DAF Advantages and Limitations
DAFs are most often compared to private foundations. While they function in a similar manner, a DAF offers specific advantages and limitations that distinguish it from other giving vehicles.
Start-up and Administration
Donors can establish a DAF immediately at a low cost; charitable sponsors require the donors to complete an application and make an initial contribution. Minimum contributions for DAFs can begin around $5,000, although many start at $25,000. This stands in stark contrast to private foundations, which can take months to establish and require significant time and financial investment, due largely to legal fees.
Once established, DAF charitable sponsors handle the administrative work, including managing investments, recordkeeping, tax receipting and grant administration. This leaves the donor to focus on their charitable goals. A private foundation must hire staff or ask outside advisors to manage the varied administrative work and tax matters for the foundation. They must also form a board, hold board meetings and record minutes, file state and federal tax returns, and perform other good governance, sometimes at great expense.
Donor Control and Grant Making
Donor control is one of the key differentiators between DAFs and other giving vehicles. When donors make contributions to their DAFs, they are gifting those assets irrevocably to a public charity. Once accepted, the sponsoring charity owns them in their entirety.
The term donor-advised fund is reflective of this relationship: Donors have only advisory privileges to grant the assets in their DAF, and the charitable sponsor has the authority to approve or deny those recommendations. Private foundations do not have this kind of restriction, allowing donors to control grants to qualified charities.
Like most other charitable giving vehicles, there are restrictions on which organizations qualify as eligible recipients for DAF grants. For example:
Donors cannot recommend that charitable grants be made to individuals.
Donors cannot receive any goods or services in exchange for their grant, like a ticket to a gala.
Donors cannot recommend that grants pay tuition to private schools or colleges.
Similar rules apply for private foundations.
Taxes and Investments
DAFs offer the maximum tax benefits allowed by law. Donors receive an immediate tax deduction when contributing to their DAF. Tax deduction limits can be between 30% and 50% of adjusted gross income (AGI), depending on the type of contributed assets (private foundations are between 20% and 30% of AGI).
Contributions to DAFs receive fair market value deductions, whereas gifts of certain assets—including closely held stock or property—receive a cost-basis deduction when contributed to a private foundation. There are no excise taxes on DAFs and, like other philanthropic vehicles, they can help donors avoid tax on capital gains. Of course, each individual tax situation is different, which is where advisors can play a large role in helping donors decide which is the best giving vehicle for them.
Investment offerings for DAFs vary widely among charitable sponsors. The assets in DAFs legally belong to the charitable sponsor, so they assume all the risk related to managing and investing the assets. This arrangement also means that donors could have less flexibility in selecting investments. Some charitable sponsors provide only a few investment offerings, while others allow donors and their financial advisors to create a charity-approved more customized portfolio. Private foundations, alternatively, offer donors full control over how the assets are invested and the entity is governed within the confines of the law.
Invested DAF assets can grow tax-free, which means that over time—and with positive returns—more assets are available for charitable purposes than what was originally contributed. Assets inside DAFs in the U.S. increased by almost 19% from 2011 to 2012. This growth is attributable primarily to significant new contributions to DAFs (even netting out grants), but also to strong stock market performance in 2012.
One of the most attractive benefits to DAFs is the fact that donors receive an immediate tax deduction when they make a contribution, but do not face restrictions on when those assets must be distributed. In general, DAFs have a payout rate that is consistently above 15%. Private foundations hover around 5%, which is the legal payout federal mandate. Many DAF charitable sponsors have suggested minimum payouts. For example, National Philanthropic Trust's policy is that donors must actively make grants at least every three years.
DAFs are the only charitable-giving vehicle that allows donors to make grants 100% anonymously. When charitable sponsors administer grants on behalf of their donors, the charity is legally distributing its own assets, which means donors can choose to remain anonymous.
Some donors choose to name their DAF after their mission instead of after themselves—like the Fund for Early Education instead of the John Doe Fund. This allows a donor's DAF to be recognized publicly instead of being recognized using the person's or family's name. Private foundations must file annual reports that disclose members of their board, grant recipients, and other information that prevents them from remaining anonymous.
How an individual DAF will be advised in the future is determined by the charitable sponsor's policies on succession planning. Some allow the donors to advise for only one generation, thereby passing the control of the DAF to the sponsoring charity after the death of the original donor. Others permit donors to appoint successors who receive the full advisory privileges on the original donor's death, allowing the DAF to exist in perpetuity. Similarly, most private foundations can be passed down through generations to ensure a family's charitable giving legacy. However, some private foundations choose to pay out the entire corpus during the life of the original donor.