Blog / Family Philanthropy

Disentangling Donor Intent

by Michael Moody
Disentangling Donor Intent

Some of our most passionate conversations in philanthropy arise around the idea of “donor intent.” People fight to “honor” or “preserve” it, often as the guiding compass for good giving. Others decry it as disconnected from real needs in the world or the real work of achieving impact — or worse, as yet another source of undue power by the haves over the have-nots.

Talking about donor intent — both within families, and among those affected by family giving — is often emotionally fraught yet conceptually vague. It is a hot topic, but a fuzzy one. To have more productive conversations about intent, we need greater clarity about this somewhat odd, yet complicated term. What are its core dimensions and key expressions, and what questions does it raise for family donors — and for all of us?

The complexities of donor intent touch all aspects of philanthropy and have done so throughout the long history of giving. Donors in ancient societies were like donors of today; they usually gave for specific purposes and often attached expectations for the use of their gifts. Unfortunately, we too often only think and talk intensively about a donor’s intent when controversial cases raise questions about it. These cases — like when donors feel their wishes have not been carried out by grantees — often end up being decided in court. We are then forced to try to understand donor intent and decide how it matters to us, in an overly heated environment.

“Too often, [we] only think and talk intensively about donor intent when controversial cases raise questions about it.”

Donor intent shows up in more than just the dramatic cases, though. It is also not just about donor “whims” or unreasonable expectations. It is much more complex, even subtle. We all nod and smile when hearing the old joke about the family foundation founder saying to the board, “All in favor of my plan, say ‘Aye.’ All opposed, say ‘I resign.’” But the intent is an ever-present, nuanced, and sensitive concern within giving families, especially those in which the founding donor’s intent has taken on the added weight over time of becoming a “legacy” that must be carried on by later generations.

Donor intent also fundamentally shapes the relationship between donors (of all sorts) and recipients. And, for this reason and others, it is a central topic of debate in the broader philanthropic field. Critics argue that too much emphasis on donor intent gives donors too much control in our democratic society, and privileges donors’ subjective interests over the objective assessment of what is needed to make actual social impact. Proponents counter that curtailing donor intent is what is undemocratic because it restricts individual freedom. They also insist that limiting donor freedom provides a disincentive for donors which, in turn, has a chilling effect on overall charitable giving.

To help navigate these heated and complicated debates and get a better handle on donor intent, we need to disentangle its many possible expressions and look closely at how each can affect the daily work of giving. For instance, donor intent can be expressed in mission, vision, and values, but also in strategies, preferred causes (problems or solutions), and preferred places. A donor’s intent can concern their intended family roles, ideal engagement with grantees and beneficiaries, plans for perpetuity, attitudes toward risk and innovation, and many more elements of philanthropy that donors might care about.

The expression of donor intent also can range from very specific to very general — from “our foundation gives to help seventh-grade girls in Alabama succeed in math” to the Rockefeller Foundation’s mission to “promote the well-being of humanity.” Donor intent can be fixed and unchangeable for perpetuity, or open to exceptions and adaptions, changing based on the discretionary decisions and input by family, staff, or even beneficiaries.

The Johnson Center’s next National Summit on Family Philanthropy, to be held in San Francisco on Feb. 20–21, will tackle these complex issues. Family donors from across the country will come together for a deep dialogue about the question, “Donor Intent and Real Impact: Can Your Family Have Both?” We invite you to join us in this dialogue at the Summit and afterward.