systematic process of evaluating the needs of philanthropic groups throughout the metropolitan area, channeling private gifts to community projects selected by the donors and monitoring the results.

Called the Community Foundation of Greater Washington Inc., this group has a low profile today that reflects many of the difficulties it has faced in getting started. The Community Foundation idea is not new. Business leaders in Cleveland organized the first such foundation half a century ago, and the idea has been adopted in some 250 communities nationwide, including all large cities.

Washington was the last major urban center to get a Community Foundation when the organization was started in the 1970s. Only in the past two years has the local foundation been able to launch a full program.

Moreover, according to foundation President Lawrence Stinchcomb, a major goal is to convince large national corporations that they must play a role in Washington community philanthropy. Stinchcomb and his board of directors want to strengthen the nonprofit sector here, especially human needs projects for which there is no apparent funding. Included are youth, family, neighborhood, aging, mental health and arts programs.

From the start, there have been several standouts among national corporations providing funds to area activities through the Community Foundation. Exxon Corp., Corning Glass Works and Time Inc. have been the leaders. First Lady Rosalynn Carter has been among the prominent supporters.

Howard Kauffmann, Exxon's president, says the foundation should become "the vehicle for bringing many new and needed revenues to the nation's capital. . . Community foundations are structured to move into areas of unexpected needs where no other funds are immediately available."

And Corning Vice Chairman James Houghton emphasized "the uniqueness of Washington and the responsibility that the corporate world has to the nation's capital." But, until the foundation was established, Corning and other firms had no way to identify social priorities here, make funding decisions, monitor program progress and evaluate results, he noted. The Community Foundation meets all of these needs for a non-Washington business or trust.

Exxon money in 1980, for example, has been channeled by the Community Foundation to the Hospice of Northern Virginia, to help in training volunteers ($11,500); the D.C. Hispanic Festival Week ($5,000); Associated Catholic Charities, to aid churches in the Anacostia area ($12,000, including Exxon and an anonymous contribution); the Washington Child Development Council, to expand the referral and child care information services ($10,000); the D.C. Coalition for Youth, to shorten pretrial periods and develop better rehabilitation and probation programs ($10,500) and the Richmond Fellowship of Metropolitan Washington, to prepare a report on the relationship between the D.C. government and nonprofit mental health service providers ($12,500 including Exxon and general endowment money).

Corporations, trustees for endowments or estates and area foundations (often established by wealthy families) are among institutions that can take advantage of Community Foundation services. Some methods are setting up a corporate fund within the foundation, from which grants are made in the firm's name (and which can be restricted to specific needs) and establishing an unrestricted corporate fund.

Another unique aspect of Washington and its young Community Foundation is an agreement worked out by the foundation and United Way, under which both operate independently but share information on the funding of priority needs here. The foundation will not solicit operating funds from the local business community but will rely instead on annual United Way grants, until the foundation's own endowment is large enough. And the foundation has set up a United Way support. Stinchcomb expects this concept to be borrowed in other cities, to prevent conflicts between private sector fund raisers in an era when every penny must be watched more carefully.

Booklets that explain the foundation's operations and information for grant applicants are available from Stinchcomb at 3221 M St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20007.