Ms. Christina Ritchie

Activating Support for the Arts from Donor Advised Funds

Posted by Ms. Christina Ritchie, Apr 20, 2021 0 comments

Ms. Christina Ritchie

Philanthropists around the country are trying to make an outsize difference during the COVID-19 crisis with an initiative called #HalfMyDAF. The group, founded by Jennifer and David Risher, has banded together to offer matching challenge grants when others join them in committing to distribute at least half of the money in their Donor Advised Fund accounts to charities. The initiative spurred the distribution of $8.6 million in DAF distributions that were matched by $1.8 million in matching grants in 2020. So far $3.1 million is available in matching grants for 2021, but those funds will support the arts only if arts philanthropists step up to participate. Below is the story of one arts organization that benefitted from the initiative in 2020. Could this growing movement do even more for the arts in 2021?

What is a Donor Advised Fund?

Here’s the technical definition from the National Philanthropic Trust: “A donor-advised fund, or DAF, is a giving vehicle established at a public charity. It allows donors to make a charitable contribution, receive an immediate tax deduction, and then recommend grants from the fund over time.  Donors can contribute to the fund as frequently as they like, and then recommend grants to their favorite charities whenever makes sense for them.”

In lay terms, a DAF is sort of like a bank account that you must use for charitable giving. You set up your DAF with a financial firm or with your local community foundation and pay money into it. You can immediately take a tax deduction for that payment, and the money sits in your DAF account until you instruct the DAF to give it to a 501c3 charity (this is the only thing you can do with the money: save it or give it to charity, no withdrawals). Unlike a foundation, a DAF has no legal requirement to pay out a certain amount per year. Funds stay in the DAF until the donor indicates what charity the money should go to.

What is #HalfMyDAF?

Seeing substantial, acute need in the nonprofit sector in 2020, the philanthropists behind #HalfMyDAF set out to create an incentive for their peers to distribute a substantial amount from their DAF accounts immediately instead of waiting to disburse funds in a future year. To do that, they committed not only to distributing at least half the funds in their own DAF accounts, but to offering $1.8 million as challenge grants to match grants from any additional donors who pledged to join them in distributing half their DAF funds. It worked. But the grants and the match go only to charities selected by the DAF donors who are participating, and we noticed there were only a few arts organizations on the list of recipients. One of them was Ashland New Plays Festival.

The story of Ashland New Plays Festival

Based in the small, theater-loving community of Ashland, Oregon (also home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Ashland New Plays Festival (ANPF) is powered by a small part-time staff and an army of volunteers. Producing workshops, readings, and first-time staging of new plays, ANPF has served as an incubator for new plays from around the world for 29 years. When everything shut down in 2020 due to the pandemic, they made a quick pivot and their readers, now also distributed across the globe, convened online.

Ashland New Plays Festival’s virtual performance of “Those Days Are Over” by David Hilder. Photo courtesy ANPF. Description: Five women laughing on a Zoom call.

Moving their fall festival online as well brought new challenges—and new expenses. While there were no travel costs to bring playwrights to Oregon, tech expenses quickly added up, and of course paying union wages to participating artists was critically important.

At the same time, ANPF was launching the “Pass the Pen” initiative, led by then-Artistic Director Kyle Haden. Actualizing their commitment to anti-racism, BIPOC playwrights were invited to submit their plays with no submission fee. As a result, more than one third of submissions in 2020 came from BIPOC playwrights, and ANPF is on track to have half of the plays in the 2021 festival written by BIPOC playwrights.

With an annual budget of just $110,000, every dollar moves the budget for ANPF. To offset reduced submission income from “Pass the Pen,” Board members like Bill Grove and Peggy Moore committed to making up the difference financially, as script submission fees account for nearly 10% of ANPF’s budget. Bill Grove and his wife Nancy also joined the #HalfMyDAF movement, submitting their $5,000 grant to ANPF for matching by the 2020 #HalfMyDAF fund. This grant was randomly selected for a match, delivering an additional $5,000 to ANPF for 2020. The matching grant not only made a big difference in a tough year (4.5% of the organizational budget!); it also represents a bridge to future stability and expanded inclusive opportunities. In addition to “Pass the Pen,” the 2018 women’s invitational doubled submissions by women playwrights, and the 2020 festival also produced work by ANPF’s youngest-ever playwright. If the future looks like more BIPOC playwrights, more women playwrights, and younger playwrights, that future looks bright.

Want to see more money go to the arts in the 2021 #HalfMyDAF challenge? Spread the word! Simple instructions and templates are available on the website. The first round of grants will be distributed on May 15, 2021.

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