The High Earner’s Playbook to Donor-Advised Funds

Dan Pascone |

Donor-Advised Funds (DAFs) are a key tool for charitable giving for high-earners because they offer a unique blend of immediate tax benefits and strategic flexibility for sustained philanthropic efforts. 

By making an irrevocable contribution to a fund managed by a charitable entity, donors can claim a tax deduction in the year the contribution is made and delay the distribution of the funds to their chosen charities over time. 

Letting donors “front-load” contributions in financially optimal years (i.e., years with higher income) while still retaining discretion to direct how and when the funds will ultimately reach the nonprofit organizations is a potent dual advantage. 

While the funds are held within the DAF, they benefit from tax-free growth, mirroring the treatment of investments held directly by charitable organizations. The contributions could increase in value and amplify the impact of the eventual charitable grants down the line. 

Are DAFs Right for You? Read This Example Before

DAFs are appealing to high-earners for a few reasons:

  1. Immediate tax deduction– you can deduct up to 60% of your adjusted gross income (AGI) for cash contributions and up to 30% for securities and other appreciated assets, reducing your taxable income for the year. The IRS even offers up to 100% off for qualified charities.
  2. Tax-free growth– DAF funds grow tax-free, allowing your charitable dollars to increase over time. 
  3. Simplified giving– Instead of keeping track of receipts and paperwork from multiple donations to various organizations, you receive one tax document from the DAF sponsor when you contribute to the fund.
  4. Strategic philanthropy– DAFs allow for strategic, thoughtful charitable planning rather than reactive giving. You can take time to decide which charities to support, how much to give, and when to give. The extended time horizon helps you align your philanthropy with your broader financial goals and values.

However, if reducing taxable income is your primary goal and philanthropy is less of a priority, there are more straightforward and effective financial strategies than using Donor-Advised Funds. At the end of the day, DAFs are an effective way to give away money. 

Let’s explore DAFs in action.

Suppose Simon earns $700,000 per year in Florida (no SALT). 

Simon contributes to a DAF and receives an immediate tax deduction in the year he made the donation.

For cash contributions, he can deduct up to 60% of his adjusted gross income (AGI) or up to 30% of AGI if donating securities or other appreciated assets.

If Simon donates $150,000 in cash to a DAF, his taxable income could be reduced from $700,000 to $550,000.

Assuming a federal tax rate of 37% (applicable to your income bracket), this donation could reduce his federal income tax by $55,500 ($150,000 x 37%).

So, Simon may have reduced his federal income tax by $55,500, but he’s still giving away $150,000 irrevocably– a net negative of $94,500. 

I’m reiterating that while DAFs come with some tax perks, you have better options if you simply want to reduce your taxable income and the charity part isn’t essential to you. 

However, if charity is important to you and you have a philanthropic itch, DAFs are an incentivized means to make an impact. 

Once your donation is in the DAF, the funds can be invested and grow tax-free. The increased value of these funds, resulting from investment returns, does not incur any tax, allowing you to grant more substantial amounts to charities over time.

So, if you have an exceptionally high-income year and reason you’d instead give a total lump sum to charity rather than pay the government 37%+ on it, you can grow the money and have it distributed in years or decades (or indefinitely, as DAFs typically don’t have a mandatory distribution timeline) down the line.

If the $150,000 contribution grows at an annual rate of 7% over ten years without tax on gains, it could grow to approximately $295,000. Without tax liability, your money can grow further and have a bigger impact. 

Another great perk of DAFs is that you can contribute securities or other appreciated assets and avoid paying capital gains tax on the appreciation. 

Suppose Simon donates stocks worth $150,000 he originally purchased for $50,000. He’d be sitting on a capital gain of $100,000. At a capital gains tax rate of 20%, contributing these stocks directly to a DAF saves him $20,000 in capital gains taxes and allows him to deduct up to 30% ($150,000 * 30% = $45,000) from his AGI.

Understanding DAF Deductions

A common misunderstanding is how much you can deduct from your taxes. 

You can deduct up to 60% of your adjusted gross income (AGI) for cash contributions. 

So, earning $700,000 in AGI, Simon can deduct up to $420,000 if he donates $420,000 or more. 

If he donates less than $420,000, his deduction is limited to the amount donated. For example:

  • Simon donates $10,000– he can deduct $10,000 from his AGI.
  • Simon donates $420,000– he can deduct $420,000 from his AGI.
  • Simon donates $500,000– he can deduct $420,000 from his AGI.

DAF vs. Direct to Charity

Donor-Advised Funds (DAFs) are managed by charitable organizations, such as community foundations or nonprofits linked to financial institutions like Vanguard Charitable, Fidelity Charitable, and Schwab Charitable

However, a key distinction of DAFs lies in the donor's involvement. 

Unlike donating directly to the charity, where control shifts entirely to the charity upon giving, DAFs allow donors to retain advisory privileges. 

So, not only does your money grow tax-free and give you some tax relief today, but you still have a say in how it’s used. 

Donors can recommend how their contributions are invested and which qualified 501(c)(3) organizations should receive grants in the future. 

While the final decision rests with the DAF sponsor, these recommendations are generally honored unless they conflict with legal or policy guidelines. DAF sponsors who consistently honor donor recommendations are more likely to attract and retain contributors.

It’s not an absolute guarantee that every suggestion is implemented exactly as advised, but the DAF structure ensures donors can play some ongoing role in managing their philanthropic impacts. 

Types of DAF fund recipients include: 

  • Universities, colleges, and schools often receive substantial support from DAFs, which may fund scholarships, building projects, or general operations.
  • Hospitals and medical research organizations are common beneficiaries, receiving funds to support medical research, patient care, and health services.
  • DAF grants frequently benefit museums, theaters, and cultural institutions, helping to support their programs, exhibitions, and operational costs.
  • Conservation groups and environmental advocacy organizations receive DAF grants to support sustainability, wildlife preservation, and climate change mitigation efforts.
  • DAFs contribute significantly to charities providing food banks, homeless shelters, and domestic violence resources.
  • DAFs can support organizations working abroad, providing disaster relief, humanitarian aid, and development assistance.

DAFs: Strategic Considerations for High-Earners

The details matter when it comes to smart giving; here are a few financial nuances and strategic elements to ensure the success of your philanthropic efforts.

Choose Your Fighter

Choosing the type of donation you make can make all the difference. Cash is king if you’re looking for a beefy immediate tax deduction, offering a deduction limit of up to 60% of your AGI. 

However, if you’re sitting on significant appreciated securities, you could sidestep the capital gains tax while deducting up to 30% of your AGI. 

High-Income Years for High-Impact

Timing your donations can also play a pivotal role, especially if you’ve got a windfall year. 

"Bunching" your donations is a strategy that involves accelerating multiple years' worth of giving into one tax year to maximize deductions when your tax liability is looking particularly beastly. 

Tailor-Made Giving

You can also collaborate with your DAF sponsor to tailor an investment strategy that aligns with your philanthropic timeline and risk appetite. Since fund growth is tax-free, an aggressive (albeit riskier) growth strategy could enormously impact. 

For example, DAFs can be perfect for fulfilling multi-year commitments to charities, providing a reliable funding source that reassures the recipient organizations of ongoing support. By establishing your preferences with your sponsor, you could ensure an organization you want to support (for example, a high school scholarship program) gets proper multi-year support for an organization.

Welcome to the Club

Like any refined club, DAFs charge membership dues through administrative fees and minimum donation requirements, which can vary from sponsor to sponsor. 

Make sure these costs are in harmony with your philanthropic objectives and budget.

Measure, Measure, Measure

The mission isn’t complete as soon as you wire funds; think about how you will measure the bang for your philanthropic buck. 

After all, seeing how your money is being used and making a difference is the juice from the proverbial squeeze. 

Some DAF sponsors offer tools and support to help donors gauge the effectiveness of their grants, helping you visualize how your contributions are making the intended impact.

Build Your Legacy

DAFs can be part of your legacy planning, allowing you to set up a charitable fund that continues giving even after your lifetime. 

You could also involve family members in choosing charities, creating an engaging family activity that helps reinforce philanthropic values in current and future generations. 

DAFs Step-by-Step

If you’re considering or just curious about how to get started with a DAF, I recommend considering the following steps. 

#1. Evaluate your philanthropic goals: 

Define what you want to achieve with your charitable giving. A few questions you may want to ask yourself include:

  1. What legacy do I want to leave behind? Are you aiming to make a significant impact in a particular community, solve a specific problem, or support a personally significant cause? 
  2. Which causes tug at my heartstrings, and how do they align with my personal values and experiences? Reflect on your connections to various issues—whether driven by personal experiences, values taught by your family, or something else that resonates deeply with you. 
  3. What level of flexibility do I need in my charitable giving to adapt to changes in my life or financial circumstances?  Would you prefer the ability to respond to immediate needs as they arise, or do you find more value in planned, consistent support over time?

#2: Select the right DAF sponsor.

Research various DAF sponsors, including community foundations, financial institutions, and charities that offer DAF accounts. 

Compare their fees, investment options, minimum contribution requirements, and grant-making policies. You could also recruit a financial planner to make a shortlist based on your goals in Step #1.

#3: Open your DAF account.

Once you choose a sponsor, you'll need to complete an application process, which typically involves providing your personal information and signing an agreement.

#4: Make an initial contribution: 

Decide on the amount and type of assets you will contribute. This could be cash, stocks, real estate, or other assets. Remember, the initial contribution is irrevocable, meaning once you contribute assets to a DAF, you cannot take them back.

#5: Set Investment Preferences.

Work with your DAF sponsor to choose how your contributions will be invested. Your investment choice can impact the amount of money available for grants in the future.

#6: Start recommending grants.

Once your funds are invested and available, you can start recommending grants to IRS-qualified public charities. You advise where the grants should go, and the DAF sponsor does the due diligence to ensure the funds are used appropriately.

#7: Track your grants and adjust strategies.

Monitor the impact of your grants and assess if they align with your philanthropic goals. Over time, you may need to adjust your contribution levels, investment choices, or the charities you support.

#8: Involve successors or family members.

If desired, involve family members in decision-making or set up succession plans to ensure the DAF continues operating according to your wishes.

Making Cents of Donor Advised Funds

DAFs are a concept worth studying and exploring if you’ve got a philanthropic bone in your body. Thankfully, by finishing this article, you’re more than halfway done. If you’re curious how a financial planner could help you parse through the many DAF sponsors and shortlist what fits best with your criteria, schedule a free financial analysis today.

Sure, you’ll get some tax relief from making these strategic contributions, but the benefits are genuinely designed to maximize the impact and control over your charity. 

DAFs offer a pragmatic alternative to private foundations—less costly, more adaptable, and perfectly aligned with legacy financial planning. For high earners, DAFs aren’t just about giving back– it’s about giving your giving some extra oomph.