Kim Wright-Violich is the woman behind the money at Schwab Charitable.
Since joining the national donor-advised fund organization as its president in the spring of 2000, she has helped Schwab become one of the top 10 charities in the U.S., with over $3 billion in contributions.
The success that Wright-Violich and Schwab have enjoyed can be attributed in part to a transformation in the financial services industry that spread the idea of investing more widely among the population, she said. As wealth began to grow in the late 1990s and the early part of this decade, donor-advised funds became one way to cater to the rising numbers of mass affluent.
"Americans are extraordinarily philanthropic individuals," Wright-Violich said. "We have this belief in the power of the individual action. And this creates an environment where the percentage that is given to charity is among the highest in the world."
Charles Schwab Corp.'s founder set out to make strategic philanthropy available to all people, not just those who could afford a private foundation, Wright-Violich said. He realized that goal: the grant minimum for donor-advised funds is only $100, and the average grant is $5,000.
Schwab wasn't the first company to offer donor-advised funds; Fidelity Investments created the first donor-advised funds in 1990. But Schwab was the first donor-advised fund built around independent advisers, Wright-Violich said. Schwab focused on investment advisers as the outlet for charitable advice, whereas Fidelity went directly to customers through retail investors or estate planners.
"The investment adviser space has progressed from being purely stock-selection advice to everything that an individual family office would provide," Wright-Violich said. "As investment advisers made that progression, we've been there with a philanthropic tool."
Schwab wants to make a donor-advised fund as close to a private-foundation experience as possible, in terms of asset management, grant making and personalized attention. This helps remove administrative work and similar nuisances that pose barriers to giving, Wright-Violich said.
Schwab also started a guarantee program that allows donors to use the charitable assets in their account twice: first, to recommend up to 10% of their charitable gift account balance be used to help guarantee microfinance loans in the developing world, and then after the guarantee period, for granting to other charities. With the guarantee, a microfinance organization can then get a loan from a bank. Schwab collaborated with the Grameen Foundation and expects to deliver $10 million in guarantees for its first phase, creating over 100,000 microloans.
"It's a way to put the money to work while it's sitting in the account," Wright-Violich said.
The financial crisis has given donors a chance to have financial decisions reflect their values. Since the stock market rebounded from the lows of 2008, many individuals have chosen to give their appreciated assets to charity. Wright-Violich expects Schwab Charitable will conclude this fiscal year, which ends in June, at least 35% ahead of 2009. She predicts the 2010 calendar year will be even better, with a 65% increase.
Schwab aims to create a Facebook-like platform that will let donors discuss their giving without revealing their identity.
Until then, "we'll just follow the strategy of the last six months since it's working so well," Wright-Violich said. "We are constantly monitoring the environment and seeing where the needs are and where the opportunities are."
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