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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com
Boston Globe Online / Giving

Outsourcing helps firms manage giving programs

By Chris Reidy, Globe Staff, 11/18/2001

    Change of heart
It used to be we worried about other things, like what was on the racks at the mall. Now we're not buying as much, but we are giving money away like mad.

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Market pressures
Endowments are having one of their worst investment years in a decade. Here's how people responsible for investing the money are managing.

Guidance for giving
The tremendous creation of wealth that occured during the 1990s has many individuals seeking guidance for how they give.

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The new Boston
It's not always easy to get residents who work in Boston and identify themselves with the city to abandon their longtime patterns of giving.

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A ranking of the top Massachusetts nonprofits by public support, revenue, expenses, and assets.

A few years ago, Thermo Electron Corp. made a switch. It had been using a corporate foundation to manage its charitable efforts. Then it opted for a donor-advised fund administered by Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund.

The change makes life easier for public affairs manager Caroline Grossman, whose duties include working on the Waltham-based company's charities.

A foundation can require lots of in-house record keeping. With a donor-advised fund, she said, virtually all the paperwork has been ''outsourced'' to Fidelity.

Like Thermo Electron, Millipore Corp. makes testing and analysis products. A few years ago, the Bedford company signed on with Fidelity's Charitable Gift Fund as a way to augment its corporate foundation and outsource some paperwork. But when some rule changes for donor-advised funds made that arrangement unfeasible, it later decided to use its foundation as the principal vehicle for fulfilling its charitable goal of helping local schools, said Charleen Johnson, the executive director of Millipore's foundation.

''We decided to bring things back in house,'' she said.

During the last decade, donor-advised funds became wildly popular with individuals. A booming economy made them the ''vehicle of the '90s,'' said Dwight F. Burlingame, associate executive director for the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Now some companies are trying them, too.

Today, though, the outlook is less certain. Given the start of a recession and a war on terrorism, it is difficult to say whether the switch by some companies from foundations to donor-advised funds is the start of a trend.

''It's definitely increasing, but it's hard to quantify,'' said Burlingame, who said corporate giving, as a percentage of pretax net income, invariably declines in a recession.

Compared to a foundation, donor-advised funds claim to offer simplicity and convenience, and a donor often needs less money to establish and manage one.

One drawback: In return for an immediate tax break, a donor loses some control over the contributions to such a fund. A donor can recommend how donations will be spent, but recommendations can be rejected.

Community foundations have long offered donor-advised funds. Then, as the economy heated up in the 1990s, Fidelity chairman Edward C. Johnson 3d concluded they might be an ideal vehicle to help make philanthropy easier for people who were wealthy, but perhaps not wealthy enough to create a private foundation.

This might be seen as a classic case of doing well by doing good. Donor-advised funds not only helped increase giving; for a financial-services company, they were also good for business. In a time of prosperity, financial-services companies were eager to offer soup-to-nuts wealth management to their most important customers - rich individuals - so they expanded their menu of services, and one new entree was donor-advised funds.

Such companies ''want to be all things to high net-worth individuals,'' said Jim Lowell, the editor of Fidelity Investor, an independent newsletter that's based in Needham.

To offer donor-advised funds, financial-services companies created separate entities.

In Fidelity's case, its gift fund is a public charity that buys administrative services from other Fidelity units. Once these separate entities were set up, many financial-services companies had their marketing departments pitch donor-advised funds to existing clients.

Such aggressive marketing initially made community foundations uneasy. Aggressive marketing also helped make donor-advised funds more popular. In 1992, the first year of its existence, the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund took in $31.1 million in charitable contributions. Last year, that figure was $1.2 billion.

Some companies are now considering whether a donor-advised fund might work for them. For a company looking to cut costs and trim its work force, outsourcing its charitable record keeping might seem to be an attractive, cost-effective alternative to a foundation.

''We initially thought that donor-advised funds would be most appealing to small corporations,'' said Cynthia Egan, the president of Fidelity Investment's Charitable Gift Fund. ''But we've found that very sizable corporations have decided to take advantage of our model, as well.''

Egan declined to identify companies that have taken such a step, saying only that Fidelity's Charitable Gift Fund administers nearly 30,000 donor-advised funds and that ''several hundred'' of them are for companies.

While community foundations have learned to coexist with rivals in the financial services industry, they continue to claim that their donor-advised funds are superior.

A fund with a community foundation is set up in a way to educate donors about local needs and plug them into the community, something a ''mutual fund company makes no pretense of doing,'' said Paul S. Grogan, the president of the Boston Foundation.

A donor-advised fund administered by a financial-services company can insulate donors from local needs, and for that reason, some critics regard them as ''off-the-shelf philanthropy,'' said Ellen Dadisman, a vice president at the Council on Foundations

Fidelity's Egan disputes such characterizations.

One advantage of a donor-advised fund with Fidelity, he said, is that it provides a donor with an opportunity to support a variety of causes far and wide, something community foundations, with their narrower focus, can rarely match.

There's one point on which Egan and Grogan agree:

Donor-advised funds are encouraging individuals and companies to be more generous, because they can make giving simpler and more systematic, in good times and bad. ''In our surveys,'' Egan said, ''two-thirds of those who set up donor-advised funds say they give more in charitable donations than they had before.''

Chris Reidy can be reached by e-mail at reidy@globe.com.

This story ran on page F8 of the Boston Globe on 11/18/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.