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Should I start foundation to honor my wife?

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Should I start foundation to honor my wife?

My wife recently passed away from brain cancer. Everyone who knew her loved her. My adult son went to an obituary and fundraising website and, within a few weeks, raised $3000 for a well-known and credible cancer organization. To perpetuate my wife's memory by honoring her, what would be required to establish a foundation to raise funds for brain cancer research?

It is relatively easy to start a foundation to support medical research.  It is quite another thing to maintain it and do long-term good.  Unfortunately, memorial gifts tend to peter out after a short time and are not usually enough to sustain an organization without significant on-going fundraising efforts.  We can all think of national organizations formed in honor of a loved one that have become major players in dealing with specific illnesses.  There are many more situations, however, in which someone like your son raises a few thousand dollars for a specific cause immediately after a death but no one has either the desire or the willingness to continue raising funds.

You can create a new organization but without continuous fundraising it will become a private foundation.  Because of the administrative costs of operating a private foundation, we almost never recommend one without at least $1 million, preferably at least $2 million in assets.  The costs of administering a separate public charity may be slightly less because there is no excise tax on net investment income, but it has the added expense of fundraising.

Your best bet if you don’t anticipate growing this into a multi-million dollar organization and you still want to influence the use of the funds may be to establish a donor advised fund at a community foundation in your area. They can be established almost immediately, the costs are usually lower, the community foundation takes care of the administrative work, and you (and/or your children) get to advise on the distribution of the funds without having a constant requirement to raise new money.  The fund can carry your wife’s name and honor her memory with permanent, though smaller, support for cancer research.  (See Ready Reference Page:  “Donor Advised Funds Still Compare Well with Private Foundations”)  

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Thank you for the reference to donor-advised giving to community foundations, Don. We serve Delaware County at TCF (Taylor Community Foundation) and maintain a few such funds. We would be happy to assist your reader if they reside in or have another connection to Delaware County in PA.

With an amount this small I'm not sure a community foundation would do a named fund. I would suggest an outright donation to the National Brain Tumor Society. I'm sure they would be glad to have a discussion about how to use the money, research on a particular type of tumor, etc., and the funds would be put to work immediately with no administrative costs at all.

My father recently passed away and I am adamant on doing some charity work in honor of his name. I have always donated to his church as well as other medical research organizations with no "foundation" set up. I am interested in honoring his name in a "foundation." He passed away from liver cancer. What do you think I should do?

My recommendation is basically the same as the answer to the question above. You could work to raise funds for a foundation dealing specifically with liver cancer, or a foundation dealing with cancer that would be willing to accept funds specifically for liver cancer work. Or you could create a donor advised fund at a community foundation to raise money that you could recommend be used for programs in this area. Unless you expect to make this your life's work, I wouldn't recommend setting up your own separate "foundation." —Don Kramer

How do you know the community foundation will do what you want?

     Community foundations retain absolute discretion over distributions from their donor advised funds, but will normally honor the recommendation if it is legal.  They have an interest in satisfying their donor-advisers because they want to expand the number of funds and the new contributions they receive.  They are generally supportive of their donors so long as the recommendation is not prohibited.  —Don Kramer


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