Where Have We Been, Where are We Going?

This month for DAFinitively Speaking, we are reflecting on how DAFinitive® began and what has been accomplished so far. I spoke to several of my colleagues- Helen Brown, the founder of both The Helen Brown Group and DAFinitive®, Avery Whitlock, our research assistant who maintains all of the incredible data that you see in DAFinitive®, and Melissa Bank Stepno, vice president of data insight & business development and managing director of DAFinitive®, who recently joined us to guide our work going forward.

DAFinitive® began as a data project during early 2020 at The Helen Brown Group, when “our team noticed the explosion of donor advised funds and the number of people that clients were asking us to research who had them,” said Helen. “Research abhors a vacuum, and there was a definite lack of information about DAFs, including their donors, giving, and philanthropic interests. I looked around to see who was gathering that information for us to use, and it turned out no one was, so we had to build it ourselves from scratch. As other researchers heard about our spreadsheet, they asked if they could use it, too. And that’s how DAFinitive® was born!” As with all projects at HBG, they are a team effort, and it quickly became its own entity. All of us got to work finding what was out there for the public to view.

As the lines on our spreadsheet grew, we needed help to maintain the data and keep improving the quality of what it had to offer. As Helen recalled, “we engaged an amazing web development company called 3 Media Web to help take this spreadsheet and make it into a pretty, searchable, database. I honestly can’t say enough good things about how they helped turn this idea into a reality.”

Once it was ready for testing, “we enlisted the help of HBG staff and very kind beta testers from all over who put version 1.0 through its paces and gave helpful, very honest, feedback. We took their suggestions for improvement, and then we launched DAFinitive® as a full-fledged product in March of 2022.”

“What makes DAFinitive® special is that it is the first and only resource available to nonprofits that provides the ability to research DAFs in a centralized database,” said Melissa. “Sure, the information in DAFinitive® is all publicly available, so a researcher could theoretically find the information on their own. However, just like other wealth screening products, DAFinitive®’s power is that it has aggregated DAF data in a clean, organized and vetted format.” 

In addition to the volume of data that we’ve accumulated, said Melissa, “what sets DAFinitive® apart from most other wealth screening products on the market is that data is not being scraped or mass aggregated. Instead, every record has been researched and validated by a researcher, which assures its accuracy.”

Avery noted some of the complexities of finding information about DAFs. “Donor-advised funds allow for anonymity that other types of giving vehicles, like private foundations, do not provide. A donor-advisor can ask the DAF sponsor to keep their fund name anonymous, so that it doesn’t appear in any publications. This makes identifying DAFs a tricky endeavor, especially since DAFinitive® only uses publicly available information.”

While not every fund donor requests to remain anonymous, some sponsors don’t publish their information. As such, information on DAFs isn’t always simple to find. “Information for funds is found by searching through DAF sponsor resources–such as annual reports and articles on their websites–and through thorough internet searches on the fund and donor-advisors,” said Avery. This information is all located through the “source” link on each fund’s profile.

Here are some of Avery’s best suggestions on how to make the most of your DAFinitive® search:

  • Keywords are your friend. “The biggest tip for using the site is to use the keyword search bar! [It] looks at the entire donor profile, not just one section. This will even comb through the (sometimes massive) notes sections to find the information you’re looking for. Also, keep in mind that you can use multiple search filters at once to help narrow down your search!
  • In addition to the fund pages, don’t forget to use the DAFinitive® DAF Resource Center! Avery notes that while it “is quite expansive…the “general information about DAFs” section is a great starting point.” Additionally, they suggest the “minimum investment to set up a fund, by sponsor section. This document lists DAF sponsors and the minimums at each sponsor required to set up a fund. Some sponsors have no minimums, while others have minimums as high as $100,000!”
  • Avery also suggests that users check out the interest areas in each fund. “The interest areas used align with the IRS Activity Codes, also known as the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) codes: https://nccs.urban.org/publication/irs-activity-codes.” 
  • Don’t forget the big funds: if a page has a Million Dollar Fund checked, it will inform the user if “the DAF has, at one point, held at least a million dollars.”

As DAFinitive® grows, there is always more information to be found and more work to be done. “Our focus right now is two-fold,” notes Melissa.  “First, we continue to assess the platform to make sure that it is as user-friendly as possible. This includes both making improvements to the filters and search features available and in redesigning how some of the data is presented on an individual record,” she said.

Subscriber suggestions are always welcome! Some of the features that you know and love began as feedback from users, including information like gift designations, million-dollar fund distinctions and gift area information.

Melissa continued, “Our second focus is on building the dataset. Our team is working every business day to research and vet additional funds and sponsors. The larger we can grow DAFinitive® the more comprehensive and powerful we can make it for the research community.”

As it stands today (September 2023), DAFinitive® features nearly 72,000 funds, 341 sponsors and just over 6,000 gifts. The state with the highest number of funds is New York (6,081), and the state with the most sponsors is California (20). On the DAFinitive® site, we also feature international DAFs- more than 2,500 funds and 10 sponsors.

Now that we are several years into the project, I asked Helen how the current iteration of DAFinitive® matches her initial vision. She said, “we’ve already surpassed it! I have always considered DAFinitive® a crowdsourced project – by DAF researchers, for DAF researchers – and thanks to a lot of continuously creative ideas from subscribers and our HBG team, it’s even better than I initially dreamed it.”