Donor intent checklist: 14 to-dos to protect your philanthropic legacy

There are steps you can take that will dramatically increase the likelihood of your donor intent being honored, both in the present and in the future. Here are 14 of them:

  1. Define your charitable mission clearly in writing.
  2. Consider adding audio and/or video so future trustees and staff have a more personal perspective.
  3. Bring in legal representation for your philanthropy to help protect your intentions and stay abreast of nonprofit law and tax policy.
  4. Add your intentions to your articles of incorporation and bylaws.
  5. Choose trustees and staff who share your deepest principles and goals for your philanthropy. Consider having them affirm their commitment to donor intent in writing.
  6. Clarify your board design. Consider a two-tier governance structure.
  7. Implement board policies that strengthen donor intent.
  8. Avoid mixing your philanthropic goals with corporate interests. Keep your corporate giving separate from your foundation to ensure that company practices (for example, giving in all communities where the business operates or matching employee charitable gifts) don’t dilute your personal intent.
  9. Clarify the role that you want family members to play in your philanthropy to minimize the potentially negative impact of family dynamics on governance and mission.
  10. If you are planning to utilize outside experts in your field of philanthropy, then clarify what role they will play.
  11. Consider giving while living or sunsetting your foundation. If you choose to operate a foundation in perpetuity, install these guardrails as a protective measure.
  12. Incorporate your mission, vision, and values into the operations and culture of your philanthropy.
  13. Create internal and external policies to reinforce your intent.
  14. Strike the right balance between specificity and rigidity for those who will succeed you in your philanthropy to avoid having your donor intent deemed unfeasible and subject to a cy pres determination in court.

Above all, recognize that protecting your donor intent is your responsibility. “If a donor simply abandons a fortune to a piece of paper and the whole thing subsequently goes sour,” philanthropy observer Waldemar Nielsen once noted, “the donor just can’t complain about the lawyer’s faulty advice or about careless preparation.” Your success in philanthropy rests on your commitment to do the hard thinking about your donor intent, and then to build the best structure with the best people to fulfill your mission.

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