A DAF Donation with a Surprise

As many of you know from my book and this blog, I have set up Donor Advised Fund (DAF) accounts for all my children. For my younger kids (age 14), the checks come from my children’s (named) fund that’s under my stewardship.

A few times a year, I remind the kids to think of a nonprofit to support if they haven’t yet allocated the funds in their account. (I “refill” their accounts annually.)

During Covid, I realized that my kids still had funds in their accounts, and I told them that they needed to think of a grantee to give the money to that related in some way to the pandemic. Imagine my surprise when my son immediately told me that he had an organization in mind.

Previously, I had noticed that he had about a dozen computers running in his closet — most of them obsolete or made of old parts. They ran all the time, and they were generating so much heat that we needed to move them to another part of the house. When I asked him what they were for, he told me that they were processing information to find a cure for Covid. He told me that people all over the world were doing this kind of work in a form of distributed computing directed by the “Folding@home” project. He added that he was “pretty sure” that the project/organization was a 501(c)(3), therefore making it eligible for a donation from his DAF.

I was a bit flabbergasted — as well as slightly intimidated by the tech side of this — but I checked online and found out that the “Folding@home” project was a 20-year-old “citizen science” project that had been founded at Stanford by chemistry professor Dr. Vijay Pande. The project, with a tiny budget, is organized as a consortium of scientists at prominent universities. Today, there are over 4 million computers simulating protein dynamics in their downtime to develop new therapies for many diseases, including Covid-19, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and others. Anyone with a PC and electricity can participate — even when they’re sleeping!

My son and I requested a check from his DAF account, and off went a check for $1000 to the attention of Greg Bowman, Pande’s protégé and the current director of Folding@home, now based at Washington University, St. Louis. There was an address on the website, so I was able to have the check sent without any communication with the organization.

And then, Greg Bowman, Director of Folding@home and Associate Professor at the Washington University School of Medicine contacted me through Twitter.

Evidently, the check went to the development office at Wash U., and Greg was contacted to inform him that an unsolicited donation had arrived. They also told him that one of the names on the check was that of a “known” donor named Lisa Greer and that maybe he should connect with me. Greg didn’t know what a DAF was, but he’s a researcher, so he did some research. Here’s how he tells it:

After a VERY quick google search, I discovered your Twitter profile and website about Philanthropy 451. From there I found your book, which I purchased immediately and started reading since it directly addressed my desire to get a grasp on how the fundraising world works (or doesn’t, as I’ve now learned). After enjoying the first chapter of your book, I decided to DM you a thank you note on Twitter to establish some connection, in the hopes that you’d be up for answering questions and brainstorming as I read more.

I was delighted when you responded to my DM, and even more so when you took the initiative to suggest a meeting. I certainly enjoyed the chat we had afterwards! I’m still working on some of the ideas we discussed, and it would be fun to chat more about them sometime. I had assumed based on your families giving history and the information from your website and book that you (Lisa) were the one who made the gift to Folding@home. On the call, I was delighted to learn that your son Jack was actually an enthusiastic member of our community who was contributing compute power and also made the gift from his DAF.

Fortune had it that our conversation also turned up another point of connection. I’ve been wanting to send some sort of meaningful thank you to all the people who have helped Folding@home and I out during the pandemic. I had the idea of 3D printing protein structures from our simulations, but all I know about 3D printing is that it exists:) So, my ears perked up when someone mentioned that Jack is a 3D printing guru. I followed up with a thank you note and, since Jack is a minor, asked permission to engage him about 3D printing.

Jack has proved to be a great mentor! In addition to printing a model for me to see how things look, he helped me find a great printer within my price range, troubleshoot some of my newbie issues, and point me towards some of the more advanced techniques that may be useful. I’m sure I’ll have more questions for him. And we’ll see if I can get the prints to go fast enough and look good enough to send to a bunch of people.

Very cool, right? (Greg left out the part that Jack is super high on the points scale for hours contributed. Mom’s so proud!)

Lessons learned?

  1. If you receive a check from a Donor Advised Fund, follow up on it! Greg isn’t a seasoned fundraiser, but he was curious about the person who sent the check, did a few minutes of research online, found me, and we’ve developed an authentic and productive relationship. Even if they’re checks from past donations, follow up on every single one.

  2. Make sure that there’s information on your website with the address to send donations to. Don’t force a prospective donor to make a call or wait for a response to an email — make it easy for them to send in a donation.

  3. In addition to ensuring that your mailing address is on your website, it’s also a good idea to add some verbiage saying something like “DAF contributions are welcome”. By doing so, you acknowledge that you’re aware of the billions of charitable dollars awaiting distribution.

I’m Saving Giving by providing a clear path to success, supported by data, statistics, and interviews. You can find more of me lifting the lid on the charitable sector here on Philanthropy 451, in my bestselling book, Philanthropy Revolution, or on socials at TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn

- Lisa