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donor advised funds

Donor-Advised Funds: Should I Open One?


Donor-advised funds are an increasingly popular way to give to charity. They are one of the easiest and most tax-efficient ways to support charitable causes. You can give to all of your favorite charities with just one donation. If you are interested in donating to charity, then opening a donor-advised fund may be right for you. 

What are donor-advised funds? 

A donor-advised fund, or a DAF, is an account that is established for managing charitable donations on behalf of an organization, family, or individual. Donors can contribute to their DAF account as often as they would like. The donor gets an immediate tax deduction for making a contribution to the fund but they don’t have to choose the non-profit organization to gift the funds to immediately. A sponsoring organization has legal control over the assets once they have been deposited into the funds. However, the donor generally gets to decide when to send the funds to the non profit organization.

The first donor-advised funds were created in the 1930s but they were not formally recognized until the Pension Protection Act of 2006. Donor-advised funds are now the fastest-growing form of philanthropy.

How do donor-advised funds work?

Donor-advised funds are a charitable giving account for your family.  

  1. Give: You choose a sponsoring organization and then make a donation to start your donor-advised fund. There is generally a minimum amount that you need to donate when you establish a DAF. This donation is irrevocable and you will get an immediate tax deduction. 
  2. Grow: You may have the ability to invest your DAF donation and thus your assets can grow tax-free over time. 
  3. Grant: Once you are ready, then you can grant some or all of the assets to your favorite charitable organization. You can support virtually any IRS-qualified public charity.
how to donor advised funds work

What are the benefits of a donor-advised fund?

  • Immediate tax benefit: You can claim a tax deduction in the year that you contributed the assets to the donor-advised fund rather than when the charity receives the money.  For example, if you want to donate $1000 a month to a charity for 3 years then you could put all $36,000 into the donor-advised fund today. Getting a tax deduction of $36,000 in one year may be more advantageous than three smaller tax deductions. 
  • Allows donation of non-cash assets: You can donate cash, stocks, bonds, mutual fund shares, money in IRAs and 401(k)s, private company stock, cryptocurrencies, real estate, life insurance and more.
  • Ability to put in your will where you want the money to go after you die: you can make a bequest in your will so that assets in your donor-advised fund are donated to your charities of choice after you die.
  • Not subject to estate taxes: the money in a donor-advised fund will not be counted towards your total estate value. 
  • No capital gains: You won’t pay capital gains on assets you put in a donor-advised fund. 
  • You can give anonymously if you don’t want to be named publicly. 
  • Easy record keeping: By having all of your charitable donations in one place, you don’t have to keep track of every gift acknowledgment from every charity you support. Simply just save the receipts from your donor-advised fund contributions.
benefits of donor advised funds

What are the disadvantages of a donor-advised fund?

  • You don’t get the final say on what charity receives your money. While sponsoring organizations do generally donate to the charity that you recommend, they do own the assets so they can make the final decision. 
  • Minimum donation requirements: There are no contribution limits to how much you can put in your donor-advised fund but some sponsors require a minimum contribution. 
  • Fees: All donor-advised funds have annual fees and administrative costs. These can add up over time. 
  • You cannot revoke a donation. This means that you cannot take the donation back once it has been gifted.

How do I open a donor-advised fund?

The first step in opening a donor-advised fund is to select a sponsoring organization. You can choose between community foundations or financial services companies such as Vanguard, Fidelity or Schwab. Once you have chosen a sponsoring organization, you can set up the donor-advised fund and make your first donation. 

How much should I put in a donor-advised fund?

It depends on your charitable goals and your tax bracket. If you received a big bonus this year, you could lower your taxes by contributing to a donor-advised fund. There used to be a  minimum amount that you needed to put into a donor-advised fund, but many DAFs now offer no minimums. Some sponsoring organizations, such as Fidelity or Schwab, require you to make a minimum gift of $50. A financial advisor can help work out the best strategy for you. 

Who controls a donor-advised fund?

Assets in the donor-advised fund are legally controlled by the sponsoring organization. The donor only has advisory privileges over the distribution of funds. The sponsoring organization does have the final say on where a donor-advised fund goes but as long as the donor recommends tax-exempt public charities, then the donor’s advice is typically followed.

What’s the difference between a donor-advised fund and a foundation?

A foundation and a donor-advised fund are both charitable giving vehicles. Private foundations are separate legal entities and are generally subject to more stringent tax laws. They are also responsible for their own tax filing and record keeping. However, you do have more administrative control in private foundations and you can grant to organizations other than IRS-qualified, 501(c)(3) public charities. Both have advantages and disadvantages that you should think through before setting one up.

Other questions about donor-advised funds:

  • Do donor-advised funds grow tax-free?

    Yes, one of the benefits of donor-advised funds is that they grow tax-free.

  • Can you withdraw money from a donor-advised fund?

    No, you cannot withdraw money from a donor-advised fund. Any assets that you transfer to a DAF are irrevocable.

  • Should I open a donor-advised fund?

    If you want to contribute to a charity and receive an immediate tax deduction, then opening a donor-advised fund may be a good strategy for you. 

  • Which donor-advised fund is best?

    Choose a donor-advised fund that has low administrative fees, a good selection of investment funds, and low investment fees.

  • How long can money stay in a donor-advised fund?

    There is no mandatory distribution date. That means that you can leave the money in your donor-advised fund for as long as you like.

  • Can you get your money back from a donor-advised fund?

    No. Once you have made a contribution to a donor-advised fund, it is irrevocable. You cannot get your assets back once they have been gifted to the DAF as they then belong to the sponsor organization.

  • Are there required annual distributions for donor-advised funds?

    No. There are no annual distribution requirements.

Streamline your charitable giving with donor-advised funds

If you are ready to make a charitable donation now, and want to receive an immediate tax deduction, then starting a donor-advised fund may be the right strategy for you. They are a simple and efficient way to support causes that matter to you. If you’re interested in a comprehensive financial plan, including the best strategy for donating to charity, schedule a free discovery call today.

Best Financial Planner Washington DC

Alvin Carlos, CFP®, CFA is an investment advisor and fee-only financial planner, in Washington, D.C that works with clients across the country. He has a Master’s degree in International Relations from SAIS-Johns Hopkins. Alvin is a partner of District Capital, a financial planning firm designed to help professionals in their 30s and 40s achieve their financial goals through smart investing, reducing taxes, retirement planning, and maximizing their money. Schedule a free discovery call to learn how we can help elevate your finances.


District Capital is an independent, fee-only financial planning firm. We help professionals and entrepreneurs in their 30s and 40s elevate their finances and maximize their money. We are based in Washington, D.C and we work with people virtually nationwide.

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