Fidelity Charitable’s press release from this morning reads, “Fidelity Charitable donors continued to break records in 2019, recommending $4 billion in grants, a 48 percent increase compared to the same period last year. The 668,000 donor-recommended grants supported 105,000 charities. This grantmaking record follows an unprecedented $5.2 billion in grants in 2018, $700 million more than the previous year.”
In the wake of the recent release of the 2019 Giving USA report, one of the most discussed findings has been that individual charitable giving took a dip in 2018—down 1.1 percent—against a backdrop of fourth-quarter market volatility, tax changes, and other shifts. But there was one area of individual charitable giving that bucked this worrying trend. Strong grantmaking from donor-advised funds show why growing adoption in recent years of these strategic giving accounts should be counted among most positive developments in philanthropy.
In fact, if results at Fidelity Charitable, a charity sponsoring one of the nation’s largest donor-advised fund programs, are indicative, donors using a Giving Account increased the amount they distributed to charity. In 2018, even as individual giving declined, Fidelity Charitable grants to charities increased by 17 percent in 2018 to $5.2 billion. This year is also on track for continued growth. Fidelity Charitable has already distributed $4.0 billion to charity this year, an incredible 48 percent increase over the same time last year.
Importantly, many of these donations are going to charities that donors support steadily year after year. In fact, a recent independent study from the University of Pennsylvania examined IRS data from nearly 1,000 donor-advised fund sponsoring charities from 2007 to 2016—and found that grantmaking from donor-advised funds tends to be resilient during economic downturns, making them crucial “rainy-day” sources of funding for charities.
Taken together, this data signals how donor-advised funds—a kind of charitable account that allows donors to become eligible for an immediate tax deduction when they make a contribution to a sponsoring organization and then support charities on a flexible timetable—have emerged as a stabilizing force in philanthropy. In times of uncertainty, donor-advised funds cushion the nonprofit sector against negative impacts from external factors like economic volatility and tax policy. Even more, the dramatic growth in grantmaking demonstrates that the promise of donor-advised funds to enable donors to give more is coming to fruition as they achieve scale.
And donor-advised funds are scaling rapidly. The number of individual donor-advised fund accounts has increased by more than 200 percent in the past five years, as an ever-broader group of Americans are embracing them in order to approach their philanthropy in the kind of thoughtful, strategic way once reserved for only the highest echelon of wealth earners. It only takes $5,000 to establish a donor-advised fund through many programs, and the median Giving Account balance at Fidelity Charitable is $18,000, indicative of the broad range of Americans that can make use of this vehicle. But the benefits of broadened access to strategic giving isn’t reaped just by the donors embracing such methods, but by the charitable sector as a whole.
Donor-advised funds make it easy to donate assets that would otherwise sit on the sidelines of philanthropy.
In general, charitable donors who have appreciated stock don’t donate it to charity, even though this strategy can allow them to give up to 20 percent more. When we looked at a general population of donors who had itemized giving on their 2016 tax returns Fidelity Charitable’s research studies, The Giving Gap, just 19 percent had donated appreciated securities to charity, though most said they had such assets in a brokerage account.
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But donor-advised funds offer a simpler, more streamlined process for contributing securities for the purpose of supporting multiple organizations—and more people do tap into those assets as a result, enabling more dollars for giving. Nearly 60 percent of contributions to DAFs in 2017 were non-cash assets, according to the National Philanthropic Trust’s 2018 Donor-Advised Fund Report—and a full 64 percent of Fidelity Charitable’s contributions in 2019 so far have been direct donations of securities.
On the other side of the equation, donor-advised funds also make it easy to distribute the funds thoughtfully and impactfully to charities.
Giving with a donor-advised fund means removing the time pressure from the decision, allowing donors the space needed to fully vet their charitable choices. It also means consolidating not only funds, but also all of the information about giving in a single place, making it possible to easily get a view into impact over time. Giving becomes more than just a collection of checks filed away for the accountant—it becomes a fully-fledged program.
I’ve experienced these benefits myself. My wife, son, and I take great pride in supporting education, fellowships, and the arts. With a Giving Account, we’ve been able to create a reliable way to set money aside, see that money grow, and as a result, make larger gifts, primarily to benefit disadvantaged children and students. We’ve also been able to make the occasional gift to a food bank, a clinic, or a hurricane relief fund at the moment of inspiration, with funds already set aside and easy to access. Overall, the donor-advised fund has led us to make philanthropy more central to our lives, contribute more to society and live our values more fully.
In the end, that may be why donors using donor-advised funds on average end up supporting more charities.
Nearly 90 percent of donors using a donor-advised fund support six or more charities, more than double the rate of donors who don’t use a donor-advised fund. Additionally, even as contributions to donor-advised funds have increased, grant payout rates have remained strong at 20 percent or more—a rate nearly four times higher than that of private foundations. In fact, the University of Pennsylvania study looked at the “flow rate” of grants from donor-advised funds and found that on average, for every $1 million in contributions to donor-advised funds in any given year, $850,000 is granted to charity during the same year.
All of us who make gifts, large or small, are part of philanthropy’s continuing and historic evolution. With greater access than ever to information about needs in our communities and nonprofits working to address them, more of us are rightly asking questions about our impact: Are we truly making the most of our giving resources? Are we using the right tools? Are we directing our giving dollars with forethought, and not just reacting to the requests we receive? More than ever before, Americans are turning to donor-advised funds to address these concerns. I’m convinced that this shift will continue—and it is clearer to me than ever that the nonprofit sector will reap the benefits.
For more on this subject, read “Have Donor-Advised Funds and Other Philanthropic Innovations Changed the Flow of Giving in the United States?” and “The Battle over Donor-Advised Funds: Does the Field Need More Regulation?”
NPQ is a grantee of Fidelity Charitable Trustees fund.