Three precautions for recovering your donor intent

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? The best defense against a breach of your intent is to take proactive steps: creating a strong mission statement, populating your board with people you trust, time-limiting your foundation, and establishing internal and external accountability mechanisms for your foundation. But even with these safeguards, your charitable effort may still face a crisis.

Unfortunately, stories of successfully recapturing donor intent are rare. Far more prevalent are stories of significant departure from a funder’s original wishes. If you find yourself in a donor-intent crisis, or you aim to prevent one in the future, keep these guideposts in mind:

1. Involve the right people

For the Daniels Fund, the key ingredients for recovering donor intent were those trustees and staff members 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.”

2. 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. “While the donor is still alive, the board should serve in more of an advisory role than as a true governing board,” suggests philanthropic expert Al Mueller. “If you set it up where the board can outvote the donor, you’ve made a big mistake. When you pass away, they can then turn into a functioning board of directors.”

You should, of course, balance this precaution with the need to grant some authority and responsibility to board members 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.

3. 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.