Commentary & Analysis

10 Reasons Donor Advised Funds Are Awesome

Donor-advised funds are an awesome tool for charitable giving. They’re easier for you and good for the charities you give to.

And you definitely should be giving to charity.

First though, what are these donor-advised funds?

donor-advised fund is a type of account operated by a 501(c)3 nonprofit. You can set one up online for free at a commercial bank like Fidelity. That bank will have a nonprofit just for this. You use this donor-advised fund, which looks a lot like an account, to donate to charities by making recommendations. If you go somewhere like Fidelity, Charles Schwab, or Vanguard, then you should have few barriers directing the money to go where you want.

So what’s the big deal with donor-advised funds? Here are 12 big deals.

1. Your record keeping is easier

When you give to multiple charities, it can be a pain to keep track of all your gift receipts. But when you use a donor-advised fund, everything is in one place. Very convenient when you’re itemizing your taxes.

2. You have more control over timing with your tax planning

You may be one of those people who don’t itemize every year, but you do give. (Yay, you!) The downside is that if you give during a year that you don’t itemize, you don’t get any tax deduction.

With a donor advised fund, however, you’ve got options. You can strategically select a year that you’re itemizing to put money into the fund. Your tax deduction will be available during that tax year — even if you choose to have the money given away from your fund in later tax years.

Another scenario may be that you itemize regularly, but for whatever reason, it’s a convenient year for a tax deduction. This lets you maximize the tax deduction in the year you want while giving you flexibility in when you actually advise to have the funds distributed to your favorite charity.

Control over timing creates another benefit for those who budget for charity. You can schedule to put money in your donor-advised account regularly. Then, whenever you’re ready, you can have the funds distributed to the charities you like. Additionally, having the money in the account keeps you accountable since it can’t be spent normally.

An extra bonus is your control over distribution timing. You’re not even required to distribute the funds at a particular rate like you would with a foundation. That’s a lot of flexibility. Just be careful about waiting too long. Abandoning large sums of money in the bank doesn’t benefit any charity.

3. This can be a tool for your estate planning

Estate planning can be a bit complicated, but a donor-advised fund offers some extra options. You can advise which charity you’d like the funds to go to after your death. Plus, this can be used as an extra tool to keep money away from creditors.

Here, you can also let the charity know that you’ve included them in your planned giving. This means you can reap all those warm butterfly feelings while you’re still alive. As a bonus, you get the perk of realizing the tax benefits during your lifetime (when you put the money in the donor-advised fund).

4. You can set these up easily and cheaply

Unlike a foundation, a donor-advised fund is really easy to set up — as easy as opening a bank account. You won’t have to hire any lawyers. The biggest barrier to some people is probably going to be the initial deposit, which is $5,000 at a place like Fidelity, but it can be higher at other places. The good news is you don’t have to keep a minimum balance. Once you’ve set up the account, you’re still good even when the fund’s balance dips.

[Update: The company Growfund now lets you open an account with no initial deposit, but it does require a $100 minimum balance and the equivalent of a 0.25% interest fee every month on the first $20K in the account. Any investment should take care of the fee, on average.]

There are no fees to set up the account, but there are management fees which are deducted from the account’s balance. Fortunately, you can choose to have the funds invested. Doing low-risk investment can handle these fees and potential loss from inflation. You can talk with the manager of the fund on how to do this effectively.

On the higher-wealth spectrum, this still works out. You can have millions of dollars in these funds and it all works the same. In fact, your management fees will be even lower. Technically, the drawback compared to a foundation is that you’re only “advising” where the money from a donor-advised fund will go rather than making a direct determination with a private foundation. But so long as you go with a commercial bank like Fidelity and your charity has basic recordkeeping, you’ll probably be fine in practice. As a caveat, you may experience limitations with a donor-advised fund organized by a more specialized group like a religious or localized organization.

5. Stay flexible in the types of assets you donate

Nonprofits — particularly small ones — vary in what they’re able to accept. Most will be equipped to handle stocks. Other assets, however, could give it trouble. That may mean your charity will have to take up valuable staff time in order to even accept your donation. A donor advised fund, on the other hand, will be ready. It can easily accept assets like life insurance policies, private stock, mutual funds, bonds, real estate, and bitcoin.

As a tip, when you donate appreciated stocks older than one year, you can donate them to your donor-advised fund. You avoid the tax on their appreciation and get to deduct up to their full value at the time of the donation. This is one of the most tax-advantageous ways to donate.

Here, what you’re doing is you’re handing over the complexity component to the donor-advised fund. You want your charity to stay busy on furthering their mission, not fooling with administration on figuring out how to accept particular non-cash assets. When they get your donation through the donor advised fund — regardless of how complicated your donation asset was — it’s as simple to them as them cashing a check.

An extra bonus is that regardless of how you donate to the donor-advised fund, the nonprofit doesn’t experience any processing fees common to online donations.

6. Help your favorite charity build public support

There’s this component of nonprofit law called public support. Unless you’re a specialized attorney, run a nonprofit, or you’re a nonprofit accountant, you’ve almost surely never heard of it. Public support refers to the kind of donations a charity receives. In general, when a charity — particularly a smaller one — gets a concentrated donation over $5,000, it counts against public support.

If these concentrated donations get too large relative to the charity’s other donations, it could change the nonprofit’s status from a public charity into a private foundation. That may sound like a small change, but it makes the nonprofit’s internal bureaucracy more burdensome. That can really put a strain on a smaller nonprofit. Plus, all donors then become more limited by how much they can deduct when giving to a private foundation versus a public charity (30% of adjusted gross income versus 50%, respectively).

Where’s the donor-advised fund come in? Because the fund is seen as a 501(c)3 in the eyes of the IRS, all of the money going to the charity from the donor-advised fund is considered public support. This means you can make your donation as large as you want, and it won’t hurt the nonprofit. In fact, your larger donation will now help it keep its public charity status allowing less savvy donors than yourself get away with donations that are more concentrated.

7. You can have others donate to your fund

When you have a donor advised fund, there’s only one way to spend it. It has to go to a qualified charity. This means if you’re well off, you can ask others to put money in your fund rather than having it go to you and declare the income. This may come up with inheritance or a gift from a family member. Giving someone in their youth a donor-advised fund and placing money in their account may provide a nice introduction to philanthropy.

8. You generate public support even if you’re a disqualified person

“Disqualified person” is another one of those technical terms. Here, we’re referring to a person whose donation would otherwise count against public support (public support is that thing we want more of). This comes into play if you’re a nonprofit’s board member, an officer, or even immediately related to one of these people. If you are, all of your contribution — no matter how small — counts against public support.

The workaround here comes into play by giving through your donor-advised fund. Now it’s not you giving. It’s the donor-advised fund, a separate nonprofit in its own right.

One issue that may come up here is personal benefit. You can’t receive any significant personal benefit — particularly an economic benefit — from your donation. For instance, you couldn’t use a donor-advised fund to pay your membership dues at a nonprofit. This bar is true regardless of the circumstance of your gift. If it turns out you received significant personal benefit, then you could wind up paying taxes on your original contribution to your donor-advised fund.

9. Make your donations private

A charity is required to disclose to the IRS names of donors who give $5,000 or more. It’s not an option for them. If you try to give to a charity anonymously, so that even they don’t know who you are, you’re placing them in a bind.

Fortunately, there’s a workaround. You can give through the donor-advised fund, and it can be completely anonymous. The reason is that you can name your donor-advised fund whatever you want (though I assume your bank would have reservations if you got too creative). And that name doesn’t have to include your name.

Additionally, you can simply ask your bank to make your donation private (normally just an option on an online form). Then, if say, you use Fidelity, the donor would just show up as Fidelity Charitable and that’s all.

10. Your corporation can get benefits, too

Run a corporation? Charitable giving has a lot of benefits for corporations from morale, company image, to helping support your company’s mission. And lucky you, donor-advised funds also work for corporations.

This means you get most of the benefits mentioned above. Note that corporations can only deduct up to 10% of the corporation’s taxable income during the tax year the contribution to the fund was made. Still, that’s pretty nice.

As a corporation, you’re in a situation that makes it trickier than individual giving. You have a budget that needs passed by your board. It can be a pain to know where all your donations are going to go at the same time you’re doing your budget. But a donor-advised fund makes it so that you can just put the money in the fund and decide when you and your board of directors are ready. That’s much easier to budget. And because the funds are in a donor-advised fund that can’t be spent normally, it’ll hold the corporation to its promise.

11 (Bonus #1). Give when you spend

Fidelity (my personal choice), offers a 2% cash back credit card to a qualified Fidelity account. Among the qualified accounts are Fidelity’s donor-advised funds. This makes sure that you’re always putting something aside for charity and you don’t even have to think about it. This is particularly convenient for those who are still giving at the 1+% level and working on retirement.

12 (Bonus #2). Give the gift of giving

Fidelity does this and others may as well. You can literally gift an amount to someone through your donor advised fund so that the recipient can advise where it goes. This makes for a truly innovative gift. Additionally, this is a great way to teach kids about philanthropy.

Now that you know a tool to give strategically, here’s an awesome charity that I personally run and would recommend:

The Center for Election Science (Electoral reform through smarter voting methods)