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Donor Intent


“In philanthropy, donor intent is the purpose, publicly expressed or not, for which a philanthropist intends a charitable gift or bequest. Donor intent is most often expressed in gift restrictions, terms, or agreements between a donor and donee, but it may also be expressed separately in the words, actions, beliefs, and giving practices of a philanthropist.”

Additionally, the National Council of Nonprofits states:

“Respecting a donor’s intent is an ethical issue and also a legal matter.

  • A verbal agreement between a donor and a charity to use the gift in a certain way can be enforceable. When donors provide a contribution for a specific purpose this is referred to as a 'restricted gift.'

  • Clarifying how a contribution will or will not be used and respecting a donor’s intention about the use of a gift or how the donor will be recognized (such as a request to remain anonymous) is a basic tenet of ethical fundraising and accountability.

  • Using a written agreement can help define how a gift will be used, and manage potential donors' expectations about what gifts a charitable nonprofit will and will not accept.”

There has been a lot in the news about charities and donor intent these last few years. A couple examples:

  • Abusing Donor Intent: A book about the Robertson family who gave millions to ensure more Princeton grads would work in government. When they didn't, the Robertson family sued.

  • Art of the Steal: Albert C. Barnes was a pharmaceutical magnate. Dr. Barnes tucked his art collection away in a small educational institute in Lower Merion, a suburb just outside Philadelphia. The trust documents for the Barnes Foundation specified that the collection should never be moved, sold, loaned, or even rearranged and that public access should be limited. The elites of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, along with local and state politicians, successfully challenged the donor’s intent in the courts and the Barnes’ collection was moved to Philadelphia.

As a nonprofit executive, I have always honored the restrictions, terms and agreements established with the donor.

To avoid difficult situations:

  • Have in place a gift acceptance policy at your organization.

  • If you don’t agree with or cannot come to terms with the donor's restrictions don’t accept the contribution. I turned down funding from many.

  • Offer a 100% satisfaction money back guarantee to donors. They were amazed when I would make this guarantee. Donors said they never had a 100% satisfaction guarantee from a nonprofit. Donations were never returned because the terms of their donation were acceptable.

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