Building Relationships with Professional Advisors, and the Growth of Donor-advised Funds

Advisors are necessary to achieve sustainable growth. A majority of philanthropists (61%) believe that advisors are necessary to achieve sustainable results, compared to just 16 percent who say they are not.”

– PR Newswire, United States Tops Philanthropic Giving According to the 2016 BNP Paribas Individual Philanthropy Index

A trend discussed in my popular blog article, Baby Boomers and Seniors is that older generations – the age groups normally interested and involved in making significant charitable donations, and in preparing Wills and estate plans – are sectors of the population that are swelling in numbers. In fact, they hold the majority of disposable income. These age groups are charitably-inclined and increasingly active online.

With this in mind, planned giving certainly should be a more significant focus for forward-looking nonprofit organizations. In terms of all types of charitable donations, however, nonprofit organizations should be educating and cultivating professional advisors, as well as the donors themselves.


Erich Hamm of Bank of America suggested a few years ago that regardless of where your organization stands in terms of fundraising, it is an excellent idea to build relationships with professional advisors like bankers, trust officers, attorneys, insurance professionals, accountants, and the like. An ever-growing number of donors prefer consulting professional advisors before making significant charitable commitments during their lifetime, and later via estate plans.

While Erich’s article is no longer available online, you might enjoy Planned Giving Design Center’s, “Professional Advisors and Non-profits: A Collaboration to Shape our Philanthropic Future.”

“Times have changed! The non-profit sector has fully realized that relationships with professional advisors are not only important—they also are imperative. At the same time, advisors have become even more interested and comfortable discussing their clients’ possible interest in leaving a philanthropic legacy. Advisors have become aware of the opportunity they have to help their clients make a significant philanthropic impact. The non-profit sector is also aware of this potential—and the resulting opportunity for philanthropy is huge.”

One long understood role of professional advisors has been to work out an “orderly and desirable arrangement” for the disposition of a donor’s estate. The ultimate result is a plan that fulfills the donor’s wishes regarding their family and others they wish to benefit (which could include your charity).

In addition, professional advisors are sometimes asked to conduct research for prospective donors regarding the financial health and operational activities of nonprofit organizations, in preparation for giving major gifts. They are also charged to follow-up as a funded project progresses, to ensure the original intent of a donor’s gift is met.

In my work, I have found many of these trusted professionals use such services as GuideStar. It goes without saying that claiming and fully completing your GuideStar profile will help donors and professional advisors understand how your nonprofit works. By proactively taking this simple step, you will demonstrate your organization’s commitment to transparency, and you will help donors and professional advisors recommend your nonprofit for funding. The process of claiming and completing your profile on GuideStar is free of charge. It simply takes a bit of your time to fleshed out your nonprofit’s profile.

In The Guardian, Juliet Cockram noted in, “How Your Charity Can Attract Philanthropists” (January 22, 2016):

“Philanthropy is on the rise and so are the number of banks, wealth managers, lawyers and advisers (also known as intermediaries) that are now providing philanthropic support to high net-worth individuals. Fundraisers are learning to take advantage, offering up donation opportunities for philanthropy advisers to present to their clients. But it’s a competitive and often closed space, so fundraisers need to be savvy.”

Karsten Strauss wrote an article for Forbes, “The Charities That Raised The Most Money Last Year” (November 1, 2017). Fidelity’s Charitable Gift Fund is at the top of the list,  United Way is second, and Goldman Sachs is third. All three are “intermediary” grant makers through which donors can pass donations along to charities. The activities of the charity recipients can then be monitored by these trusted intermediaries.

The Marketplace noted back in 2014 in, “Donor-advised Funds: A Controversial Form of Charity.”

“Compared to many other charities, donor-advised funds are booming. They are growing like gangbusters,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “The rest of the charity world is growing very slowly, but donor-advised funds are seeing giant increases.”

Some nonprofit organizations balk at donor-advised funds. See for instance Rebecca Koenig’s article for Philanthropy, “Backers and Critics of Donor-Advised Funds Debate Their Merits” (June 17, 2015). But whether or not nonprofits approve of these trends, it is an excellent idea to include professional advisors in their education and cultivation plans.

The more professional advisors and those managing donor-advised funds know about your good work, the more likely they will view your organization favorably when the time comes to advise their clients about making significant donations and preparing planned gifts. Keith Curtis provides advice via The Giving Institute that urges nonprofits to do careful research, to market donor-advised funds as a giving tool, practice good stewardship of donor-advised fund holders, speak to donor-advised fund holders about planned giving, and to document their intent to give.

On a personal note, I do know of a substantial seven figure grant awarded to a community foundation by a family based solely on the advice shared by a trusted investment professional. I think I’ve made my point about the importance of professional advisors.

Knowing donor-advised funds frustrate some nonprofit organizations, I wanted to share an article by Rebecca Moffett of Vanguard Charitable. She shares her insights on donor-advised funds for GuideStar (now Candid) in, “Partners in Philanthropy: How to Work with Donor-Advised Funds” (September 19, 2018).

“In removing the administrative burdens of charitable giving, DAFs allow their advisors to pursue a comprehensive, long-term strategy. For nonprofits, this means your donors with DAFs may well be repeat givers. At Vanguard Charitable, the vast majority of our advisors are involved in philanthropy beyond financial contributions. Ninety percent of our advisors also volunteer, serve on a board, or otherwise lend expertise, time, or resources.”

The convenience of donor-advised funds is impossible to argue with. And as my blog article suggests, this form of charitable giving is not slowing down anytime soon. The nonprofit sector must adjust.

I close by urging more of our nonprofit support organizations to hold educational sessions at conferences on this topic. I find many nonprofits are behind the curve when it comes to professional advisors and donor-advised funds, and we all need to get, “up to speed.”

Additional Resources

  • DAF Direct is a service that links donors to donor-advised funds with nonprofits via widget. “DAF Direct welcomes donors to recommend grants from their donor–advised fund, also known as a DAF, directly from your website. Neither you nor your donors will incur any download or transaction fees.”
  • Michael S. Fischer for ThinkAdvisor, “Donor-Advised Fund Grants Surging Amid Pandemic” (February 3, 2021).
  • National Philanthropic Trust, Donor-Advised Fund Report (2020): “For the tenth consecutive year, there was growth in donor-advised funds (DAFs) in every key metric. Most notably, grantmaking from DAFs to qualified charities totaled more than $25 billion in 2019, a 93 percent increase since 2015. The same rapid growth trajectory also applies to contributions to DAFs, which totaled $38.81 billion in 2019. This represents an 80 percent increase in contributions since 2015.
  • The Planned Giving Design Center has posted helpful information if you are yourself a professional advisor, “A Professional Advisor’s Guide to Working with Non-Profit Organizations” (2011).
  • If you are considering or looking for a community foundation to help manage your charitable giving, you might refer to the Council on Foundations website, “Community Foundations” (which includes an online locator).
  • Pew Research Center: The Data Bank provides statistics on Retiring Americans. The report notes, “for every day for the next 19 years, 10,000 baby boomers will reach age 65. The aging of this huge cohort of Americans (26% of the total U.S. population are Baby Boomers) will dramatically change the composition of the country.”
  • Pamela Norley and Elaine Martyn of Fidelity Charitable for Stanford Social Innovation Review, “How Nonprofits Can Help Donor-Advised Fund Philanthropists Listen and Learn” (February 6, 2019).

Personal Notes

A colleague from The Netherlands at Kinderhulp shared with me a hard copy reference book published periodically by a consortium of nonprofit organizations, of which Kinderhulp is a part. The nonprofits band together to fund the publication, which is then distributed to professional advisors. The book contains each organization’s mission and contact information, separates groups into sections by overarching focus, and it is designed to be a handy reference resource for trust officers, attorneys, accountants, foundation executives and the like. This is a marvelous idea! Why don’t communities develop similar databases for online reference today, by our professional advisors?

In 2019, I wrote a blog post, “Baby Boomers and Older Adults: Go For Startups.” In the post, I ask professional advisors and donor-advised fund managers to consider encouraging donations to smaller nonprofits and startups, rather than focusing solely on those with larger budgets. There is a common misperception among philanthropists that a large budget indicates an effective nonprofit. But I know several seemingly small nonprofits run almost entirely by volunteers, and their budgets are therefore apparently small, yet their impact is huge. My message is simply, don’t judge nonprofits solely by budget size.

New and Noteworthy

As donor-advised funds continue to grow in influence nationally, you might enjoy this presentation hosted by the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Demystifying National Donor-advised Funds” (October 23, 2019). Timely and comprehensive!

Photograph used to illustrate this article is courtesy of Adobe Spark.

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