Dani Robbins

The Implications of Donor Advised Funds on the Charity You Love

In Community Strategy, Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Uncategorized on February 6, 2019 at 10:09 pm

Donor Advised Funds (DAFs) were created to be a charitable option for those who have or have received a significant influx of funds. They are touted as a way to democratize philanthropy. DAFs have opened up vehicles for giving to midsize donors in a way that family foundations could not. For the first time, donors with sometimes four but more often five-figure gifts to donate could do so, long term.  Of course, they could always do so short term. 

Despite the DAF commercials you may have seen (Wells Fargo wins for the most appalling), it was always possible to donate a significant gift straight to the nonprofit of your choosing.  What wasn’t available was a long-term option, other than a family foundation, which is expensive to start and has significant compliance obligations.

The introduction of DAFs allow a donor to get an immediate tax deduction, while they – in theory – can research where they want to spend their philanthropic dollars, later.

To be clear, it’s called Donor ADVISED Funds for a reason.  The donor can advise the DAF sponsor on where they want the gift to go.  The DAF sponsor usually sends it to the intended destination but reserves the right not to based on the law, the mission of the recipient organization and the sponsor’s internal policies. For example, your local Jewish Foundation will likely grant your recommendation to send a gift to your local Jewish Community Center, but not likely to your local hate group. 

There are a few requirements of the donor.  DAF funds cannot be used to pay a pledge.  In fact, the donor can‘t receive any benefit from the gift – this is standard for any gift you want to deduct. It’s why you can’t deduct the full cost of the gala you went to last weekend but can deduct the cost of the ticket minus the expenses to the charity.  In the case of DAFs, you can’t buy the ticket with those funds at all, since you received a benefit (gala tickets) for your gift.

DAFs can be named for your family, or whatever or whomever you’d like.  You can name it your initials, or for your dog. That makes it difficult for charities to prospect, thank or steward gifts received from those who have DAFs, or even to know from whom their most recent donation arrived. 

Another challenge for our field is that there’s no requirement that money be given out. There’s also no requirement that the name of the donor be released. In fact, there are rules against their names being released. You read that right: a donor can park significant resources in a donor advised fund, which is then owned by the DAF sponsor, to be given out without attribution to the donor, at the donor’s leisure or not at all.  In all cases, the donor gets an immediate tax benefit.

Actual charities may get nothing. The government definitely gets nothing because it goes in and continues to grow tax free. No taxes get paid. The data  suggests that donor-advised funds have a net negative effect.

The only ones who consistently benefit is the donor and the fund owner, which may not actually be a charity at all, and likely will be a for profit company managing a “nonprofit spin off.”  Here’s the Chronicle’s explanation “Much of the criticism is directed at Fidelity Charitable and other sponsors of donor-advised funds that are nonprofit spinoffs of financial-service firms. These organizations typically pay their for-profit parent to manage the money in the funds, which means they have a financial incentive to accumulate assets and hold onto them.”

How it works is this: A donor sets up a donor advised fund, either at a community foundation, or at a for-profit company that manages “a charitable institution.” The word charity is used in the loosest way, meaning under the law it’s a charity, but in reality it provides no services other than as a vehicle to house funds which will be given out at a later date, maybe. It will generate annual fees for the sponsoring institution, often but not exclusively a for profit entity, in perpetuity.

That’s part of the challenge for the nonprofit field, and the government. DAFs take huge amounts of money out of the economy, and out of the charity designation pot each year that actual charities providing real services may never see. Unlike foundations, there’s no distribution rules. Even the DAFs housed in foundations have no distribution requirement.

In other words, you could sell a business for $100 million today and put some portion of that money in a donor advised fund.  You would get an immediate tax deduction and the donation could sit there … in perpetuity.

Those who are fans of Donor Advised Funds will argue that money is given out.  They say that even more money is given out because of DAFs.  But because most of the giving, the “owning” and the management of donor advised funds is done in secrecy, we don’t really know.

A smaller challenge is that many agencies don’t know how to properly thank donors who send gifts from donor-advised funds.  Because they may not understand that the gift came from a DAF, meaning the deduction has already been granted, they may send a letter with tax deductible language. The donor may not notice when the letter comes in but totally notices when they’re trying to figure out their taxes at the end of the year.

To be clear, there is a fairly significant section of nonprofit leaders who like Donor Advised Funds and many leaders do not care from whom the money comes or by what vehicle it arrives, as long as it comes.  Some will say, and they will be right, that if you know your donors, you know who has a DAF and this is not a problem.  Is that true? Sometimes. 

It’s critical nonprofits know from whom they’re receiving gifts.  There are too many instance of charities taking money from people or companies who later embarrassed them, or publicly compromised their principles or values. If you don’t know, you can’t protect your organization.

Still, some leaders love DAFs.  Of course, leaders of community foundations love them.  Community Foundations are a huge holder of DAFs.  I appreciate that and if you insist on starting one, please consider the community foundation in your area. 

There are even some charities who have started managing DAFs themselves.  Many of the big nonprofits have started their own, often aligned with their organizational values and with a requirement that a portion of the funds go to them. Still, the charities and the community foundations don’t come close to the big companies.

As far as charitable recipients, Fidelity Charitable is at the top, coming in at #1 for the second year running and in the second spot for the five preceding years of charitable data. DAFs are so significantly represented that a full 50% of the top 10 recipients of charitable funds in 2017 are sponsors of funds and not community serving, program providing, (actual) charities.  One is a community foundation. 

The DAF debate is happening at the same time that the field and the world is beginning to challenge status quo of philanthropy. 

The following questions are currently being discussed:

When does being donor focused come at the expense of the mission, clients or community?

Should deductions be tied to community need?

Does the current model of philanthropy promote inequity?

How do nonprofits distinguish themselves in a world of social enterprise?

Does big philanthropy reinforce the inequity it purports to address?

What’s your take on DAFS? Are you asking, and how do you answer the questions listed?  I welcome your feedback, insight and experience.  A rising tide raises all boats.

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