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.
- If you already have a DAF, you might as well keep using it.
- If you have a brokerage account at Fidelity, Schwab, or Vanguard, then the easiest thing to do is to open a DAF with your brokerage account. That way, you can manage all your investments in one place.
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.
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:
- American Endowment Foundation (AEF)
- Fidelity Charitable
- Greater Horizons
- National Philanthropic Trust (NPTrust)
- Schwab Charitable
- T. Rowe Price Charitable
- 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:
- T. Rowe Price Charitable has the most investment options, but most of the funds have expense ratios of 0.6% or higher. Not worth it unless you really want those extra investment selections.
- AEF and NPTrust both look like decent options, but they charge higher administrative fees than Vanguard/Schwab, offer a worse user experience, and don't have any special features to compensate. So we might as well exclude them.
- Fidelity is nearly identical to Schwab, but it offers fewer investment options, so let's exclude it.
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.
Let's compare Vanguard, Schwab, and Greater Horizons on six questions:
- What fees do they charge?
- Do they have contribution/grant minimums?
- What pre-selected investment options do they provide?
- How flexible are their advisor-managed accounts?
- Can you contribute complex assets such as cryptocurrency or real estate?
- How good is the user experience?
- Vanguard has an account minimum of $25,000, but no minimum fee.
- Schwab has no account minimum, but charges a minimum annual fee of $100.
- Greater Horizons has no account minimum, but charges a minimum annual fee of $500.
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.
- For accounts with between $25,000 and $1 million, all three providers (Greater Horizons, Schwab, Vanguard) charge the same fees.
- For larger accounts, Vanguard is the cheapest; Schwab and Greater Horizons cost about the same. But the differences are fairly small, and they all charge much lower fees on large accounts than on small accounts.
Vanguard is the clear winner, but not by a large margin.
Donor-advised funds have three types of minimums:
- Minimum account size / initial contribution
- Minimum additional contribution
- Minimum grant size
They offer index funds covering the following markets:
|emerging market stocks||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.
- If you want the global market portfolio, use Vanguard because only Vanguard offers an international bond index.
- If you want ESG funds, use Vanguard.
- If you want to invest in a specific market that only one provider offers, use that provider.
- Otherwise, any provider is a good choice.
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:
- "Risky" investments are not allowed, including margin, short sales, options (except covered calls/puts), futures, and swaps, unless held within a mutual fund or ETF structure.
- The advisor must not charge higher fees to the DAF than to the donor's personal accounts.
- The donor's family members may not serve as investment advisors.
Schwab has some additional restrictions that Greater Horizons does not share:
- The account must trade using a Schwab brokerage account.
- The advisor must establish a benchmark and then track that benchmark reasonably closely. If the account deviates substantially from the benchmark, the advisor is accountable to Schwab's investment committee.
- The account must meet certain asset allocation requirements. For example, it cannot allocate more than 25% to any one security, more than 25% to emerging market equities, or more than 50% "to publicly traded funds that pursue alternative or non-diversified investment strategies, e.g., commodities or cryptocurrencies".
- Advisors may not invest in funds that they own or manage.
(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
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?)
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:
- If you want an advisor-managed account, use Greater Horizons.
- If your DAF will have less than $25,000, use Schwab.
- Otherwise, choose a DAF provider based on your top priority:
- Low fees = Vanguard
- Investment flexibility = probably Vanguard (depending on what investments you want, see Investment options for details)
- Customer service = Schwab
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:
- T. Rowe Price Charitable is too expensive to be worth using. The other DAF providers on my list are all basically fine, but if you have an DAF at T. Rowe Price with a decent amount of money, you should consider switching to a new provider.
- AEF and NPTrust seem adequate, but they have a few issues:
- They're more opaque than the other DAF providers, and I had a harder time getting them to tell me what I wanted to know.
- They make it more difficult to set up an account.
- For advisor-managed accounts, they impose more restrictions on the investment advisor than Greater Horizons does.
- They charge somewhat higher administrative fees than Fidelity/Schwab/Vanguard.
- NPTrust's pre-selected investment funds are too expensive. NPTrust should only be used with an advisor-managed account. AEF does not have pre-selected funds—you must appoint an investment advisor.
- AEF's website is so buggy that it's unusable on Firefox. Even ignoring the bugs, AEF's UI is much worse than Fidelity/Schwab/Vanguard.
- Fidelity Charitable is as good as Schwab/Vanguard for most purposes. I like it better than T. Rowe Price, AEF, or NPTrust. I like Fidelity a little bit less than Schwab because it provides fewer investment options and the UI is slightly harder to use, but Fidelity still seems like a fine choice.
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
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.
|AEF||Fidelity||NPTrust||Schwab||T. Rowe Price||Vanguard|
|Account Value||AEF||Fidelity||NPTrust||Schwab||T. Rowe Price||Vanguard|
Note: Fidelity uses a flat fee schedule on accounts with over $5 million, so its fees are not directly comparable to the others.
- T. Rowe Price has the lowest administrative fees, but its investment options charge high expense ratios. It only offers one reasonably-priced fund (an S&P 500 index fund). T. Rowe Price only has the lowest all-in fee if you invest in the S&P 500 and nothing else.
- Even though Schwab has lower fees than Vanguard at one tier, there is no account value at which Vanguard has a higher total fee.
- Even though NPTrust has lower fees than Schwab at one tier, there is no account value at which Schwab has a higher total fee.
- Fidelity's flat fee structure above $5 million means that near the bottom of a tier (e.g., $11 million), it's cheaper than Schwab or Vanguard, and near the top of a tier (e.g., $19 million), it's more expensive.
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. ↩︎
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.
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. ↩︎
AEF does not provide a fee schedule, only a fee calculator. I used the calculator to reverse-engineer the fee schedule. ↩︎
For the mathematically inclined, this function converts Fidelity's flat fee into an equivalent tiered fee on amounts over $5 million, given two variables
tiered_fee = ((AUM * flat_fee) - $11,250) / (AUM - $5,000,000)