Honoring donor intent is one of the best ways to protect a flourishing private philanthropic sector in America. Private philanthropy is an essential element of American freedom, and central to our greatness as a nation. This is why The Philanthropy Roundtable cares so deeply about this issue and seeks to inform and guide donors in every way possible, including both our recent Protecting Your Legacy guidebook and this dedicated area on our website. The resources offered here are intended to help you better understand the importance of donor intent and the many ways you can protect it in your own decisions about why, when, how, and where to make charitable gifts.
A keen concern for donor intent is vital because philanthropy is under attack in numerous ways today. Some critics declare that philanthropy is, by nature, anti-democratic. Others propose checks on philanthropists’ ability to choose how their gifts will be deployed. Still others attack the concept of donor intent itself, arguing that it is a “dead hand” exerting control from the grave to enforce the original donor’s self-serving or outdated wishes, preventing philanthropists from being “held to account.”
This is why we must protect donor intent. Respecting donors’ intentions for their gifts is an essential prerequisite for continued charitable giving, and for preventing giving from becoming homogenized and manipulated. Our flourishing, community-building philanthropy is utterly dependent on keeping the trust of voluntary donors, both during and after their lifetimes. Our charitable laws, regulations, and practices should support donor intent. Those charged with carrying out donors’ wishes bear an ethical obligation to do so to the best of their ability. And in a pluralistic democracy, where citizens are free to make their own decisions about the best ways to improve the well-being of society, the voluntary actions taken within civil society must be protected.
Donor intent is a moral issue, demonstrating respect for individual differences and choices. When we speak of protecting donor intent, we are not referring to a slavish adherence to minute details, but rather to a commitment to honor a donor’s principles, to maintain the integrity of his or her philanthropy over time. Donors must make their values and intentions very clear in their mission statements and in their interactions with governing boards and grantees. And those entrusted to carry out the details should be faithful to that trust.