Most Americans have never heard of donor-advised funds and would be surprised to learn that, measured in donated dollars, the second-most-popular “charity” in 2015 (just behind the United Way) was not the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or Harvard or other universities. It was Fidelity Charitable, an organization created and serviced by Fidelity Investments for the purpose of holding charitable donations. Fidelity Charitable acts as a middleman, attracting its customers’ charitable donations and managing them in separate client accounts. Money in such donor-advised funds is invested and held until the clients give instructions (“advise”) about distributions to operating charities.
Because of a 1991 IRS ruling obtained by Fidelity (and similar rulings obtained by other commercially sponsored DAFs), clients get the same tax benefits when they transfer property to their donor-advised funds that they would get by making outright contributions to a museum, soup kitchen, university, or any other federally recognized charity. But no deadline is imposed for the eventual distribution of these funds to an operating charity. If a donor fails to distribute the account during her lifetime, she can pass on the privilege of making distributions to her children or grandchildren or anyone else she chooses. The effect of these rules is that assets that have been given the tax benefits of charitable donations can be held in a DAF for decades or even centuries, all the while earning management fees for the financial institutions managing the funds, and producing no social value.