Safeguarding your donor intent is worth the effort

Donor intent remains an afterthought for far too many givers. But the risks are significant. Without a plan for donor intent, your philanthropy can quite easily slip into a comfortable routine of present-oriented grantmaking, giving minimal thought to legal structure, mission statements, governance, and succession plans. 

It is understandable that donors are eager to put their money to good work as soon as possible and are consequently reluctant to tackle the more challenging topics: conversations about mortality, core values, and letting go of hard-won assets. This is especially true when those discussions might upset members of extended (or complicated) families.

But careful consideration of a range of structures and strategies for securing your philanthropic intentions is a necessary first step for advancing your charitable legacy. In doing that work you also are helping your family, associates, and future directors to understand and carry out the mission you set for them.

The shift from donor intent can be subtle

A drift away from intent is often the most natural course of action, if left unchecked. Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation and granddaughter of the original wealth creator (Sir John Templeton), says that the foundation experienced some pressure to reconsider aspects of donor intent when her grandfather passed away in 2008. Linda Childears, president of the Denver-based Daniels Fund, agrees: “Once the person who earned the original wealth is gone,” she observes, “the people in power—whether that be family or future boards—tend to forget where the wealth came from.”

Lack of clarity about how donated assets are to be used is often the primary culprit in donor-intent violations. Most deviations from donor intent are not the result of conspiracy or malice but are the consequence of largely preventable issues like ill-conceived plans for leadership succession, or unclear, inadequate, or contradictory instructions.

Disregard for donor intent can also be blatant

Sometimes, natural drift away from donor intent occurs. Other times the shift is more blatant. The example of J. Howard Pew illustrates this. A religious and political conservative, he ensured that the charter of his philanthropy—the J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust, one of seven family philanthropies that collectively formed the Pew Charitable Trusts—included a mission statement that quite clearly delineated his core principles and objectives. Founded in 1957, that trust was intended “to acquaint the American people with the evils of bureaucracy and the vital need to preserve a limited form of government in the United States … the values of a free market … the paralyzing effects of government controls on the lives and activities of people … and … the struggle, persecution, hardship, sacrifice, and death by which freedom of the individual was won.” 

For a period of time, the Pew Charitable Trusts funded conservative and libertarian organizations including Grove City College, the Christian Freedom Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute. But as the original founders of the Trusts died and professional staff played a larger role in grant decisions, support for the causes dear to J. Howard Pew disappeared. By 1991, Pew had “eliminated almost all of their right-wing grantmaking and embraced a broad range of projects, including some that manifestly oppose the business interests the old Pews held inviolable,” wrote Roger Williams in Foundation News.

When Pew transitioned in 2003 from a grantmaking foundation to a public charity, all the constituent trusts—including the J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust—were abolished.

Put in the work now

To keep your resources dedicated to the causes you care about the most, it’s essential that you take pains to define your mission and safeguard the means of carrying it out.

Staying true to donor intent requires a sort of institutional humility—a set of policies and practices that keep your board and staff grounded in the mission and core guiding principles of your philanthropic endeavor. Protecting donor intent is not about denigrating change, nor does it require rigidity. A philanthropic mission may stay constant while the means to achieve that mission change—continuing to honor donor intent.

You may assume that those who follow will be able to discern your wishes, following the observation of the late Judge Robert Bork in Donor Intent: Interpreting the Founder’s Vision: “Even where a donor has not made his intentions explicit, it will usually be possible, perhaps within a wide range but a range nevertheless with limits, to determine from his life and activities what uses he would not approve.” In reality, too few successors make this effort. That trail of breadcrumbs you leave will often be obscured by the winds of change.