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Private Foundation Vs Donor Advised Fund

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When it comes to establishing an appropriate philanthropic vehicle, the two most often chosen are Private Foundations (PF) and Donor Advised Funds (DAF).  Both have their distinct advantages, as well as some drawbacks.  DAFs have become increasingly popular over the past few years, especially given the speed of setup and ease of operation.  But for many, the limitations of a DAF make a private foundation the more obvious choice. Understanding the differences between the two is critical to deciding which is more appropriate for any given family or circumstance.

A private foundation is a true legal entity,

whereas a DAF is best thought of as an account held with a sponsoring charity in the name of the donor.  This is vitally important when it comes to the issue of control.  Because a foundation is structured as an independent corporation (or trust), it is under the complete control of the founders/board of directors.  Assets put into a foundation remain fully managed by the foundation leaders.  By contrast, a DAF is a fund controlled by the sponsoring charity.  Donors establishing a DAF retain advisory rights as to how the funds may ultimately be distributed to charity over time, but ultimate control rests with the DAF sponsor.

A private foundation offers a wider array of giving choices.

Assets within your private foundation are permanently dedicated to a charitable purpose, of course, but the variety of potential giving beneficiaries is quite large.  Possibilities include:

  • Grants to 501(c)(3) public charities
  • Grants to other foundations
  • Grants to needy individuals
  • Scholarship programs

What really sets a private foundation apart when it comes to distributions, though, is the freedom to stretch out beyond the bounds of traditional charity, including a program related investment, or PRI, into a for-profit company that support the foundation’s purpose.  A DAF is much more limited in its distribution targets, with recipients usually limited to 501(c)(3) public charities.

A private foundation can be funded with many different types of assets.

The most obvious assets that are contributed to a private foundation are cash and securities, but it doesn’t have to stop there.  Land, buildings, art, and other tangible assets can be transferred into a foundation.  Partial or complete interest in a business can also be donated, keeping business holding limitations in consideration.  Donations to a DAF are typically limited to cash and securities.  In some circumstances, the DAF sponsor may allow other assets to be donated, but they are usually sold immediately.

A private foundation can have employees.

And, those employees may even be board members or family members.  The rules are strict regarding insider dealing, but as long as the position is ordinary and necessary, and compensation reasonable, employment is possible.  A DAF is only a fund, not an entity.  As such, a DAF cannot have staff.

A private foundation doesn’t lock you down.

Because a private foundation provides much more flexibility than a DAF, you retain much more control over outcomes.  Not so much with a DAF.  In the past year, we have had two new clients come to us, independently of each other, to establish private foundations, only for us to discover that both clients intended to fund their new foundations with money sitting in a DAF.  Both had followed bad advice from accountants who recommended they park over a million dollars each into a DAF until such time as they were ready to start their foundation.  Unfortunately, most DAFs have strict rules prohibiting distributions to private foundations.  And though the IRS may allow it, it often results in significant tax penalties.  For both clients, their DAFs prohibited it.  You can imagine that both clients were devastated to learn what that bad advice would ultimately cost them. By contrast, money donated to a private foundation could be used to establish a DAF at any time.

A private foundation provides the best base for legacy-building.

Though some DAF sponsors allow successor advisors, nothing beats a private foundation for creating a family legacy of philanthropy.  Control can be maintained in a single family, allowing for successive generations to participate in giving.  This is especially important for high net worth families who may be looking to fund a foundation with a large initial gift, from which to give out of for many, many years.


This is not an exhaustive list of the differences between the two.  And though this article tends to favor private foundations over DAFs, there are times where a DAF makes more sense.  This is especially true for people who may be contributing smaller amounts in establishing their philanthropic base, and for those for whom super-simplicity is most important.  For everyone else, however, private foundations provide the level of control, flexibility, and legacy-building that can’t be matched with a DAF.

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Greg McRay is the founder and CEO of The Foundation Group. He is registered with the IRS as an Enrolled Agent and specializes in 501(c)(3) and other tax exemption issues.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I had a cousin who passed away tragically at age 19. His dad wants to do something charitable in memoriam of him. The idea is to have fundraisers throughout the year and use the proceeds to support existing community programs (profit and non-profit) as well as awarding scholarships for camp, sports, education etc., within our community to eligible children. The funds raised will come from private and public donations. This is not for profit and would be soley philanthropic in nature. We do not expect extremely large sums of money to be collected. We would not be starting new programs, but sponsoring underprivileged children (k-high school) so they could participate in existing positive activities. We live in an area that is not affluent but is a relatively small community that cares about children. My questions are: how to properly bank the funds. We are not sure if we want to create a foundation at this time due to how complicated the undertaking would be. I read your article on DAF options and thought this could be the answer I have been looking for instead of a foundation. My banking institution mentioned DAF to me but I was unsure of the actual details of how it works. I am being asked to set up an account but I need to make sure that I do not run into trouble with the IRS. If I set up a DAF will the funds be taxed? Can the DAF have to be in my name or can we establish a fund name for the account? Can a DAF apply for tax exempt status? Is there a way a public or private donar could write off their contribution to a DAF? We are looking to start fundraising soon but need to wait until we can figure this part out. Lastly, I read the part where you mentioned that funds from a DAF cannot be transferred to start a foundation without substantial tax penalties. So if we set up a DAF, I assume it’s recommended we keep it that way. Any advice you can give would be appreciated.

    1. Hi Jill, thank you for reaching out to us! You could do it as a DAF account under a qualified 501(c)(3) sponsoring charity and donations to the DAF are tax deductible as charitable contributions. The problem is that most DAF sponsors will not allow distributions to individuals. They only allow distributions to other 501(c)(3) charities. If distributions to individuals is an important part of your plans, you probably need to set up a foundation. If you decide to go the route of establishing a foundation, feel free to reach out to our team. We would be happy to help you get a nonprofit started the right way.

  2. Hi Greg, my husband and I sponsor five children in an orphanage in the Nepal. We have committed to paying for these children’s university education in the Nepal. But we also want to help the other children at the orphanage go to school if they qualify. I’m trying to decide what is the best structure to provide grants/scholarships to these children. I want to make sure I have control over the funds. If I set up a foundation, and place money into it, is that money tax deductible, and can I then allocate it to needy children in Nepal? Or do I need to set up some kind of 501(c)(3)? If I do that do I lose control over the allocation of the funds? Also what challenges might run into working in the Nepal?

    1. Hi, Lisa. Great questions. It sounds like a foundation may be ideal for this. There’s often confusion about what a foundation is, but it is a 501(c)(3). It differs from a public charity 501(c)(3) in that its primary purpose is grant-making (or charitable gift giving) instead of an active program of its own. Plus, a foundation allows a close group, including a single family, to maintain control. Donations to a foundation are tax-deductible, as well. Feel free to reach out to our team. We’ve helped many, many people get this done.

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