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Donor-Advised Fund vs. Private Foundation: What’s the Difference?

Published June 30, 2022 | by Groundswell | 5 mins read
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Donating directly to a charitable organization might be the simplest way to give, but there are also various philanthropic vehicles available for minimizing taxes and maximizing impact. Two of the better known structures are donor-advised funds (DAF) and private foundations.

Donor-Advised Fund vs. Private Foundation

While there are 1.4 million registered public charities in the United States, less than 1% are donor-advised funds. Likewise, private foundation numbers, at around 90,000, are relatively modest. The impact of these nonprofit organizations, on the other hand, can be considerable. Here are the key differences between donor-advised funds and private foundations.

What Is a Donor-Advised Fund?

The donor-advised fund (DAF) is a tax-advantaged personal giving account established at a public nonprofit sponsor organization. The account is opened in the donor’s name and contributions are made to the organization(s) chosen by the donor. That might be a charity, but it could also be a university, religious foundation or financial institution. DAFs are enjoying unprecedented popularity with donations jumping by 27% since 2019. Giving from DAFs topped $34.67 billion in 2020, with the five largest — Fidelity, National Philanthropic Trust, Schwab, Vanguard and Silicon Valley Community — accounting for $24.5 billion alone. That said, the size of the average fund is a lot less, at around $150,000. Donors can gift cash, stock, real estate or other assets to a donor-advised fund. 

Traditionally, DAFs have been viewed as a tax-efficient way to give over a longer period of time without any annual obligation to distribute funds (thus the nickname “zombie philanthropy”), but now Groundswell is empowering corporations to unlock the advantages through our Philanthropy-as-a-Service platform. Whereas DAFs have conventionally been the preserve of the ultra-rich and brokerages, we’re offering access starting at $1 million (the lowest minimum contribution in the industry) to help employees with meaningful giving that benefits communities.  

What Is a Private Foundation? 

A private foundation, on the other hand, is a legal entity established solely for charitable purposes. Usually launched as a family or organization’s legacy initiative, the private foundation is a long-term project whose influence can spread worldwide. That’s certainly true of three of the biggest three: the Bill and Melinda Gates, Ford and Getty foundations. 

Private foundations are administered by a board of directors and can receive funds via real estate, investment assets or charitable donations. Unlike public charities, however, they usually derive their financial support from a single source, whether it’s a person, family or organization.

Key Differences Between Donor-Advised Fund vs. Private Foundation

There are a few important distinctions to note between the two, particularly when it comes to the overarching mission and vision. 


Most donor-advised funds are intended to support charitable giving during the philanthropist’s lifetime, although some do extend to a further generation or two. One of the criticisms of DAFs is that rather than distributing donations to non-profit organizations in need, they are used by the rich to “park” private wealth in a tax deductible fund. That’s not the Groundswell approach. Our platform is designed to establish a minimum annual distribution for DAFs to bring communities to life, not mothball zombie philanthropy funds. Private foundations, by contrast, focus firmly on the future legacy, and most are established as permanent entities that will outlive the founder. 


The board of directors (which can include the founder) manages a private foundation. For a DAF, the sponsor organization has control, although the donor may give their recommendation or advice on how grants are distributed.


Private foundations often celebrate a particular goal or set of values, so concealing the founder’s identity is rarely a concern. DAFs do offer confidentiality, so they are a useful vehicle for benefactors who want to support a charitable organization anonymously. 


There is a lower barrier to entry for donor-advised funds, some of which can be set up with as little as $5,000, although upwards of $100,000 is more common. Because all legal formalities are covered by the parent organization, DAFs are relatively easy to set up. By contrast, private foundations take longer to establish, and the legal, administrative and tax affairs require professional support. Private foundations usually start with funds of $10 million or more. 

Tax Matters 

Arguably the biggest difference between the two is in terms of tax regulation. For private foundations, the IRS dictates that a 5% minimum of net investment assets must be distributed annually in the form of grants or administrative expenses. To set up a private foundation, the founder(s) must apply for recognition of exemption under Section 501(c)(3) with the IRS, and will subsequently need to file detailed tax returns on board members’ compensation, fees and grants. All are a matter of public record. 

Donor-advised funds, on the other hand, do not require any annual grants to be administered but do offer immediate tax advantages, particularly if the donor is receiving a windfall, inheritance or revenue from a business or property sale. Neither do DAF donors have to file tax returns to the IRS, not least because ultimate control of the DAF is with the sponsor nonprofit organization. 

We’re Here To Support Your Giving Efforts

Despite the “zombie” tag, DAFs are by no means evil by nature. In fact, they can be an effective way to drive meaningful giving that brings communities to life. To find out how we’re raising zombie philanthropy from the dead with an employee benefit that benefits the world, get in touch with us today. 

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