Pandemic Coping Strategy: Give Generously

Hello, BeerRiot Blog readers! I’m Amanda, Bryan’s wife. Bryan has offered to let me guest-post on his blog and share some things that are more aligned to my interests than his. Like Bryan, I have varied interests and hobbies, and among them is personal finance.

Recently, Bryan has posted on social media about donations we’ve made to causes that are important to us. This prompted me to share some information about our approach to charitable giving during the past year or so. We recognize that we are in an extremely privileged position to even be able to discuss this.

Bryan and I had been preparing for years to eventually take some time away from paid work. One part of that plan was a way to continue charitable giving when we weren’t employed. We felt that if we had to stop supporting charitable causes to make our post-employment life financially feasible, then we didn’t actually have the resources to leave our jobs and still have the life we wanted. Fortunately, there was a way for us to prepare for that: a donor-advised fund.

A donor-advised fund (DAF) allows an individual or organization to make charitable contributions to a fund and then recommend grants from the fund to specific charities over time.

We set up our DAF, the Zoellner-Fink Family Fund, in the fall of 2019. Our financial philosophy prioritizes low overhead costs and simplicity, so we focused our research on DAFs affiliated with Vanguard and Fidelity, where we already have accounts. Fees and structures were comparable, but we chose Fidelity Charitable because of their minimum grant amount of just $50. We wanted the option to recommend smaller grants for things like a child’s school fundraiser or a memorial gift. It was easy to set up our account online, choose a name, set an asset allocation, and fund the account with appreciated stock from Bryan’s previous employers. We have not made additional contributions to the fund since we set it up, but it can be added to at any time.

It’s important to know that there are things you can’t do with a DAF:

  • You can’t give directly to individuals, like in a GoFundMe campaign.
  • You can’t make grants from which you ultimately receive a benefit. For example, you can’t use a DAF to buy yourself tickets to attend a fundraising event.
  • You can’t contribute to some international causes.
  • You can’t make political/lobbying contributions.
  • You can’t take the money back.

Fortunately, those restrictions haven’t limited our giving at all!

We began making grant recommendations from our DAF in February 2020 by switching what we had previously given through monthly credit card charges to recurring annual grant recommendations. We also recommended grants in response to donation requests from organizations we had supported in the past and wanted to continue to support.

By March 2020, the whole world was feeling the impacts of COVID-19, and we were voluntarily jobless and transient! We were grateful to be safe and healthy and to have the resources to stay that way, but it was clear that so many people were suffering. Then George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, blocks from where my brother used to live, and we learned of too many people of color who had suffered similar fates. The presidential campaign staggered on and left us despairing. It felt like the world was spinning out of control, and we were powerless.

So we started making grant recommendations. Even if we needed to stay isolated, we could still put money into the hands of organizations doing important work.

  • We made extra donations to charities we had previously supported, so they could continue or ramp up their work amidst uncertainty.
  • We talked with friends and family who are directly connected to specific communities in need and got recommendations for more charities to support.
  • We researched and donated to charities that work to uplift the voices and respond to the needs of communities that deserve to be heard and that are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

In the past thirteen months, Fidelity Charitable has disbursed nearly $15,000 in grants on our behalf, with no impact on our personal finances. Because markets have gone up overall since we set up the DAF, our fund balance is still about what it was when we opened the account. “Past us” gave a wonderful gift to “future us”: the ability be generous.

In the before times, we’d targeted giving about $5000/year, and that felt like a lot. After this year, it’s clear that we can give more without worry of depleting our fund. Instead of impulse-shopping, we’ve been impulse donating.

  • Local food pantry shelves are depleted? Let’s give them some money!
  • The beloved, inspiring RBG dies? Honor her memory with a grant to Planned Parenthood.
  • Marketplace and Make Me Smart podcasts keep us grounded during a terrifying mid-pandemic cross-country drive? Show our appreciation with a grant to American Public Media.
  • People try to erase the experiences of non-cis/het people in proposed Nebraska public school health curriculum? ACLU Nebraska and HRC Foundation get some money!

It has been a bright spot in this tumultuous year that we can continue to support charities that do such important work, both in the pandemic and after. In future years, perhaps we’ll have the bandwidth to plan in advance where we will donate and do more research to ensure donations benefit organizations that are as effective as possible. For now, however, giving provides some comfort at a time when we need it.

Disclaimer: We are not financial professionals, and even if we were, we don’t work for you. This is merely a recounting of our experiences and is not intended as advice.