Posts tagged ‘David Gelles’

August 17, 2018

It’s Time to Stop Whining about Donor-Advised Funds!

The New York Times whined recently about Donor-Advised Funds in an article carrying the headline, “How Tech Billionaires Hack Their Taxes With a Philanthropic Loophole.”

While you personally might not complain about DAFs, you can sure bet some of your organization’s senior staff and board members may line up with some of the experts cited in the misleading piece in the Times.

I’m here to tell you and others that it’s time to stop whining about DAFs. Regardless of how you feel about them, DAFs have been with us since the 1930s, and they’re not likely to go away anytime soon. So, you and your organization will be far better off if you understand how to benefit from DAFs.

I’ll give you six tips. However, as a former newspaper editor, I feel compelled to first bust the myths peddled by the Times.

“Billionaires.” The Times seems to suggest that DAFs are a tool being used by and only available to billionaires. David Gelles writes, “DAFs allow wealthy individuals like Mr. Woodman to give assets — usually cash and stock, but also real estate, art and cryptocurrencies — to a sponsoring organization like the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Fidelity Charitable or Vanguard Charitable.” While many wealthy individuals establish DAF accounts, so do middle class people. Some sponsoring organizations require just a $5,000 contribution to create one.

As a result of the new tax code, some donors will no longer itemize deductions on their tax returns because of the increase in the standard deduction. However, if they are close to being able to itemize beyond the standard deduction, some will choose to bundle their charitable giving. In other words, they’ll give in some years but not others. In the years they give, they’ll itemize. One way some of these donors will give is to establish a DAF with a large contribution in a given year. Then, they’ll continue to support their favorite charities each year by recommending annual grants from their DAF account.

The bottom-line is that DAFs are not just for the super-wealthy.

“Hack Their Taxes with a Philanthropic Loophole.” The headline in the Times lets you know the reporter’s inappropriate bias right from the start. The wealthy are not doing anything cute, clever, sloppy, or nefarious by creating a DAF. Any donor who creates a DAF is simply following the clearly written provisions of the law.

If giving to charity is a “hack” in the pejorative sense, if receiving a charitable-gift deduction for donating to a nonprofit organization is exploiting a “loophole,” then perhaps we should do away with the deduction for donations all together. However, can we agree that would be stupid?

The bottom-line is that setting up a DAF is no more evil than creating a foundation or trust or, for that matter, giving directly to a charitable organization. Donors who engage in careful tax planning have more disposable income or assets, which has historically led to more giving.

“Charities Can Wait for Funds Indefinitely.” Gelles writes, “So while donors enjoy immediate tax benefits, charities can wait for funds indefinitely, and maybe forever.” He goes on to state that foundations are required to give away five percent of their assets each year, but DAFs have no similar requirement. That’s true, but…

While DAFs are not required to make minimum distributions, the average DAF distributes far more than the minimum required of foundations. According to the 2017 Donor-Advised Fund Report, compiled by The National Philanthropic Trust, DAFs contributed 20.3 percent of assets to charities in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available. For the third year in a row, growth in grants from DAFs has outpaced the growth of giving to DAFs.

Why would a donor just let money sit in a DAF account “forever” after setting up the irrevocable account? While the sponsoring organizations would love that – they earn fees for managing the accounts – a donor derives zero benefit from warehousing money in a DAF, beyond the initial deduction. Instead, donors benefit when that money can be put to good use. Furthermore, they’ll benefit when the recipient charities recognize their support and express their gratitude.

The bottom-line is that most donors have no interest in warehousing their money. They want to use their DAFs to help build a better world. It’s the job of fundraising professionals to inspire these people to recommend grants from their DAF accounts.

“Philanthropy is Becoming Less Transparent.” The article quotes David Callahan, author of The Givers, as saying, “The world of philanthropy is becoming less transparent, and that’s not a good thing.” While I’m not really sure what point Callahan was making, the Times wants us to believe that DAFs are part of the transparency problem as people use them to hide their giving.

A few years ago, I was curious about how secretive DAF grantmakers really are. Here is what I was able to report:

Vanguard Charitable reports that 95 percent of its grantmakers share their name with the charities they support. Schwab Charitable, another large DAF management organization, says that 97 percent of its grantmakers share their name. Fidelity Charitable reports that 92 percent of its grantmakers provide information for nonprofit acknowledgment. This means that charities are able to continue to cultivate and steward these donors.”

The bottom-line is that when donors are inspired to give through their DAF, they almost never do so secretively.

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