Of course it helps, but you don't have to be a Ford or a Rockefeller to establish a foundation.

Or rich.

Or old money.

You can do it as a comfortable but not-quite-weathy middle-class member of one of the country's racial and ethnic minorities.

Foundations that hand out money have been established by scores of melting-pot Americans -- like Joe Shoong, a Chinese immigrant merchant, or Mary Carmen Saucedo, a Hispanic retired school administrator; or Lonnie Porter, a black janitor who died at age 93 and left his $100,000 life's savings to set up an endowment that supports students at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

Increasingly, reports the Council on Foundations, a resource house for 1,200 grant-making organizations, members of racial and ethnic minorities are creating foundations to help their own kind or society in general.

It requires money, but not a fortune, the council says; $2,000 can make you a full-fledged philanthropist, a regular Rockefeller, with a fund bearing your family name and perpetuating your good intentions into eternity.

The classic case is Le Ly Hayslip.

Once a South Vietnamese peasant, she married an American, came to this country, opened a restaurant, succeeded in business, was widowed, went back to Vietnam, was appalled at the poverty there, and returned to California. She sold her restaurant and two of the three houses she owned, and, with the proceeds, established the East Meets West Foundation.

It earmarks earnings to help people in Hayslip's native land recover from the wounds of war, providing medical equipment and supplies to hospitals and village clinics. One program enables Americans to support Vietnamese families whose fathers and sons were severely disabled in the war.

Sensing that the benevolent traditions of America's black, Hispanic, Asian-American and American Indian communities are an untold story, the Council on Foundations assigned Karen Lynn, a member of its staff, to investigate.

Lynn came to the council from five years at United Way of Chicago. After a two-year study, she has written a report that concludes:

"Looking beyond the perception of minorities as the recipients of charity, you will find these communities have always been benevolent. American Indians, Asians, blacks and Hispanics have a strong tradition of selflessness dating back many centuries. Giving, not receiving, marks the histories of these minority groups."

She cites the American Indian tradition of disbursing the personal property of a deceased member of the tribe among all his survivors.

From that history it was not a great leap to 1977, when Dagmar Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox tribe, named his foundation the Seventh Generation Fund, honoring the Great Law of the Iroquois People of the Longhouse: "We must consider the impact of our decisions on the seventh generation." The fund seeks to advance the self-sufficiency of North American tribes.

All told, the country has more than 30,000 foundations, with assets exceeding $122 billion. In 1988, they gave away $7.4 billion. The $5 billion Ford Foundation is the largest; it disbursed $213 million in 1988.

Foundations must file forms with the IRS, but these require no ethnic identification, so fixing the exact number of minority-created foundations is difficult.

Lynn estimates that there may be 500 or more family foundations established by minorities. Some, like those founded by entertainers Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey, are well-funded and well known. Others are virtually unknown.

Robert Lee, a California educator, thought he had located all the Chinese-American foundations when he reported to a 1989 conference on minority foundations that he had found 14 of them. Lee kept searching and this year he published a list of 140.

The most famous of them is the Milton Shoong Foundation, which has $6.5 million in assets and gives away half a million a year to such causes as Boys Town of Italy, two Buddhist temples, three Christian churches, the Alameda County (Calif.) Sheriff's Air Squadron and the Special Olympics. It was founded in the 1930s by Milton Shoong's father, Joe, an immigrant who opened a dry goods store in Vallejo, Calif., in 1903 that grew into a western chain of National Dollar Stores.

Some minority foundations have assets of as little as $25,000. What makes a charity a foundation is the way it is set up -- with a pool of money that is invested, the earnings given away but the endowment remaining and generating more income. For the founder, there are substantial tax benefits.

"Having a foundation removes a lot of pressure," said Lynn. "It allows people to feel that they can give to charity in a methodical, logical way without being inundated by requests."

Charitable solicitors are told to submit a written request. Four times a year or so, a foundation's board of directors -- often family members -- can review requests and parcel out funds in an orderly way. By channeling funds in selected directions, donors can feel their gift-giving is having real impact.

If establishing a foundation still seems too bold, families can take a lesser step, establishing a fund within a community foundation such as those that exist in many American cities. The fund -- essentially a foundation within a foundation -- will carry their name and fulfill their purposes.

Each foundation sets its own rules, but often a few thousand dollars, sometimes paid in annual installments, is enough to create a family fund.

In Texas, for example, with an initial $2,000, Mary Carmen and Alfredo Saucedo of El Paso -- she was an assistant school principal, he runs a hardware business -- created a Saucedo Fund as part of the El Paso Community Foundation. Now about 20 other Hispanic families in El Paso have followed suit.

Generally, Hispanic foundations help Hispanics and African Americans foundations steer their dollars to black causes, but increasingly, minority foundations are making gifts across racial and ethnic lines.

The council, noting that white people will constitute a minority of Americans sometime in the 21st century, welcomes that trend as "a sure sign of maturation and increasing diversity."