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In philanthropy, donor intent is the purpose, sometimes publicly expressed, for which a philanthropist intends a charitable gift or bequest. Donor intent is most often expressed in gift restrictions, terms, or agreements between a donor and donee, but it may also be expressed separately in the words, actions, beliefs, and giving practices of a philanthropist. Donor intent is protected in American law regarding charitable trusts, and trustees' primary fiduciary obligation is to carry out a donor's wishes.
Fidelity to donor intent is sometimes distinguished from grant compliance, and "donor intent" refers to the actions of a grantmaking entity and grant compliance refers to the actions of a grant recipient, but the term donor intent is commonly used to refer to both the guiding principles of a grantmaking entity and the purposes of a specific gift.
Donor intent has been defended as a moral obligation between giver and recipient. Defenders of donor intent argue that on a basic ethical level, trustees and gift recipients must do what they have agreed with the original donor to do, explicitly or implicitly: "When donor intent is violated, and particularly when it is egregiously violated, it undermines the bedrock trust on which all charitable giving rests."
Donor intent is thus also defended as necessary to ensure future charitable giving. Future donors might not be inclined to leave money to charitable causes if they see that trustees, grant recipients, or policymakers do not respect the stated intent. Peter Frumkin has written that "as s a policy tool for encouraging future giving, protction of a donor's intent is needed to give future philanthropists the confidence they need to pass their wealth on to others to administer." Carl Schramm, former president of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, has said on donor intent, "If we dont recognize it, we discourage wealthy people from creating foundations in the future."
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