In the best of circumstances, you, your heirs, or your successor trustees will never experience a donor-intent crisis. But if one does occur, what should you do? Here are steps you can take:
• Involve the right people: For the Daniels Fund, the key ingredients for recovering donor intent were trustees and staff members who were unafraid to ruffle feathers in order to preserve their donor’s original wishes. Former president Linda Childears recalls that when she first took that position, “I was stunned by how many professionals in philanthropy asked me, ‘What new direction will you take at the Daniels Fund?’ It simply never occurred to me that I would take the Daniels Fund in any direction other than the one defined by our donor. It seems commonplace for many of my peers in the foundation world to believe that fidelity to donor intent denies them the ability to respond creatively to the ‘problems of today.’ They have the right to their opinions, but they do not have the right to violate donor intent.”
• Be judicious about board governance: While you’re living, it’s advisable to view your board members as consultants: They are there to offer their expertise but ultimately to follow your wishes. Giving them too much power can be dangerous, as was the case at Atlantic Philanthropies, where donor Chuck Feeney was only one voting member on his board. You should, of course, balance this precaution with the need to grant board members some authority and responsibility to equip them with the knowledge and experience to carry on your philanthropy if you plan to sunset or operate in perpetuity after your death.
• In situations where a donor failed to create a statement of intent, craft a legacy statement: Follow the example of Roy Park Jr., who wrote a legacy statement codifying his father’s philanthropic values for future generations. Tell the donor’s life story and how it relates to his or her philanthropic intentions. Name the donor’s core values and priorities and specify what should, and should not, be funded. Identify gifts made in the donor’s lifetime and why they are meaningful. Use the donor’s own words, drawn from correspondence or speeches, as much as possible.
Three precautions for recovering your donor intent
Building mission on the bedrock of a donor’s principles: The Daniels Fund
The moral authority of a living donor: Atlantic Philanthropies
Documenting a legacy for future generations: The Triad Foundation