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Financial Decoder Bonus: Why Is Now a Good Time to Give to Charity?

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Why Is Now a Good Time to Give to Charity?

There is no question that there is a greater need for charitable giving right now, but are there also advantages for donors and charities?

The coronavirus pandemic has created an enormous need for charitable giving, but there are other tax-smart reasons why donors might be encouraged to give more during this time. In fact, Schwab Charitable reports an impressive surge in giving over the past year. From January through June 2020, Schwab donors committed over $1.7 billion in 330,000 separate grants. This represents a 46% increase in dollars granted and a 44% increase in the number of grants compared to the same period in 2019.

In this special bonus episode, Mark Riepe talks with Kim Laughton, the president of Schwab Charitable. She and Mark discuss how to identify the right charities for you, how to incorporate charitable giving into your financial plan, and how to make the most of recent legislative changes when giving, among other topics.

Subscribe to Financial Decoder for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

Financial Decoder is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.

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MARK RIEPE: 2020 has seen its share of bad news, but one bright spot has been that we’ve seen many people significantly increase their charitable giving to support those who have been most impacted by this pandemic.

Charitable giving is important, but it’s also a choice.

During a crisis or natural disaster, people often have a willingness to give—and that’s great—but like all important choices, it makes sense to have a thoughtful strategy before acting.

I’m Mark Riepe, and this is Financial Decoder, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about financial decisions and the cognitive and emotional biases that can cloud our judgment.

Before I get into the details of charitable giving strategies with my guest, I want to share some numbers with you that demonstrate how the COVID-19 pandemic has seen an unprecedented outpouring of support for those in need.

Here are a few recent statistics from Schwab Charitable that drive this point home.

From January through June 2020, Schwab donors committed over $1.7 billion in 330,000 separate grants.

This represents a 46% increase in dollars granted and a 44% increase in the number of grants compared to the same period in 2019.[1]

And the charities recommended by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy for COVID-19 relief saw a 250% increase in dollars granted year over year through Schwab Charitable.

Today, I’m going to be speaking with Kim Laughton about several reasons why now is a great time to increase your charitable giving.

Kim is the president of Schwab Charitable. She also serves on the board for Students Rising Above and is a member of the International Women’s Forum. Kim has been recognized by the San Francisco Business Times as one of the most influential women in Bay Area business.

MARK RIEPE: Kim, welcome back. You were a guest, I believe, on the show back in Season 3, when we discussed donor-advised funds and how to give to charities. That was a great episode. People can still find it on our podcast feed or on Schwab.com. Thanks for taking time to talk with me again.

KIM LAUGHTON: Thanks, Mark. It’s great to be here.

MARK: Kim, I know every year is a good year to think about giving to charity, but what specifically makes this an especially great time to make an impact with charitable giving this year?

KIM: Well, a few things make this year, in particular, an especially good year to give. First, as we all know, the need is really unprecedented. We’re living through what we hope is a once in a lifetime global pandemic with COVID-19. But we’re also experiencing market volatility, social unrest, and more recently, a string of natural disasters between fires in the west and hurricanes around the Gulf Coast. Fortunately, as you mentioned earlier, our donors are really responding nicely. This has been the first … the first half of this year has been the most active first half of a year we’ve had since our founding, with our grant-making up almost 50%, both in terms of dollars granted and the number of grants we’ve sent out.

So the need is unprecedented, but secondly, the market environment is really ideal for increased giving this year. The major equity indices have reached all-time highs this year. Even though the markets remain volatile, there are many people who have highly appreciated investments in their portfolios. And appreciated assets that have been held for a year or more are generally the most tax-smart assets to give to charity. And people have a lot of them right now.

And then, finally, you know, the tax environment is still really good for charitable giving. The charitable deduction remains one of the most powerful and controllable ways for investors to manage their tax bills. It was one of the few deductions that wasn’t eliminated or capped in the tax reform effort a few years ago, unlike state and local taxes and mortgage interest deductions that were capped. There are also some new tax incentives to encourage charitable giving in 2020 that were included in the recent Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, which is also known as the CARES Act, that passed last March.

MARK: As I mentioned in the introduction, giving to charity is a choice, but it’s actually a choice that is embedded within it lots of specific decisions that need to be made. One of the first things that people need to figure out is where to give, and what sorts of charities are accredited and are doing important, impactful work in the areas that they most care about. So how can people go about finding out about those charities and identifying those charities?

KIM: It’s a great question. And there’s a lot … you know, there are literally millions of charities out there. So we’ve tried to make that process easier during this year, you know, the extraordinary need we’re seeing. And we’ve developed a COVID-19 Resource Center and also an Equal Access to Justice Resource Center. They’re on our website at SchwabCharitable.org. They include webcasts, articles, blogs from philanthropic leaders, as well as some charity search tools and a list of charities recommended by reputable sources for both of those needs. In addition, for COVID-19 and for the recent natural disasters, we’ve also partnered with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, which we feel is a really great resource. They’re on the ground. They can provide those continual updates for the many, you know, fires and hurricanes that we’re seeing this year. In addition, we think local community foundations are really great places to think about giving. Many of them have relief funds, both for COVID-19 and for whatever natural disasters they may be facing. So we make those lists available on our website. People really do value having a short list, just to cull through, literally, the millions of charities out there.

Another tip that we like to give our donors is to think about whatever interest area they may have, you know, maybe beyond those areas I’ve just mentioned and really research the foundations that are active in those areas. There are, you know, big foundations out there. One, the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, publishes publicly where they give. They have give lists that really create a short list for some of their areas of interest. There are also third-party sites, like GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and CharityWatch. But if you follow foundations of interest, you can review their list of grantees, and you can really be confident that they’ve been thoroughly vetted by the expert staff that they have that are focused on those issues.

MARK: Yeah, so if you think about it as a process, the first step is figuring out what you really care about. Secondly, where specifically to give. And then the third step really is to figure out how much to give, and for many people that’s going to be influenced, to a certain extent, by the Tax Code. So when it comes to taxes, what are some of the annual limits for charitable deductions?

KIM: Well, it depends on what you give and what type of charitable organization you give it to. So the annual income tax deduction for gifts to public charities, which include donor-advised funds, they weren’t changed during the last tax reform efforts a few years ago. In fact, actually, in some cases, they were improved for cash. You can give up to 60% of your adjusted gross income for cash gifts, 30% for gifts of non-cash assets that have been held for more than a year, and blended, it’s up to a maximum of 50%. But really it’s the 60% and the 30% that you need to keep in mind. Also, you can carry forward contributions in excess of these limits for up to five years. So if you want to give more, especially in this year of great need, you can and just carry that forward for up to five years. If you’re giving to a private foundation, the deductibility limits are a little bit lower—it’s 30% for cash and 20% for non-cash assets. So those are sort of the standard IRS rules.

In addition, this year, as part of the CARES Act, Congress passed an additional above-the-line deduction of up to $300 for cash contributions. So everyone should be taking that. Assuming they’re giving, you know, a few hundred dollars to charity this year. And then for people who itemize and want to, again, for cash contributions only, they can deduct up to 100% of their AGI. These donations, as part of the CARES Act, the last two I just mentioned, need to be made directly to operating charities. So they can’t be made to private foundations or donor-advised funds.

MARK: Kim, you made that distinction between cash and non-cash donations. I think many people, when they … probably most people, when they think of giving, they’re really thinking about writing a check or providing a credit card number to a charity. What are some other non-cash ways to give to a charity, and maybe talk a little bit more about how those contributions have an impact on your tax situation?

KIM: Yeah, you’re right. I mean, most all of us will write checks, use our credit card occasionally to sponsor people on runs or walks. And that’s fine, but it’s really not the most tax-effective way for most investors to give. And that’s because the IRS has made it advantageous to give appreciated investments and assets to charity. You can take those assets and investments, as long as they’ve been held long-term, which is a year or more, and you can donate directly to the charity, claim a fair market value charitable deduction, and you also avoid paying capital gains taxes on the sale of the shares. So you know, with a cash donation, you get the charitable deduction, but with the appreciated investment donation, you also avoid paying capital gains taxes. And depending on the cost basis of the shares you’re donating, that could increase the amount you have to give to charity by up to 20%. The charity receives the shares, and because they’re a nonprofit, they don’t have to pay the capital gains taxes when they liquidate the assets that you’ve given. So it’s really a win-win for both you and your favorite charities to be donating appreciated investments or assets instead of cash.

MARK: Kim, the last time you were on the podcast we spent most of the episode talking about the ins and outs and mechanics of a donor-advised fund. People can listen to that episode. But could you maybe, quickly, summarize the concept behind a donor-advised fund?

KIM: Sure. A donor-advised fund is essentially a special purpose account for charitable giving, just like IRAs and 401(k)s are for retirement or 529 plans are for college savings. So the account works with three simple steps. Number one, you give. You open the account, you make an irrevocable contribution of cash or non-cash assets. You get your current year tax deduction when you do that. Secondly, you grant. Once the assets are in the account, you can feel free to grant them to whatever charities you want to, as long as they’re current and registered with the IRS, a 501(c)(3) charity. The donor-advised fund provider does all the due diligence to make sure the charity is a valid charity. And then for any funds that you want to leave in the account, you can grow those funds by investing them for growth. Donor-advised fund providers have various different investment choices to choose from.

So the providers that … who offer donor-advised funds are registered public charities. And that’s important, because you get the same tax benefits that you would get if you gave your funds to a charity, but you would get a few different advantages. Number one, you can separate your tax decision from your giving decision. So let’s say you want to give a certain amount in a certain year to offset taxes. You’re not quite sure which charities you want to receive them. You can go ahead and give to the donor-advised fund in that year, get that deduction, and then grant over time once you’ve got time to decide where you want to give it. It also makes it easier to give appreciated investments. And rather than, you know, give a share of stock to … you know, to five different charities, you can give the five shares to your donor-advised fund and then grant out to the five charities cash. It’s a much simpler process for you, for the charities, and for everybody involved. And for those donor-advised funds that are offered by financial services providers like Schwab, it allows you to manage your charitable giving in the same place that you manage your investments and do your banking. And so you can be more strategic, more thoughtful, move money from various accounts to your charitable account with just a few clicks of a mouse.

MARK: Yeah, it certainly is quite easy. I mean, within one tool, you … it’s very easy to move money, you can do searching for different charities, and you’ve got all the reporting right there. It is … it’s a fabulous structure.

Kim, one of the newer things I’ve heard about with respect to donor-advised funds is to execute what’s called a bunching strategy to maximize the charitable deduction. Could you tell me how that works?

KIM: Yeah. This is the coolest strategy. And if you can follow me here, if not, we also have case studies that allow you to sort of visualize this. But for those whose potential itemized deductions are near the level of the standard deduction, which was dramatically increased as part of tax reform a few years ago, if they’re giving to charity but they’re taking the standard deduction, they’re not really getting any incremental tax benefits from their charitable giving. So let’s say, for example, a family typically gives $10,000 per year to charity. Instead of doing that, they decide they’re going to bunch two years of giving together into one year, and they contribute $20,000 to a donor-advised fund. By doing that with their other deductions, they could cross that standard deduction hurdle, and they would qualify, and it would make sense to itemize their deduction, and they get the full tax benefit of everything that’s deductible. Then year two comes around. They can use their donor-advised fund account to maintain their giving to their charities, but they wouldn’t contribute any additional funds, and instead they would take the standard deduction that year.

So if you do the math, you’re giving the same amount over two years—$20,000, $10,000 a year. This strategy ends up producing a larger combined two-year charitable deduction. It’s larger by a factor … a pretty big factor, like $8,600, just by allowing you to take the itemized deduction in one year and the standard deduction in the other. It’s a really cool strategy.

MARK: Yeah, at the end of the day, the amount to the charity doesn’t change at all. The only real difference is that you’re getting an additional tax deduction. Is that right?

KIM: Yeah, that’s correct.

MARK: Let’s talk about some other strategies, especially for those already in retirement. Talk to me a little bit about the qualified charitable distribution, and how does that fit into the picture?

KIM: Yeah, the QCD, which is the acronym for the qualified charitable distribution, it gives retirees who are 70½ or older an added opportunity for really tax-smart charitable giving above and beyond what we’ve already talked about. So whether people are itemizing or claiming the standard deduction, people of that age can direct up to $100,000 per year tax-free from their traditional IRAs directly to operating charities, not to charitable vehicles like donor-advised funds or private foundations, by using the QCD. So in a normal year, taking that QCD can help you eliminate the RMD taxes that you would have to take. And even though the RMD, the required minimum distribution, for IRAs has been waived for 2020, it still can make sense to utilize the QCD to help reduce your IRA balance, to reduce the taxable estate that you’re going to be passing on and limit that tax liability that your beneficiaries will have by having, you know, a large IRA that they inherit.

MARK: Kim, nobody likes RMDs. We certainly … I certainly hear that from lots of investors. So in essence, that QCD, that can decrease the bite that the RMD is taking out of their portfolio, right?

KIM: Absolutely. Up to $100,000 a year, you just don’t have to take the RMD. You can just give it directly to charity and then you don’t pay the taxes on that amount.

MARK: Yeah, and if you were planning to give to that charity anyway, doing it through this structure, again, doesn’t affect the charity at all, but you’re in better shape.

Nobody knows exactly what will happen to tax rates in the future, but for those who think that tax rates might go up, and they’re thinking about doing a Roth conversion now, is there a way for charitable donations to help with that process?

KIM: Absolutely. So a conversion from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA is a taxable event. And so anyone considering doing one should be consulting their tax professional just to discuss what that tax might be. And then they should also remember that they can offset that tax. So the charitable deduction, as I mentioned earlier, is one of the most powerful and controllable deductions at your disposal. And if you’re going to have a tax burden in 2020, you can give up to those adjusted gross income limits I mentioned before, the 60% cash and the 30% for non-cash, and use that five-year carry-forward. So, you know, whether it’s the conversion of a traditional IRA to a Roth, whether it’s, you know, capital gains tax burdens from rebalancing or, you know, reducing concentrated positions if you had a high-income year, any large taxable event you may be experiencing this year, you really should be thinking about how a charitable deduction can help you to reduce that.

MARK: Kim, you mentioned right at the beginning, the CARES Act and some of the new rules that that’s put in place. Can we go over that again and talk a little bit more about, in more specificity, how that piece of legislation is giving people some different options to make donations right now? And of those different options, how important do you think those are?

KIM: Sure. So the first provision I mentioned earlier was the deduction that we all can take of up to $300 for cash contributions made directly to operating charities. That’s a no brainer, right? We all should do that. I’m sure many people have given that amount. It’s a pretty small amount, but everyone should at least be taking that deduction. The second provision, which allows people who itemize to take 100% of AGI deduction if they make cash donations to operating charities, is a really nice provision for those who like to give that much cash. However, if people like to give appreciated investments, or if they want to be using their charitable vehicle, they can give more than they otherwise would this year and just use their carry-forward. So if people want to give an excess of 100% of their AGI, and they want to do it in appreciated investments, they can do that, right, and carry forward the excess of whether it’s the 30% or the 60% into future years. So CARES Act is, you know, a nice addition. I think it was a call-out to how important charitable giving is now, but you don’t need to use every provision to accomplish your objectives.

MARK: Our previous episode, we were having a conversation with one of our financial consultants about the many people who are using this time to revise their financial plans. Is it also a good time to—while they’re doing that—to rethink or revisit their charitable giving plans and incorporate that into their overall financial planning?

KIM: Absolutely. I mean, our clients tell us that charitable planning is really becoming an integral part of their financial planning. Over 90% of them want to be talking about it with their financial advisor. And for advisors out there, I think it’s one of the most popular value-added services that they provide. So good planning can help you reduce your taxes, get more money to your favorite causes. So it’s really a win-win. And, you know, regular activities like rebalancing of portfolios, oftentimes that’s done at year-end or at the end of every quarter, those are excellent chances to integrate charitable giving. So, you know, rather than sell shares to rebalance, you can donate some of those shares to charity. You get that current year tax deduction and you avoid paying capital gains taxes when you sell them.

We’re also seeing people who are interested in looking at their investment portfolios and making them more values-based. So adding securities of companies that they believe in, maybe taking out securities that they don’t believe in. And charitable giving can be very helpful in offsetting the tax … in, you know, reducing the tax burden of that. So, you know, rather than selling shares of companies that you no longer believe in, think about donating those either directly to charity or to a donor-advised fund and use that for your charitable giving—not pay the taxes when you’re kind of readjusting your portfolios and giving it more of a values tilt.

So it really is becoming an integral part of financial planning and an important thing, I think, for all financial services providers to be really thinking about with their clients.

MARK: Kim, as we’re recording this, we’re in the middle of the presidential election cycle. And as I think pretty much every campaign that I can remember, there’s always some discussion of inheritance taxes, estate taxes, things of that sort. In what way do any of these proposed legislative changes, in what way do those have an influence on charitable donations?

KIM: Well, it’s interesting, you know, the same people who are probably worried about tax increases are also probably worried that eventually there will be a reduction in the level above which estates are taxed. It’s also known as the estate tax exemption. As part of the recent tax reform efforts a few years ago, that level increased substantially. It’s now just over $11½   million for an individual and over $23 million for a couple. That’s set to expire in 2025. But it could—in a new administration or with a different Congress—could be reduced even earlier.

So charitable giving is excluded from people’s estate. So what would happen, potentially, if there was a reduction in the estate tax exemption, is that people would have more incentive to give to charity, certainly at their death so that it was excluded from their estate, but potentially during their lifetime, right? If you know that your estate is larger than either the $11½  million for an individual or 23 for a couple, if that level goes down, if your estate is larger than whatever that number is, you know, charity is going to be a great … charitable giving is going to be a great way to avoid estate taxes. And so people may want to consider giving while they’re living so they can enjoy seeing the impact of the gifts versus waiting until after they’re gone, even if the money is going to charity. So I do think that any reduction in those levels will be good for charity and people just may want to start thinking about that earlier rather than later.

MARK: Kim, final question for you. I know you’re regularly out talking to donors. What are the things that are on their minds right now? And 2020 has been such an odd year in many ways. Has anything surprised you in terms of charity during this year?

KIM: Well, I’ve learned to never be surprised by the generosity of our donors. I mean, this year has been such an unprecedented year, and I’m just so proud of how they’ve stepped up, you know, 50% increases year over year. We’ve never seen anything like that. So that’s been just wonderful. And I think, you know, people do see the need out there, and they’re really acting. And I think donor-advised funds actually are proving their worth because they’re making a big difference in the amount that people are giving and really stepping up.

I mean, I think the other thing that’s on donors’ minds right now is just how strong the markets are. And rather than wait until year-end to give, which is oftentimes what people do, they figure out their tax situation, and they give between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. People are acting earlier this year. They see the market is strong. They know that it’s a good time to be giving appreciated securities. And they’re also getting money out to their charities who are in need—they haven’t been able to hold the galas that they would have in other years. And so, I think, acting early this year is just a great thing that we’re seeing our donors do, and we’re really encouraging them to do.

In addition, many charities, including donor-advised fund providers, we’re all operating with remote staffing. So, you know, we’re doing our best and, I think, doing a great job with our client service. But the earlier that you can do things, if you’ve got, you know, tight deadlines, the earlier you can act, the easier it’s going to make it on the charity and on the donor-advised fund provider to make sure that all of your contributions and all of your grants are processed in a timely way.

MARK: Very true. Very true. Kim Laughton is the president of Schwab Charitable. Kim, thanks for joining me today. This has been great.

KIM: Thanks for having me, Mark. It’s always great to be with you.

Since it was founded, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has granted more than $50 billion dollars.[2]

That magnitude of generosity is wonderful, and it grabs headlines.

But smaller gifts are just as important. Don’t underestimate the impact that a thousand dollars, a hundred dollars, or even five dollars can make to someone in need, or to a cause that seeks to make the world a better place.

Let me end with two pieces of advice.

First, treat charitable giving as part of your financial plan.

In our last episode, I emphasized the importance of staying focused on your financial plan.

But that assumes you have a comprehensive financial plan. For those of you who don’t and are just getting started building one, please make charitable giving a part of that plan. Structure your charitable giving the same way you structure other components of your financial life.

Like a financial plan, a charitable giving plan should be driven by your goals, your values, and your resources. Without this plan, it can be tough to keep track of why you’re giving to some charities, not others, and you may end up not getting around to giving at all.

Second, make a checklist.

Charitable giving can seem complicated—especially when you take into account the tax ramifications. There’s a lot to consider in terms of how to make the most impact with your giving and how to take the best approach to tax deductions, given all the recent legislative changes.

A recent episode of our sister podcast Choiceology stressed the importance of following a checklist[3] when faced with complex tasks.

A checklist can help you control your willpower to give impulsively—and break a complex task into smaller components that are simpler to manage.

Here’s an example of a “giving” checklist:

  1. First, determine which causes are most important to you.
  2. Second, do some cursory research into charities that are active in those areas.
  3. Third, create a short list of contenders and conduct more in-depth research on them.
  4. Fourth, create your giving budget.
  5. Fifth, consider the timing of your gifts, taking into account your tax situation.
  6. And finally, sixth, determine the method of giving. For example, cash, appreciated securities, etc.

A donor advised fund can make things even easier by helping you with all of those checklist items. If you don’t have one already, you can go to SchwabCharitable.org to get started.

Any Schwab client can now get a free financial plan. Go to schwab.com/plan to check it out.

Schwab Charitable also has a great podcast called Giving with Impact that covers many of the topics Kim discussed and others in greater detail.  You can give it a listen and subscribe in your podcast app of choice—just search for Giving with Impact—or you can visit schwabcharitable.org/ImpactPodcast.

That’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening.

We’ll be back with a new season of episodes in a few weeks.

Until then, please follow me on Twitter @MarkRiepe.

You can also leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

For important disclosures, see the show notes and schwab.com/FinancialDecoder.

Important Disclosures

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

The policy analysis provided by the Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., does not constitute and should not be interpreted as an endorsement of any political party.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

Schwab Charitable is the name used for the combined programs and services of Schwab Charitable Fund, an independent nonprofit organization. Schwab Charitable Fund has entered into service agreements with certain affiliates of The Charles Schwab Corporation.

A donor's ability to claim itemized deductions is subject to a variety of limitations depending on the donor's specific tax situation. Consult your tax advisor for more information.

This information does not constitute and is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, Schwab Charitable recommends consultation with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, Financial Planner or Investment Manager.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results and the opinions presented cannot be viewed as an indicator of future performance.

Diversification, asset allocation and rebalancing strategies do not ensure a profit and do not protect against losses in declining markets.  Rebalancing may cause investors to incur transaction costs and, when rebalancing a non-retirement account, taxable events may be created that may affect your tax liability.

Roth IRA conversions require a 5-year holding period before earnings can be withdrawn tax free and subsequent conversions will require their own 5-year holding period. In addition, earnings distributions prior to age 59 1/2 are subject to an early withdrawal penalty.

While Schwab Plan is available to clients at no cost, any investments you ultimately make may incur costs such as fund operating expenses and advisory fees.

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