Specifying your giving intent for the deep future
Updated: Mar 20
How can your wishes and hopes for the future be recorded to ensure your donations will meet the needs of generations to come?
This article continues from last month's, where we defined the Who, What (how much), Where (which charities) and When of your payouts to charity. This month we address the "Why" of giving your billions to distant future societies.
The why is more formally known as the 'statement of donor intent,' which provides guidance to future administrators when deciding to allocate their gifts. The more of our money there is to give, the further and further into the future is the public it serves. Aligning donor intent with public interest over centuries is our challenge.
Therefore, a balanced and well-expressed donor intent is vital to align future gifts with our vision to assist humanity.
What is a statement of donor intent?
The statement of donor intent can be briefly described as how the donor wants the donation to address societal issues. The rationale is based on the personal beliefs and values of the donor.
Details of a typical donor intent statement may include any or all of the following:
a vision and mission statement
how the donor’s values and beliefs shape the gift
why the donor wants to help certain groups of people, places, and causes; why they are chosen; such as in honour of relatives, to pay back advantages given, or passion for making a better world
specific charities within causes may be mentioned
allocation percentages for each gift as a percent of total
whether each gift is to be paid out fully over a chosen time period or is to grow for perpetuity
Now consider the deep future
You and I can't give millions in gifts today as Bill Gates can. Instead, we'll use a Ben's Way Funds Generator to create million-dollar gifts after enough time passes. A gift following our previously discussed formula (half given away every 25 years) grows in today's dollars by a factor of ten each century. If you donated $10,000 today, you would be giving half the growth each quarter century, reaching millions in gifts as measured in today's dollars at the 200-year mark and billions by the year 500. The issue is deciding where these funds go to serve the future best and align with your wishes.
Basic human needs and dreams may vary in context but remain constant at their core. Education is education, no matter how delivered or of what specific content. You can be sure that funding will be needed over centuries for any worthwhile cause, such as education, health care, the arts, research and exploration (maybe we'll fund a space station!), housing, poverty relief, the environment, animal care, infrastructure, etc. The list of worthwhile causes is endless.
When Ben Franklin's gift matured after 200 years, his 'future' society in 1990 was delighted to receive the gift. If future societies will welcome your gift warmly, how can we best state the intent for our gifts?
The larger the fund, the more the donor’s intent potentially impacts society the way the donor wants—however, conversely, the larger the fund, the more public interest. When the public interest is not aligned with donor intent, the public interest will eventually prevail.
A case in point is the controversy over moving the incredible Barnes art collection into a Philadelphia public gallery designed for mass viewing. Alfred Barnes specifically said his artworks would be dedicated to students by presenting them in a small venue. It was Barnes's vision of how artists can be inspired and learn to create. In effect, this meant a collection that grew in worth to billions of dollars was not generally available to a wide range of public interests. The move to a larger gallery meant the donor's express intent was violated, yet, his intent was honoured for a century. As times changed and the public interest in the art collection grew, something had to give.
We may think our intention now would always and forever meet the public interest, but expecting accurate forecasting of needs even fifty years from today is unrealistic. Who, in 1973, would have envisioned the world we inhabit today? Imagining what the world needs for hundreds of years is pure conjecture and a dangerous game.
One proviso, though, must be that the public interest is never served by winding down the fund generator as the donor intends to grow funds for future societies over the long term. No single future generation has the right to exclude all further generations from this benefit.
How to make your choices
Donors, therefore, should prepare a donor intent statement for today’s world, a world we know. Donors should accept that future generations will look to the donor intent statement for similar uses and allocate as per their interpretation of the donor’s statement.
Typically structured philanthropy is conducted by private foundations or, for smaller donations, Donor Advised Funds. DAF administrators legally control who will be the recipient charities and the gift amount; however, the admins do their best to follow expressed donor intent.
The further in time the DAF goes, the more the DAF administrators may need to select or vary the charities selected. Some DAF organizations offer focus areas for charitable work such as Heath, Education etc. Focus areas permit our donors to support an area of interest without solely selecting a particular charity.
Private foundations are legally controlled by their board of directors, which follows expressed donor intent to make gifts or conduct initiatives. Over time the main role of these boards will increasingly be to balance public interest with donor intent.
Defining Donor Intention for the deep future
To keep donors’ giving intentions relevant, donors must accept and encourage flexible interpretation by future generations. In other words, give to a cause and indicate your wishes but allow the future to decide the specifics. To deny the future the ability to choose specifics for their day is to risk the entire plan.
All donors donating to the deep future should align with the following:
Donor values and beliefs:
Helping society's next generation and generations in the deep future will be beneficial
Donor intent will be taken into account to the extent practicable by future generations
Future societies are in the best position to decide what to fund for their generation
Future societies will protect the continuance of the Ben's Way fund generator approach for giving to the next generation
Donor-specified gift allocations to charities or charitable purpose(s) are to be followed until no longer relevant to future societies. The specifications serve as examples for the future to find similar charities or purposes most useful to their future situation.
Donor Advised Funds manage payouts as the donor has directed, either to be fully spent over the 25-year intervals or accumulated for perpetual giving.
Amounts per purpose or charity of the total gift form a percentage allocation that identifies the donor's weight of importance for each chosen charity.
As funds available to pay out to charities increase, donors may wish to vary the scope of their gifts (e,g. move to broader coverage, whether that be people, place or passion) and/or along with varying the percentage allocation.
Why give to the future?
If our donor intents are most likely to evolve over time, is our gift worthwhile? (In June 2022, I explored the pros and cons here) You must be the judge. Yes, those who give to the future risk that perhaps nothing much happens or that, eventually, the gifts meet a public interest in future that we might disagree with today.
Giving relatively small seed funds for charitable works in the deep future will provide the means for future generations. If that means something to you, then give. If not, then give it for today. I hope you do both and suggest 90% for today and 10% for the seed funds. If you did, your gift grows to give 100% in the first 100 years and 1,000% in the next. Or go smaller with your bet for the future: choose 99% for today and 1% for the future.
Giving anything to the future will magnify your donations over time, eventually to great significance. With faith in future societies, your donor intent, even as interpreted by future generations, will create hope humanity desperately needs.