Donor intent is important for a healthy philanthropic sector. Philanthropy, both big and small, has been a vital force throughout the American experience. It represents the best ways that civil society responds to problems and needs in our smallest towns and around the world. It should be no surprise that a nation whose foundation rests on both individual rights and the responsibilities that self-rule demands has also witnessed the growth of wondrously diverse independent institutions that touch our lives every day.
The roots of private giving in the U.S. may go deep, but they need support. Honoring donor intent is one of the best ways to protect private giving. Deviations from and deliberate violations of donor intent will inevitably dampen the generosity of other donors who might be reluctant to give out of fear that their wealth will be used for causes not of their choosing. This affects philanthropy broadly, notes Tom Riley, president of the Connelly Foundation in Philadelphia: “Our American system thrives in a way that other systems don’t because of charitable giving—these institutions of civil society, this enormous nonprofit sector, that provides so much of what’s good and appealing about American life. But when donor intent is undermined, it has a chilling effect on giving and takes some of the polish off it. That’s not just bad for the person—that’s bad for everybody involved.”
For Ingrid Gregg—former president of the Earhart Foundation and currently senior program director at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation—donor intent is at its core a matter of trust. “There are few things in civil society, or even in organizations, that work well without trust. So the implicit value of all the good that flows in philanthropic giving comes from donors knowing that their wishes, and that the original trust they placed in people, is going to be respected by those who come after them,” Gregg says.
Fidelity to a donor’s intent also reflects our respect for individual choice and our gratitude that personal wealth has been set aside to serve the public good. Because of this, taking steps to protect donor intent is an essential responsibility. It is also a deeply personal undertaking that will pay dividends now and in the future.