How to Do More Good With Your Charitable Dollars

December 13, 2018 Updated: December 13, 2018

NEW YORK–Doing double the good with your charitable dollars sounds like a no-brainer, but investors are just starting to catch on.

A growing number are using special accounts called donor-advised funds, which allow investors to designate assets for charitable giving.

Around 500,000 donor-advised fund accounts across the United States had total assets of $100 billion in the fiscal year 2017, up 23 percent from the previous year, according to the National Philanthropic Trust. Donations grew about 20 percent to around $19 billion over the year.

Many donors use such funds when they have a large cash infusion from say, the sale of a company or an inheritance, said Gil Crawford, chief executive of MicroVest, an asset management firm based in Bethesda, Maryland which focuses on sustainable investments.

Donor-advised funds may become more popular as U.S. tax laws that went into effect this year encourage saving up charitable donations over several years until they surpass the new, bigger standard deduction.

Money in a donor-advised fund is typically put into a general selection of mutual funds and exchange-traded funds. This is where socially responsible investing is gaining a foothold.

“Many people have a generalized feeling—this is my charity wallet, I want to do no harm and—better yet—do good,” said Sarah Gelfand, vice president at Fidelity Charitable, the largest account holder of donor-advised funds.

About eight years ago, Gelfand said, clients started saying they wanted their money to work toward doing good, even when it was not being sent directly to charities.

Power-generating windmill turbines are pictured at sunset at a wind park in Moeuvres near Cambrai
Power-generating windmill turbines are pictured at sunset at a wind park in Moeuvres near Cambrai, France, Nov. 12, 2018. (Reuters/Pascal Rossignol)

Fidelity Charitable offers a selection of sustainable investing options. Three are exchange-traded index funds selected for their ratings on environmental, social, and governance issues. Vanguard Charitable and Schwab Charitable, the other major players, have similar offerings on their menu of funds available for donors.

Taking More Control

Some large institutions will allow your personal financial adviser to oversee the investments, but that is not as common as the option of picking from a menu of funds, said Jonathan Harrison, a certified financial planner in Overland Park, Kansas, whose company Sound Stewardship directs impact investing with a Christian purpose.

The typical entrepreneur client is not satisfied with a simple 60-40 portfolio mix of stocks and bonds, said Harrison, who previously worked at the National Christian Foundation, a large donor-advised fund.

“They say, ‘It’s not there to pay my mortgage or feed me. So if I’m going to invest it, and I have an opportunity to invest it in something that has a bigger impact, that’s what I want to do,'” Harrison said.

Donors also have other ways to make more direct investments through charitable organizations. Firms like Crawford’s MicroVest and advisers like Harrison help connect clients who want to do more than just make a straightforward donation to a nonprofit.

Instead, they can direct their funds to groups like Impact Assets or, which can turn charitable donations into micro-investments in developing countries. Returns can be reinvested or go back into their donor-advised fund to be given away to another organization.

By Beth Pinsker