Across Generations:
A Five-Step Guide for Creating an Expression of Donor Intent

A 5 Step Guide for Creating an Expression of Donor Intent

Everything you need to explore and express the values and vision behind your decision to establish a charitable fund, foundation or bequest.

Learn More


Hooray and congratulations to co-authors Susan Turnbull and Amy Zell Ellsworth. I think they have done an excellent job in creating a great and needed ‘tool’ for a donor, potential foundation creator, family leader, family member of business leader to help create a mission rationale for their family, group or business. I only wish someone had done this 25 years ago when I was struggling in this area.

John Abele, Boston Scientific

Expressions of Donor Intent

What is an expression of donor intent?

It is a non-binding letter or recording created to share your motivations, hopes and goals with heirs, successor trustees and/or beneficiaries of your philanthropy in a direct, personal and enduring way.

Why create one?

Because the legal documents establishing charitable instruments simply do not reflect the richness of personal history, values and vision that lie behind your decision to give so generously. In creating it, you ensure that your motivation and vision are completely understood, providing a healthy foundation for continuity among your successors, whether they are family members, trustees or staff of an institution.

How is it different from a mission statement?

A mission statement is often a broad statement of purpose and/or may define the kinds of gifts you want to make. However, in what is usually a few brief lines, by itself a mission statement cannot capture the fullness of your life and breadth of your intent, so valuable for successors to hear directly from you.

Who should create one?

  • Those with a philanthropic foundation or fund intended to exist beyond their lifetimes
  • Those who have designated a major charitable bequest in their estate plan
  • Those seeking to discern and build upon the intent of a deceased donor over whose fund or foundation they are assuming responsibility

Expert perspectives on the value of expressing intent

“Family Foundations give modern philanthropy its dynamic character. Founded by a donor within a family context…”

Read the opening essay by Charles Hamilton from the book Living the Legacy: The Value of a Family’s Philanthropy, published and reprinted with permission by the National Center for Family Philanthropy.

“As a donor, your legacy is about more than what is tangible. ‘It’s not about who gets the grandfather clock,’ notes Tom McMillan, a Denver estate planning attorney, ‘but rather who was the grandfather?’”

Read the article about documenting donor intent published by the Association of Small Foundations.

Read some excerpts from contemporary expressions of intent

“The purpose of this memorandum is to provide an overview of my goals and intentions for the future of the XYZ Trust. While separate legal papers provide specific details on the governance and transfer of assets to the XYZ Trust, this document provides the Trustees with more descriptive information on my approach to giving …”

Read this example of an expression of intent

“The new foundation’s Articles of Incorporation include the major elements of my “donor intent” in creating the foundation. However, there are also certain principles related to the foundation that are important to me; this letter outlines those principles and should be viewed as a further expression of my intent…”

Read another example of an expression of intent