The National Press Foundation is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering professionalism among members of the working press and encouraging the higest standards of craft and ethics among journalists and students of journalism.

NPF gives financial help to working newsmen for such special projects as research and postgraduate education. It gives scholarships to journalism students and helps in the fight for Freedom of Information.

The foundation also gives awards for excellence and provides financial and operational support for the awards program of the National Press Club.

For example, the Fourth Estate Award is given for a lifetime of excellence in journalism. Winners have been newsmen like Walter Cronkite of CBS, James B. (Scotty) Reston of The New York Times, Herbert L. (Herblock) Block of The Washington Post, Richard L. Strout of The Christian Science Monitor, John S. Knight of Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Vermont Royster of The Wall Street Journal and Clayton Kirkpatrick of The Chicago Tribune.

These are names fit for a journalistic hall of fame. For each of them, there are thousands of newsmen who work in relative anonymity.

They cover our policemen, firemen, athletes, actors, politicians, life styles and obituaries, life styles and obituaries. They keep a watchful eye on who's in the White House and who's in the doghouse, and why. They are the men and women who keep the nation informed, and NPF was formed to foster high professional and ethical standards among them.

On Saturday afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Leo M. Bernstein held a reception to honor the foundation. At the reception, several NPF awards were announced. One (for $1,000) went to Steve Weinberg of the University of Missouri School of Journalism's Washington Bureau. Steve is working on "a handbook for Washington reporters."

Steve explained that when an out-of-town newspaper sends one of its star reporters to Washington, the newcomer very often arrives here with little knowledge of how the national goverment works. He can't cover the news well because he doesn't know where to find it. He doesn't know about the working level of government, where activity or its absence can inform sophisticated observers about what's cooking -- and what's on the back burner.

As Steve spoke, my mind went back to Jerry Kluttz, the man who invented the Federal Diary column. For decades, Jerry and I shared adjoining desks or offices. I used to listen in wonder to his comments on public misconceptions about how the government works. The bane of his existence was the fallout from insincere election-year proposals for a salary increase for federal workers.

"Oh, dear Lord," Jerry would moan as he sat down to type out a report on such a proposal. "The telephone calls are gong to drive me nuts tommorrow morning. People will be calling in to ask whether the increase will be included in the checks they get next week."

The public is somewhat more knowledgeable these days, but I'm afraid millions of Americans are still not really sure about how our system works, why it sometimes fails to work, and what their own roles in all this should be.

If Steve succeeds in putting together a handbook for reporters who have been newly assigned here from the hinterlands, it may also be of value to people outside our profession. If it turns out to be that kind of book, you may want one.

The foundation isn't rich enough to give away free copies of the handbook, but it does intend to make the books available at a modest price. I'll keep an eye on the project and let you know how it's developing.

If you have any questions about the National Press Foundation, be advised that its president is Frank Aukofer of the Milwaukee Journal. His office is in the National Press Building and his phone number is 737-6453. The foundation's office is also in the National Press Building and its phone number is 638-6867.

I can answer two of the questions that might be in your mind.

NPF is a nonprofit organization. Contributions to it are tax-deductible.

Yes, help from the public is much appreciated. Thus far, most of NPF's financial support has come out of the pockets of journalists themselves, and we're not very rich. We just think it is important for us to help each other raise ethical standards and improve our professional skills.

To govern themselves well, people must know the truth about themselves. That's why Thomas Jefferson (who often found the press a pain in the neck) thought a free press was essential to democracy. We agree.

Saturday's Post reported from Warsaw that four Poles had been found guilty of owning a basttered old mineograph machine. The Communists are afraid "hooligans" might use it to print the truth. Apparently there is no National Press Foundation in Poland.