Image Courtesy of The San Francisco Foundation
By: Jackie Downing & Alexa Davidson
September 15, 2017
The MNA curriculum is rich with information on foundations, but how much do you know about donor advised funds? Did you know that from 2014 to 2015, according to the National Philanthropic Trusts 2016 Donor-Advised Fund Report, the total number of donor advised funds grew by 11.1%, compared to private foundations which grew by 2.6%. Additionally, Donor Advised Fund grants to qualified charities reached an all time high of $14.2 billion, which is a 16.9% increase from 2014 (National Philanthropic Trust, 2016). As greater numbers of donors – individuals, families and companies – choose this low-cost, convenient giving vehicle over the traditional foundation, it is essential that nonprofits leaders understand donor advised funds.
Let’s start with the basics. A donor advised fund, as defined by the IRS, is a fund or account which is separately identified, owned and controlled by the sponsoring organization, and over which the donor(s) (or person(s) appointed by them) have advisory privileges. Like a bank account, the fund bears the donors’ names, unless they choose to name it something else. The account is housed at a large nonprofit, such as a community foundation, university, or the philanthropic arm of a financial firm, such as Schwab Charitable. The donors may recommend grants from the fund to eligible nonprofits. Unlike a private foundation where the “owners” (the trustees) have the authority to make grants from the fund, an advisor to a donor advised fund recommends grants from the fund and these recommendations must be reviewed and approved by the entity that houses the donor advised fund.
If donors establishing donor advised funds are forced to give up some control over the assets in the fund, why then are they so popular? Because donor advised funds offer many advantages over private foundations. For starters, donors contributing highly appreciated property to a donor advised fund can deduct up to 50% of their adjusted gross income for these gifts, compared to 30% for private foundations. Donor advised funds, with fees ranging from about .25% to 1.25% of the fund balance, are generally far less expensive than hiring staff to run your private foundation, especially if it is small. Unlike a private foundation, which must file and publish a 990 annually, disclosing all monies spent on staffing, operations and grants, a donor advised fund offers complete privacy. A donor can give anonymously to any eligible organization. In many instances, particularly at community foundations, donor advised fund donors have the opportunity to consult grantmaking professionals, utilize their services and expertise to learn about grantees, become more informed philanthropists, involve their family in philanthropy, and plan for a charitable legacy after their lifetime.
In addition to these advantages, donor advised funds have a few other positive traits. They are far more flexible than private foundations. They require only one advisor, though most providers will allow a donor to appoint other friends and family to advise on the fund if desired. They do not require a board, board meetings, or any formal decision making process, other than submitting the grant recommendations to the sponsor for approval, which in most instances, donors can do online anytime, day or night. This allows donors to be responsive and generous in their giving, responding to the needs of the community and getting funds to the causes they care about, anytime of the year. Grants are quickly reviewed, approved and paid, generally in one or two weeks’ time. The sponsoring organization conducts appropriate due diligence to ensure that the funds will be used by an eligible nonprofit organization for charitable purposes. Donor advised funds are not designed to live in perpetuity, though most sponsors offer the option of creating a permanent fund after the donor’s lifetime. Instead, donor advised funds typically spend down their assets in one or two generations, with remaining funds going to the sponsoring institution (in the case of community foundations and universities) or directly to nonprofit causes when the donors are no longer living. While private foundations typically spend 5% of their corpus per year and are designed to exist in perpetuity, donor advised funds generally spend well above this, which in a world of great need, is a very important distinction.
When soliciting or accepting a donation from a donor advised fund, keep in mind the following:
Donor advised funds may make grants to eligible causes, including:
- Domestic 501(c)(3) charitable organizations and 509(a)(1) and 509(a)(2) public c charities, including houses of worship, hospitals, schools, museums, symphonies, zoos
- Governmental units (if for public purpose)
- Private operating foundations
- Some supporting organizations – 509(a)(3) public charities that are not considered disqualified to donor advised funds
- Foreign charities, using expenditure responsibility (tracking all expenses) or equivalency determination (demonstrating that the organization is the equivalent of a US charity.
Donor advised funds may not:
- Make grants to individuals selected by or affiliated with donor
- Make grants which result in benefits for or payments to the donor or related parties
- Make grants to private non-operating foundations
- Be used to fulfill pledges or sponsor events
- Be used pay the portion of a gift that is tax deductible
- Be given for anything other than charitable purposes
Make the experience positive for donor advised fund donors:
- Grantees should exercise care when thanking a donor for making a request from a donor advised fund. The thank you letter should not thank the individual donor for the donation, but instead should thank the donor for recommending the contribution.
- Neither the DAF sponsor nor the individual donor require a tax receipt from your organization. Any letters are for acknowledgement purposes only.
- Do not provide tickets, sponsorships, gifts, or any other benefits beyond incidentals (like a coffee mug) to donors. Do not allow donors to split (bifurcate) their gifts, paying for benefits portion personally and the tax-deductible portion with the fund. This is called bifurcation and it is not permissible by the IRS.
- Do not ask or allow your donors to make pledges. Donors may express their intent to recommend a grant from their donor advised fund to your organization, but they may not commit formally or in writing to a gift without approval from the sponsoring organization.
- Secure a DAF grant as you would any other gift: Cultivate the donor relationship; Craft a compelling case; Make the ask; Confirm the gift source; Thank and steward the donor. For anonymous donors, ask the sponsoring organization to pass along a thank you letter.
- For anonymous donors, ask the sponsoring organization to pass along a thank you letter or email to the donor and take great care to treat the donor’s gift with confidentiality.
The rapid growth of donor advised funds in recent years illustrates their widespread appeal. Thousands of everyday Americans who want to be strategic and flexible in their giving, use donor advised funds to support the causes they care about. Donor advised funds should help donors experience the greatest level of satisfaction and joy from the generous support of their favorite causes and charities. Whether at a single-issue charity, a community foundation, or a commercial provider, donor advised funds serve a common purpose: raising the profile of philanthropy and bringing more resources to worthwhile organizations making positive change.
The authors wish to thank Pamela Doherty, Director of Business Development at The San Francisco Foundation, for contributing her expertise to these recommendations.