One big mistake donors make in failing to protect their intent

The first step you can take to protect your donor intent is also the simplest—put it in writing and be specific. As elementary as this sounds, many famous philanthropists never got around to this crucial task.

The names are familiar: Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, MacArthur. And their tale is largely the same. Great tycoons of the capitalistic system who earned their wealth through entrepreneurial endeavors before turning to philanthropic support for charities often steeped in faith and traditional American values. Yet within a generation or two, these donors’ philanthropic dollars were diverted to causes alien to their own beliefs.

  • Ford: Neither Henry Ford nor his son Edsel, who established the foundation, left clear directives on how its vast wealth should be used. The language in the charter included only the broad, non-specific directive “to administer funds for scientific, educational and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare.”
  • Carnegie: In his 1889 book The Gospel of Wealth, Andrew Carnegie clearly expressed his faith in free enterprise, limited government, and self-reliance. But he failed to imbed these values in the Carnegie Corporation. Instead he wrote, “…no wise man will bind Trustees forever to certain paths, causes or institutions. I disclaim any intention of doing so. On the contrary, I give my Trustees full authority to change policy or causes hitherto aided, from time to time, when this, in their opinion, has become necessary or desirable.”  
  • Rockefeller: “To improve the well-being of mankind throughout the world.” That’s how John D. Rockefeller defined his mission, one so broad that almost any philanthropic decision would suffice.
  • MacArthur: The insurance and real-estate magnate John D. MacArthur left no instructions at all for his foundation’s trustees, vague or otherwise.

What’s the solution?

Define your mission, but also safeguard the means of carrying it out.