Can a Donor-Advised Fund Be Used to Pay Off a Donor’s Pledge?

Brian GaworVice President of ResearchMarch 14, 2019

In our recent webinar with Ann Kaplan at CASE, “What $47 Billion in Higher Education Giving Means for You,” we talked about another record year in donation receipts recorded by the Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) survey, our annual record of giving to colleges and universities. Highlights include:

  • A 7.2 percent increase in gifts (cash) received by higher education institutions.
  • A jump in mega gifts over $100 million, which help fuel those record-breaking higher education campaigns we’re all reading about.
  • Increases in both current operations (6.2 percent) and capital giving (8.6 percent).
  • An increase from every type of donor, including a big jump in the “other organization” category, which includes donor-advised funds. We’re watching this category as it grows, likely affected by both tax policy and the growing popularity of this giving method.

But the biggest question I’ve gotten since the webinar is one we answered late in the webinar about those donor-advised funds (well, I tried, but Ann actually succeeded, which is why I invite her genius to present every year).

Since donor-advised fund contributions are just growing and growing, they could collide with our campaigns and reunion pushes. Can a donor-advised fund be used to pay off a pledge?

As Ann explained, the IRS has provided guidance on this, and the door is open for donor-advised fund grants to be applied to pledges:

In fact, Fidelity (the biggest fund) even provides a guide, with screenshots, on how a donor can execute a “non-binding pledge” and even set up a recurring grant direction from their fund.

The key seems to be that the pledges must not be “legally binding,” and of course we all know about the requirement that donor-advised funds provide nothing more than an “incidental” benefit to a donor. For the most part, our run-of-the-mill reunion and campaign pledges are likely not to be legally binding, especially if the donor ensures they aren’t using the guidance like Fidelity and other funds have provided. And as always, the tax documentation goes to the fund, not the donor, who receives any applicable tax benefits at the time of their initial contribution to their donor-advised fund.

a solid plan to steward donors who direct donor-advised fund grants will be absolutely crucial to your fundraising success.

It’s time to get to know donor-advised funds and the flexibility they provide donors, if for no other reason than they are just growing like crazy. We think there’s a chance that recent tax policy, and the influence of both savvy financial advisors and the incredible marketing of these donor-advised funds, will cause this type of giving to accelerate. More and more donors—and not just the richest—will be likely to “bundle” giving at a time that it is advantageous, and then direct grants over time.

A strategy for how to inform donors that you are ready to accept donor-advised fund disbursements, an internal strategy to identify and code donors that use them, and a solid plan to steward donors who direct donor-advised fund grants will be absolutely crucial to your fundraising success.

These gift vehicles (and similar vehicles like family foundations and closely-held corporation gifts) are indeed gifts that flow from individual philanthropic direction. As the VSE data shows, they are growing in higher education, and we all need to get smarter about how to encourage and embrace them.

Disclaimer: This opinion piece by RNL consulting is not intended to offer legal advice. In all cases, charities and organizations should consult legal counsel before adopting gift acceptance and accounting practices.

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About the Author

Brian Gawor

Brian Gawor’s focus is research and strategy to help propel both alumni engagement and fundraising results of RNL clients. Brian has 20 years of higher education experience in student affairs, enrollment management, alumni engagement and...

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