A Comparison of Donor-Advised Fund Providers

post by MichaelDickens · 2021-04-05T20:13:46.727Z · EA · GW · 10 comments

Contents

        The short answer:
        The long answer:
  My process
  Comparison
      Fees
      Minimums
      Investment options
      Advisor-managed accounts
      Contributing complex assets
      User experience
  The best DAF provider(s)
    on Fidelity, AEF, NPTrust, and T. Rowe Price
  Appendix: Table of administrative fees
  Notes
None
10 comments

A donor-advised fund (DAF) is an investment account that lets you take a tax deduction now and give the money to charity later. When you give money to a DAF, you can deduct that money just as you would deduct a charitable contribution. The DAF invests the money tax-free. At any time, you can direct the DAF to donate some or all of its holdings to the charity of your choice.

You can open a DAF through a donor-advised fund provider. A provider charges an administrative fee to invest your DAF and make donations in accordance with your recommendations.

For donors in the United States, which DAF provider is the best?

The short answer:

All of the big DAF providers offer similar features. For most people, it doesn't really matter which one you choose.

Otherwise, I believe Schwab Charitable is the best DAF provider for most people.

The long answer:

Even if all the major DAF providers are reasonably good, they do have their own strengths and weaknesses. In the rest of this post, let's look at how they compare.

Cross-posted to my website.

My process

I made a list of every United States nationwide DAF provider I could find. I excluded regional DAF providers (example: Silicon Valley Community Foundation), providers that weren't cause-agnostic (example: National Christian Foundation), and providers that don't work with individual donors (example: American Online Giving Foundation). Your local community foundation might offer a better DAF than any of the national providers of my list, but there are too many community foundations for me to look at them all.

I ended up with seven DAF providers:

  1. American Endowment Foundation (AEF)
  2. Fidelity Charitable
  3. Greater Horizons
  4. National Philanthropic Trust (NPTrust)
  5. Schwab Charitable
  6. T. Rowe Price Charitable
  7. Vanguard Charitable

This list is probably not comprehensive, but it's all the DAF providers I could find that meet my criteria.

I spoke to representatives at these providers to get more information about their offerings. I also spoke to a few financial advisors who manage DAFs at different providers.

I then eliminated four DAF providers:

Three DAF providers remain: Greater Horizons, Schwab, and Vanguard.

Caveat 1: I don't have good firsthand knowledge of any of these seven DAF providers except for Fidelity Charitable, which I have used because I have a brokerage account at Fidelity. I created accounts at Schwab and Vanguard to get a sense of how they work, but I haven't tried to do anything fancy like set up an advisor-managed account. I had to make subjective assessments of things like UI, so don't take my claims as definitive.

Caveat 2: This article is not about whether you should open a DAF in the first place. For some people, a foundation would better serve their needs; other people should simply keep their money in a taxable account. But if you've already decided you want a DAF, I hope this article will help you choose a provider.

Comparison

Let's compare Vanguard, Schwab, and Greater Horizons on six questions:

  1. What fees do they charge?
  2. Do they have contribution/grant minimums?
  3. What pre-selected investment options do they provide?
  4. How flexible are their advisor-managed accounts?
  5. Can you contribute complex assets such as cryptocurrency or real estate?
  6. How good is the user experience?

Fees

Vanguard, Schwab, and offer tiered fee structures based on the value of the account. Greater Horizons has a similar fee structure, but I cannot provide a link because the fees are not publicly available. See Appendix for full details on the administrative fees for each provider.

In brief:

Vanguard is the clear winner, but not by a large margin.

Minimums

Donor-advised funds have three types of minimums:

  1. Minimum account size / initial contribution
  2. Minimum additional contribution
  3. Minimum grant size
Schwab Vanguard Greater Horizons
Account Min $0 $25,000 $0
Contribution Min $0 $5,000 $0
Grant Min $50 $500 $0

Investment options

Let's compare the investment options for Schwab, Vanguard, and Greater Horizons.

They offer index funds covering the following markets:

Schwab Vanguard Greater Horizons
US stocks X X X
US small-cap X
international stocks X X X
Europe stocks X
Pacific stocks X
emerging market stocks X
US bonds X X X
international bonds X
TIPS X
money market X X X

The expense ratios on the funds themselves are low enough not to matter as long as you stick with the passively-managed funds. (Vanguard and Schwab both offer a few actively-managed funds with higher fees.) You can use any of the three providers to construct a globally diversified portfolio for an average expense ratio of about 0.05%.

Vanguard investors can approximately replicate the global market portfolio with 30% US stocks, 30% international stocks, 20% US bonds, and 20% international bonds. Investors with Schwab or Greater Horizons don't have access to international bonds, so the closest they can get is something like 30% US stocks, 30% international stocks, 40% US bonds.

Vanguard offers a few ESG funds with low expense ratios. Schwab also has ESG funds, but they're unreasonably expensive.

Advisor-managed accounts

Schwab and Greater Horizons allow donors to appoint an investment advisor who can invest in things other than the pre-selected funds. (Vanguard does not have this option.) Their program guidelines (links: Greater Horizons, Schwab (p. 11–14)) dictate what investments are allowed.

Some examples of restrictions that apply to both:

Schwab has some additional restrictions that Greater Horizons does not share:

(Both DAF providers have other restrictions; these are simply the ones I thought were the most interesting.)

Greater Horizons provides more flexibility to investment advisors. If I wanted to do anything unconventional, I would use Greater Horizons.

Contributing complex assets

Greater Horizons, Schwab, and Vanguard can all accept various types of complex assets, including cryptocurrency, private equity, real estate, and more.[1]

They all claim to accept pretty much any type of asset that can legally be donated. But if you want to donate a large position in a complex asset, you should contact a DAF provider before opening an account to confirm that they can receive it.

(Amusingly, AEF, NPTrust, and Schwab all say they're "uniquely flexible" when handling complex assets. If they're all uniquely flexible, I guess that means none of them is?)

User experience

Most donors probably only care about the basic features of a DAF—they don't need fancy investment options or the ability to contribute complex assets. And the good DAF providers all charge similar fees. So most people should go with whichever DAF provider offers the best user experience.

Of the three providers I'm focusing on, Greater Horizons easily has the worst sign-up process. You have to request that a customer service representative reach out to you. Then they send you a PDF form to fill out, and create the account manually after you fill out the form. In contrast, Schwab and Vanguard both let you sign up online and you can fill out your personal information on the website.

In the process of writing this article, I created accounts at Schwab and Vanguard and went through a few common use cases. I found both easy to use. Schwab's interface was slightly simpler, but both sites had well-designed UI.

Another important aspect of user experience is the quality of customer service. Good customer service matters, but it's also difficult to assess—if you have a good/bad customer service experience, that might have more to do with the specific person you talked to than the quality of service in general. That said, I spoke over email and over the phone with all three providers to get my questions answered, and I had good experiences with all three.

I've heard that Schwab (the investment broker, not the DAF provider) has particularly good customer service, and the service of Vanguard (the investment broker) isn't as good. But Schwab Charitable/Vanguard Charitable operate largely independently from Schwab/Vanguard, so that might not apply. For example, Schwab provides a 24/7 phone number and a 24/7 live chat, but Schwab Charitable's customer service is only available during business hours, and it only has phone and email, no live chat.

If you already have a brokerage account at Vanguard/Schwab, then it makes sense to open a DAF with Vanguard Charitable/Schwab Charitable (respectively) to keep all your accounts in one place. Otherwise, both provide good user experiences, with a slight edge for Schwab.

The best DAF provider(s)

This flow chart shows the best DAF provider depending on your circumstances:

(Click here for the full-size image.)

A text summary of this flow chart:

Vanguard and Schwab have identical fees for accounts with up to $1 million, so low fees should only be your top priority if your DAF will have more than that.

This flow chart only includes Greater Horizons, Schwab, and Vanguard. That's not because I believe these three are better at everything than the other four providers. For example, I think Fidelity has a better UI than Vanguard, and NPTrust offers more flexibility than Schwab for advisor-managed accounts. Rather, I chose these three because each one is the best at something, while the other four are not the best at anything (in my estimation).

More on Fidelity, AEF, NPTrust, and T. Rowe Price

Since I didn't compare them in detail, here are my impressions of the other four DAF providers, ranked from worst to best:

Bonus fact: If you have at least $5 million, Fidelity Charitable lets you manage your own investments (without an advisor). I don't believe any of the other DAF providers let you do this.

Appendix: Table of administrative fees

Fees can be found at these links: AEF[4], Fidelity, NPTrust, Schwab, T. Rowe Price, Vanguard.

Greater Horizons does not publish its fees online. I learned what it charges by speaking to a representative. I don't like it when companies don't publish their fees, but I will respect Greater Horizons' preferences by not disclosing them. If you want to know the specifics, contact them directly.

Minimum fees:

AEF Fidelity NPTrust Schwab T. Rowe Price Vanguard
Minimum Fee $500 $100 None $100 None None

Fee tiers:

Account Value AEF Fidelity NPTrust Schwab T. Rowe Price Vanguard
First $250K 0.70% 0.60% 0.85% 0.60% 0.50% 0.60%
Next $250K 0.70% 0.60% 0.70% 0.60% 0.50% 0.60%
Next $500K 0.35% 0.30% 0.60% 0.30% 0.39% 0.30%
Next $1.5M 0.25% 0.20% 0.45% 0.20% 0.18% 0.13%
Next $2.5M 0.15% 0.15% 0.25% 0.15% 0.12% 0.13%
Next $5M 0.15% 0.15% 0.13% 0.10% 0.13%
Next $5M 0.15% 0.10% 0.12% 0.10% 0.13%
Next $15M 0.10% 0.10% 0.10% 0.09% 0.10%
Over $30M 0.10% 0.10% 0.10% 0.09% 0.05%

Note: Fidelity uses a flat fee schedule on accounts with over $5 million, so its fees are not directly comparable to the others.

Some observations:

Notes


  1. Vanguard's website does not state that they can accept cryptocurrency, but I confirmed with a representative that they take donations of cryptocurrency if the value of the contribution is at least $50,000. ↩︎

  2. My incredible customer service experience with NPTrust:

    • I send them an email to ask what types of investments they allow.
    • A representative replies and says we need to set up a phone call.
    • On the phone call, I repeat my question. They then email me a PDF that contains their investment requirements.

    I'm tempted to send them one of those "this meeting could have been an email" coffee mugs. ↩︎

  3. Fidelity's and Schwab's UIs are nearly identical. The only real difference I noticed is that Schwab does a better job of conglomerating your accounts. If you have both a brokerage account and a DAF at Schwab, you can easily switch between them from the landing page. If you have both types of accounts at Fidelity, you can navigate to your DAF from the landing page, but it sends you to a separate URL and sometimes requires you to log in again. ↩︎

  4. AEF does not provide a fee schedule, only a fee calculator. I used the calculator to reverse-engineer the fee schedule. ↩︎

  5. For the mathematically inclined, this function converts Fidelity's flat fee into an equivalent tiered fee on amounts over $5 million, given two variables AUM and flat_fee:

    tiered_fee = ((AUM * flat_fee) - $11,250) / (AUM - $5,000,000)
    
    ↩︎

10 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2021-04-06T10:52:06.294Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Does this apply to US only? If so, could be good to say at the very top.

(I haven't read the post, but I'm very excited that such a resource exists!)

Replies from: Jonas Vollmer, MichaelDickens
comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2021-04-06T10:52:32.017Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Also, if anyone is up for it, I think a resource for DAF providers in other countries would seem useful as well

comment by MichaelDickens · 2021-04-06T15:32:20.568Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah this is for US only. I actually thought I had said that in the post, but looks like I forgot to! I'll edit it.

Replies from: Jonas Vollmer
comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2021-04-06T18:29:59.898Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

You said it in the "My process" section, but not earlier.

comment by Cullen_OKeefe · 2021-04-06T15:40:44.249Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great post. One more resource that EAs should be aware of is Charitable Solutions LLC. They facilitate large (>$250k) DAF donations of exotic assets like restricted stock, LP interests, art, etc.

comment by Ozzie Gooen (oagr) · 2021-04-05T21:58:13.593Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This looks really useful, many thanks for the writeup. I'd note that I've been using Vanguard for regular investments and found website annoying and the customer support quite bad; there would be long periods where they wouldn't offer any because things were "too crowded". I think most people underestimate the value of customer support, in part because it is most valuable in the tail end situations. 

Some quick questions:
- Are there any simple ways of making investments in these accounts that offer 2x leverage or more? Are there things here that you'd recommend?
- Do you have an intuition around when one should make a Donor-Advised Fund? If there are no minimums, should you set one up once you hit, say, $5K in donations that won't be spent a given tax year?
- How easy is it for others to invest in one's Donor-Advised Fund? Like, would it be really easy to set up your own version of EA Funds?

Replies from: akrolsmir, MichaelDickens
comment by akrolsmir · 2021-04-06T07:56:12.890Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"Do you have an intuition around when one should make a Donor-Advised Fund?"

The reason I, personally, opened a DAF was to make it dead simple to donate appreciated stock.

If you're not familiar: you can give a lot more to charity, at the same cost to you, if you gift stock that's gone up in price instead of cash. For example, say you bought stock for $1k and has appreciated to $10k. (Lucky you!) If you sold it to donate it to charity, you first have to pay capital gains tax on the $9k, which is 35% or about $3k. So the charity only gets $7k. If instead, you gift the stock directly: you don't pay taxes, and neither does the charity. Basically, the US Govt matches your donation. Great deal, right?

The catch is: actually gifting stock is really annoying! When I was donating TSLA shares to GiveWell I had to literally fax a piece of paper telling them which shares to take out of my account. A DAF is much simpler; I just click some buttons from my Schwab investment account and the stock lands and gets sold in my Schwab Charitable DAF. There are other great reasons to open a DAF too -- but making this tax optimization really easy is why I went for it.

Replies from: SamDeere
comment by SamDeere · 2021-04-06T11:52:23.840Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

DAFs do make it much easier to donate appreciated stock, and this is good advice. However, if you want to make a donation of appreciated assests and you aren't able to set up a DAF, EA Funds accepts donations of stock (in the US) and cryptocurrency (US, UK, and NL) for donations of more than $1000 (no promises that you won't have to send a fax to your broker if you want to donate stock, but in general that hasn't been the case for most of our donors who are donating from Vanguard etc).

comment by MichaelDickens · 2021-04-06T15:56:50.523Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing your experience with Vanguard! That aligns with anecdotes I've heard about Vanguard's brokerage service.

  • Are there any simple ways of making investments in these accounts that offer 2x leverage or more? Are there things here that you'd recommend?

I just published something about DAF investing strategies: https://mdickens.me/2021/04/06/investing_strategies_DAF/ In this section, I talk about leveraged ETFs. I believe the only way to invest with leverage in a DAF is through a leveraged ETF or mutual fund, although I've heard conflicting things about what the actual legal requirements are. In general, I don't think leveraged ETFs are good investments.

  • Do you have an intuition around when one should make a Donor-Advised Fund?

If you want to use leverage, probably never. (Or just use it to convert stock into cash for donations, as akrolsmir described.) Otherwise, you want to have at least $10,000 or so, otherwise the minimum fee will eat too large a % of your assets each year. (Schwab and Fidelity both have a $100 minimum fee.)

  • How easy is it for others to invest in one's Donor-Advised Fund?

It's definitely possible. I personally don't have my own DAF, I use my parents' DAF. I'm a full authorized user on the account, which means I had to connect my Fidelity account to the DAF. If you don't care about managing anything and just want to donate to the DAF, I would think that should be pretty easy, but I haven't tried it. I think it should be as simple as writing a check to Fidelity Charitable with a note that the money is for that particular DAF.

comment by Dan Hageman (danieljhageman@gmail.com) · 2021-04-09T01:20:19.147Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks so much for this great post! I've had Schwab Charitable for about a year now, and has been very smooth. Also potentially worth noting, one can transfer between DAFs across various providers, so if the size of a DAF were to change, I think it should be feasible to move to one with better options/fees as needed.