The first donor-advised fund was established by the New York Community Trust in 1931, but it would be almost forty years, and the passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1969, before donor-advised funds received formal regulatory recognition from Congress. A decade and a half later, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 — which imposed, in some administrative areas, "more stringent reporting obligations and payment deadlines on private foundations" — established DAFs as an attractive giving vehicle for a certain kind of donor. Then, in 1991, Fidelity Investments established the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund as an independent public charity, and the DAF landscape was changed forever.
Over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, the debate over donor-advised funds grew more heated, with critics of commercially sponsored DAFs arguing that because "charitable donations can be held in a DAF for decades or even centuries," they should be more tightly regulated, while others defended them as "an efficient, 21st-century alternative to the private foundations that dominated philanthropy in the 20th century...easy to set up and inexpensive to manage."
Recently, PND spoke with Kim Laughton, president of Schwab Charitable, a nonprofit donor-advised fund provider established with the support of Charles Schwab & Co., about her fund's results for the fiscal year just ended and what she makes of the persistent criticism of commercially sponsored donor-advised fund providers. Prior to joining Schwab Charitable, Laughton held a variety of leadership, strategy, and general management positions at Charles Schwab & Co., served as a vice president for Citibank-Asia/Pacific, and worked as a Consultant for Bain & Company.
Philanthropy News Digest: In a report released at the end of July, Schwab Charitable announced that for the fiscal year ending June 30, it distributed more than $1.2 billion in grants to charities from its donor-advised funds under management. That's a 12 percent increase over the amount it distributed in the prior fiscal year, and the second consecutive year in which it has distributed more than a billion dollars in grants to nonprofits and charities. Given the volatility in the stock market over the last year and a half, were you surprised by the results?
Kim Laughton: I wasn't. The markets were volatile over that period, yes, but from beginning to end, they were fairly flat. In between, there were two swings of 15 percent or more, in August last year and then again in January this year. Whenever that happens, there is going to be uncertainty, and you do find that people tend to become more cautious in terms of their charitable giving. But the wonderful thing about donor-advised funds is that people have already set aside an amount of money for future giving, and we find that giving from our funds stays pretty robust, regardless of the economic climate.
Factoring in the Great Recession and its aftermath in the 2008 to 2010 period, we saw increases in granting as well. Not much as the 12 percent we saw in fiscal year '16, but in the worst of that period, between fiscal year '09 and '10, our granting actually increased about 2 percent. And, again, that underscores how donor-advised funds tend to stabilize giving in difficult times while being a great way for clients to be thoughtful and proactive in their giving in good times.
PND: What was the average payout for the donor-advised funds under your management in fiscal year 2016, and how does that compare to the previous year?
KL: The average payout for our funds for the last two fiscal years has been fairly steady at around 20 percent. It was slightly higher this last year because our assets actually grew a bit less than our granting. Of course, we're extraordinarily proud of those rates. As you know, private foundations operate with a mandated 5 percent payout, so we've been averaging four times the mandated minimum that foundations pay out. The other statistic that's important to think about is that our clients, over a fifteen-year period, grant out 90 percent of what they put in to their funds, and over a five- to ten-year year period they grant out something like 76 percent. In other words, a lot of our clients are contributing to their funds on a regular basis, and they're granting dollars from those funds at a very active rate.