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Recommended Charitable Gift Annuity Best Practices

Originally Introduced at 28th Conference on Gift Annuities

In 2017, The American Council on Gift Annuities (ACGA) conducted its sixth national survey of charitable gift annuities in the last 24 years (“2017 Survey’). From these surveys, conference attendance, and ACGA membership, we believe that about 4,000 organizations are offering charitable gift annuities. The gift annuity remains an immensely popular way of making a gift to charity while retaining a dependable stream of payments for life.

The vast majority of organizations offering charitable gift annuities are doing so in a responsible manner that protects the interests of their annuitants. However, certain practices of some charities that offer gift annuities have been challenged in recent years. ACGA’s efforts in state government relations have, for the most part, been successful in preserving gift annuities as a viable gift option free from overly restrictive regulatory limitations. From its founding in 1927, ACGA has developed and promoted a voluntary system of “best practices” for gift annuity programs. State regulators look very favorably on ACGA’s efforts to ensure charities are aware of these practices. ACGA provides assistance to charitable organizations in the form of training opportunities, online resources, and individual consultation to help charities understand the importance of these “best practices” for risk management and donor protection.

This assistance is provided within the context of our mission:

The ACGA’s mission is to foster the success of charitable gift annuity programs at charities nationwide through promulgation of suggested maximum gift annuity rates, education, research, monitoring state regulations, advocacy, and other activities that promote good gifts for nonprofits and their donors.

In furtherance of those efforts and ACGA’s mission, ACGA recommends the following best practices and encourages charitable organizations to utilize as many of them as possible.

ESTABLISH THE PROGRAM PROPERLY

  1. Meet State Regulations
    Charities should identify and comply with the state regulatory requirements of their state of incorporation and of all other states where they intend to issue gift annuities. In general, state regulators assert their legal responsibility to protect the interests of residents of their state. ACGA believes that a charity issuing gift annuities is subject to the laws and regulations of the donor’s state of  legal residence, as well as the laws and regulations of the state where the charity is incorporated.

    The Philanthropy Protection Act of 1995 requires that a disclosure statement containing information about gift annuities and the issuing charity be provided to a prospective donor in advance of the establishment of an annuity (click here for ACGA’s sample disclosure statement). ACGA recommends that the donor be asked to sign the disclosure statement indicating that he or she has received the document. Some states require specific content in the disclosure statement, and many states require disclosure language in gift annuity agreements.

    Annual reporting requirements are also to be completed on an ongoing basis with the states that require such reporting. The ACGA website contains current information on state requirements (click here for ACGA state regulation information).
  2. Specify the type of assets that will be accepted for a gift annuity.
    Cash and appreciated securities are the most common assets accepted for funding charitable gift annuities. Some organizations have chosen to accept real estate, tangible personal property, and other property interests under special situations. Special care must be taken with such “hard-to-sell” assets as they may create liquidity issues in the annuity reserve. Also, certain states, such as California, may not permit a charity to count such assets toward reserve requirements. Situations will arise in which the organization will be asked to consider an exception to their gift acceptance policies. Therefore, it is appropriate to have a procedure for how requests for exceptions to gift acceptance policies will be processed in advance of the request for an exception. This can save the organization unnecessary embarrassment and avoid delays when a donor wants to give an asset not usually accepted for funding a gift annuity.
  3. Establish minimum ages for immediate and deferred annuities
    The average age of annuitants receiving an immediate payment, according to the 2017 Survey, is 79. Respondents to the 2017 Survey reported that 82% of their immediate payment annuitants were 75 years of age or older. A gift annuity may not be appropriate for younger donors because payments, being fixed, offer no inflation protection. Also, there could be only a minimal benefit to the charity because of the expense and staff time required over a longer period of time to maintain and steward the gift. Therefore, higher age limits are in the best interest of both charities and annuitants.

    Even so, some younger people want to make gifts through charitable annuities. Your charity should, therefore, have a written policy on the minimum age for annuitants. 25% of charities responding to the 2017 Survey require an annuitant to be at least 60 years old for an immediate payment annuity; 32% require the annuitant to be at least 65; and 6% require that an annuitant be at least 70. In the case of a two-life annuity, the minimum age requirement would apply to the younger of the two annuitants. If the annuity is deferred, it is recommended that the required minimum age of the annuitant at the time annuity payments begin be the same as the required minimum age of an annuitant of an immediate gift annuity.
  4. Establish a minimum amount for a gift annuity
    Charitable organizations considering a gift annuity program are well advised to establish a minimum gift amount. The 2017 Survey indicates that 59% of charities issuing gift annuities have a required minimum gift of $10,000 to $24,999; 13% require a gift of $25,000 or more; and 28% permit a gift of less than $10,000. The minimum gift amount selected should ensure that the amount realized by the charity will justify its effort in setting up the gift plus incurring stewardship and administrative expenses during the life of the annuity.
  5. Follow the ACGA Suggested Maximum Rates
    97% of the organizations responding to the 2017 Survey reported that they always or usually follow the ACGA suggested maximum gift annuity rates. Using the ACGA’s suggested rates minimizes and usually relieves the risk to the charity of the need to obtain its own actuarial verification in support of its rate schedule, when registering in certain states. The ACGA suggested rates are designed to result in a residuum of at least 50 percent. According to the 2017 Survey, the average (mean) residuum realized by charities over the years 2013-2017 was 62% of the contribution. Use of the ACGA suggested rates also allows the individual organization to focus on the gift instead of the administrative support of a different rate structure. The ACGA suggested maximum gift annuity rates are viewed by many as the industry standard and therefore add credibility to donor relationships and the organization’s gift annuity program.
  6. Establish Procedures to Ensure that Gift Designations are Honored
    The procedures should ensure that the residuum of a gift annuity can be determined and that it will be used for the purpose designated by the donor. While the charity may agree to use the residuum for a particular purpose, it should encourage donors either to establish gift annuities for the unrestricted purpose of the charity or at least not subject them to overly-specific restrictions.

    Once these guidelines have been developed, under the guidance of competent legal counsel, and then implemented, an organization will be in a better position to meet the needs of its donative public, internal administrators and state regulatory bodies. With the program established or fine-tuned, as the case may be, it is time to move forward to meeting donors and closing gifts.

PROSPECT RELATIONS, DISCLOSURE, AND CLOSING THE GIFT

Best practices in a charitable gift annuity program do not end with the development of appropriate policies and procedures and compliance with state regulations. The most important part of any planned giving program is the work with prospects and donors. The ACGA offers the following guidelines for prospect and donor relationships.

  1. Meet with the donor in person.
    The process of planned giving is best done through face-to-face meetings. Many of the processes discussed with prospects, their families, and their advisors are complex and subject to misunderstanding. A personal visit with the prospect for a significant gift is a best practice for both the prospect and the organization.

    It may seem that a gift annuity should be easily understood. However, it must be remembered that the term “annuity” is a very generic term and is applied to many financial arrangements. The prospect may ask for an annuity without understanding the difference between a commercial insurance annuity and a charitable gift annuity. In that case, the two must be clearly distinguished. A prospect may need a good deal of education before he or she makes an irrevocable transfer to a charity.

    After ascertaining that a prospect is interested in considering a gift annuity, the next step is usually the preparation of a financial illustration. The illustration should show the amount of the payments, how they are taxed, the charitable deduction, other tax implications, and pertinent information about the uses of the gift. The accuracy and completeness of this illustration is essential to a full understanding of a gift’s implications. Care must be taken to ensure that this early modeling is presented for illustration purposes only and that prospects are encouraged to consult with their own legal and financial advisors. The final calculations will be done at the time the gift is completed based on facts as of the gift date.

    One of the major things often misunderstood by prospects is that charitable gift annuities are irrevocable and that many elections available for commercial annuities are not available for charitable gift annuities. A charitable gift annuity is non-assignable except to the charity. While charitable gift annuities are not technically guaranteed, they are backed by all the unencumbered assets of the issuing charity. Marketing, correspondence, and verbal communication to prospects and donors should make these distinctions clear.

    Before the execution of a gift annuity agreement and the transfer of the donated property, it is important to review a specimen agreement line by line with the prospect and explain the contract in detail. If practical, this should be done in person with all the parties to the agreement. This personal interaction will lead to satisfied donors, repeat gifts, long term relationships, and referrals.
  2. Marketing Your Gift Annuity Program
    Meetings with donors and prospects and the marketing materials you create and disseminate through direct mail, advertising in your publications and other print media, and on your website are often the first time donors and prospects have the opportunity to learn about gift annuities as a way of making a gift to your organization. 

    With the average donor age range for establishing a charitable gift annuity being 78 – 80 years old, it is important that marketing materials be easy to read. Using a readable font such as 12-point, paper stock that is not too thin or shiny, and black ink on white background with plenty of space are all ways to best assure that.

    How you explain charitable gift annuities should be clear and accurate and emphasize the charitable nature of the gift annuity.

    Gift annuities are first and foremost a way of making a gift to your organization. You should exercise caution when comparing gift annuity rates with returns from other financial instruments, and avoid using terms like "product," "purchase," “yield," “rate of return,” and “effective rate of return” when describing gift annuities and the percentage payout from a gift annuity. Your marketing materials should clearly explain that the gift annuity agreement is irrevocable, that donors irrevocably part with the assets they use to make their gift, and that part of the annuity payment received will consist of a return of original principal. Do not use the phrase “guaranteed income” because though the annuity's payments are backed by the general assets of your organization, the annuity payment is not "guaranteed" in the legal sense of the term, and a return of principal is not “income.”

    Be careful how you discuss the treatment of capital gain if appreciated securities or other assets are used for the gift - capital gains taxes are reduced because gains attributable to the gift portion of the annuity are not taxed and the remaining gain is prorated over the gift annuitant's life time with some variations depending on the ownership of the donated assets and of the relationship of the annuitant to the donor, and the number and sequence of the annuitants.

    Use marketing examples specific to your organization or develop your own generic examples. A donor that is willing to share his or her story in a profile makes an ideal and compelling example of how others can set up a similar arrangement. Generic examples can also be effectively employed to show how different gift scenarios occur and can be useful to others considering making a similar type of gift - make sure these examples are identified as such.

    Make sure you are not providing legal and financial advice in your materials and make sure your communications encourage donors to consult with their advisors before proceeding. For that reason, it can be helpful to have your legal staff review your marketing materials.
  3. Invest the entire gift amount in the gift annuity reserve fund
    The most prudent course is for the organization to invest the entire face amount of the annuity contract in its gift annuity reserve. If any significant amount is expended “up front,” reserves might become insufficient to meet payment obligations, particularly in a down market. The 50-percent residuum assumption underlying the ACGA rates presupposes that nothing will be used for charitable purposes until the annuity payment obligation terminates.

    The practice of investing the entire gift in the reserve also self-insures the income liability, which should protect the institution from being required to set aside other institutional assets either to create or to subsidize the reserve to meet state regulatory requirements.

    Announcing this practice can be one of the charity’s strongest marketing tools. The strength of the gift annuity reserve will add significantly to the credibility and financial integrity of the organization’s gift annuity program. When the donor knows that the entire gift is being invested to back lifetime annuity payments, the donor has much more confidence in making the gift and in making additional gifts in the future.
  4. Have the donor sign the contract
    While a donor is not required to sign the gift annuity agreement, except in a few states, it is recommended that it be signed by the donor as well as an officer of the charity. If practical, meet the donor in person, review the contract with the donor and the donor’s advisor, if they are present, then have the donor sign. A national charity without a field force may have to do this by correspondence. In that case, offer to walk the donor (and the donor’s advisor, if possible) through the agreement by telephone and include a detailed written explanation.

    Having the donor sign the gift annuity agreement will be beneficial to the charity if the donor or a relative later questions whether the donor had knowledge about the irrevocability of the gift and terms of the gift annuity agreement.

    The donor should receive a copy of the fully-executed gift annuity agreement.
  5. Tax Information
    Make sure tax information is provided in a timely manner. According to I.R.S. Regulations, a Form 1099-R, on which the charity reports the previous year’s gift annuity income to the annuitant, must be provided to the annuitant by January 31st of the next year. Annuitants are usually anxious to receive income reports from all sources as soon as possible after the end of the year, so sending their 1099-Rs well before the end of January will be appreciated by them.

    A gift planner may also want to provide tax information to the donor following the gift. This package would include a detailed copy of the finalized tax calculation, an extra copy of the signed gift annuity agreement, and verification of the asset transferred to fund the gift annuity. This information should be provided shortly after the gift is completed. The charity may also want to send another copy of the tax information in early January of the year following the year the gift is made since it will be needed for tax filing. Often donors misplace what was sent earlier, and they appreciate receiving another copy when they start work on gathering information for their income tax return.

    The care of donors is paramount in running a successful gift annuity program. The goal with every gift should be satisfied donors, long term relationships, repeat gifts, and referrals. Every gift will either lead closer to that goal or move away from it. ACGA believes that following these best practices will lead to long-term success in a gift annuity program.

INVESTING, REPORTING, AND STEWARDSHIP

A charitable gift annuity could be in force for many years. Therefore, best practices in a charitable gift annuity program do not end with the development of appropriate policies and procedures, compliance with state regulations, and the marketing and closing of the gift. Best practices must also be applied to the investment and care of the assets and the stewardship of the donor relationship for many years to come. The ACGA offers the following guidelines for investing, reporting and stewarding the donated assets and the donor of the assets.

  1. Invest the assets appropriately
    Prudent investing of gift annuity assets must follow generally accepted procedures. This would begin with the selection of an appropriate, experienced custodian of the assets. Ideally, for economies of scale, this might be the custodian of the charity’s other invested assets if that custodian has the ability to administer a gift annuity program and to invest the program’s assets.

    If a new custodian is going to be chosen to administer and to invest gift annuity reserves, it is a generally accepted practice to issue a Request For Proposal (RFP) that asks several (3-5) institutions to respond and to answer questions about their administrative, investment, consulting, and compliance expertise. The questions should cover how many programs the custodian currently administers, how long it has been doing so, how would payments be made and tax work prepared, how would it invest the assets, how would it mitigate risk, and how would it help ensure compliance with State rules and regulations with respect to filing requirements and reserve requirements, plus other matters of concern to the charity.

    Investing the assets appropriately starts with the development of a comprehensive investment policy statement. Reserve assets should generally be invested more conservatively than the general endowment and should remain more liquid than the general endowment. While it may be appropriate for institutions with larger endowments to invest more aggressively, this should be undertaken with great care and extensive consultation with trusted fund managers. The ACGA suggested maximum rate investment return assumption is based on a conservative and relatively low-risk portfolio.

    With the above elements in place, the custodian should guide the selection of appropriate money managers. Here again, care must be taken to assure conformity with applicable state investment requirements for the charity’s gift annuity reserves and the institution’s own Investment Policy Statement. Once the gift annuity assets are properly invested, the investment performance should be monitored on a quarterly basis. The formal rebalancing of the fund on an annual basis is usually sufficient. Care must be taken not to overreact to short term market volatility. Informal rebalancing can take place as needed to raise cash to make distributions. How the cash is raised to make annuity payments may vary from institution to institution. If the investment philosophy is to be as fully invested as possible at all times, then cash can be raised as needed. If not, then more of the assets can be held in cash and used to make the payments as they come due.
  2. Establish a method for determining the balance of each gift annuity (the “residuum”), for purposes of determining the assets available to the charity from the annuity at the end of the income beneficiary’s lifetime
    At the death of the sole or surviving annuitant, the annuity contract terminates and the issuing charity is entitled to, and if a specific designation has been made must withdraw funds from the annuity pool attributable to the terminated annuity’s residuum. The residua of gift annuities should be tracked so that the appropriate amount may be severed from the pool when a specific contract terminates. This is especially important if the donor has designated his or her residuum for a particular purpose. It is also useful for the charity to determine if any annuities are going to fully deplete the original funding value and to develop a strategy for dealing with those under-water contracts.
  3. Develop a good working relationship with finance and administrative staff
    A gift annuity program will be successful only if the development office and the business office have a good working relationship in which each office understands its roles and responsibilities, and in which both communicate openly and honestly with one another. [NEW PARAGRAPH] The development office should maintain the primary relationship with the donor, see that the donor has the information needed to make an informed decision about the proposed gift, prepare the gift annuity agreement, provide instructions to the donor for transferring assets, and obtain the necessary information to close and administer the annuity (names of annuitants, birthdates, addresses, funding asset and cost basis, social security numbers, purpose, etc.). 

    The business office, or the financial institution selected for this purpose, should be responsible for investing the gift, making the annuity payments, and preparing and filing the required tax reporting. 

    The Gift Acceptance Committee, which could be a group within the business office, should also have the final decision-making authority, albeit in consultation with the development office, on whether a funding asset other than cash or securities is acceptable.

    Questions coming from donors and annuitants should be forwarded to the development office for a response. Should they require a financial or administrative response, the development office should obtain the necessary information from the business office and communicate it to the donor or annuitant.

    This process will best assure both a smooth gift completion process and good donor/annuitant stewardship by keeping the development office in the position of communicating all information to the donor or annuitants. When issues arise regarding payments or tax reporting, they will be easier to resolve because the development staff with knowledge of the donors’ goals and objectives will be personally involved. Exceptions, when necessary, will be easier to obtain, again, because of the involvement of development staff with personal knowledge of the donor and their desires and because there is a good working relationship with the business office.
  4. Communicate regularly with gift annuity donors and annuitants
    Regular communication with both gift annuity donors and annuitants is an obligation and a privilege. When a voluntary contribution of any size is accepted from an individual, it is the gift planner’s obligation to stay in touch with that person appropriately. Newsletters, invitations to special events, and birthday and holiday cards are all effective manners of staying connected.

    Such communications show that the charity recognizes the donor has made it a part of their long-term plans for meeting personal and family goals and objectives. Having entered into that circle, it is the charity’s privilege to continue to maintain that role of trust in the life of that person. When the gift transaction entails personal contact, as suggested earlier, the gift planner and the charity he or she represents, are in the unique position to be an important part of that donor’s life for years to come.

    It is critical that in all correspondence names be spelled correctly and go to the correct address the first time. Take steps to assure there is a clear understanding by the annuitant of how and when the annuity payments will be made. Be sure that all tax reporting is timely, accurate and goes with a letter that explains all the boxes on the 1099-R. Review the communication of tax information with your legal counsel.
  5. Educate colleagues about the benefits and liabilities of gift annuities.
    The education of internal colleagues and constituencies is essential to the effective involvement of the entire institution in the promotion of gift annuities. Colleagues in the development department and elsewhere in the organization should be able to speak intelligently with prospective donors about gift annuities and other planned gifts and know when to come to the planned giving office for more information. An internal department should not be surprised to learn it will not be receiving an immediate addition to its budget from a recently completed charitable gift annuity. Board members should understand the benefits and liabilities of a gift annuity program. The education for all constituencies should include the organization’s asset allocation policies, the reasons for issuing life income agreements and the potential benefit that can be expected. While a surprise is not a friend, volume can be an ally. When everybody in the organization understands the planned giving program, they can all be involved in the business of prospecting and of effectively stewarding donor relationships. The more well-managed gift annuities the organization has in place, the more value accrues to donors and to the entire organization.

The ACGA is committed to promoting responsible philanthropy in every way that it can, and this information on best practices is intended to be helpful and supportive of a charity’s efforts. Additional assistance is available on our web site and we encourage you to visit us at www.acga-web.org.

The ACGA’s credibility in matters of regulatory and legislative issues is derived in large part from our member institutions. Thus, we encourage you to consider membership of the ACGA as we work to contribute to an atmosphere of “responsible consumer protection” in each of the states.


The Council’s volunteer board of directors is comprised of professionals active in the field of planned giving with some of America’s most well-respected charities. These individuals give unselfishly of their time and energy to assist others in their gift annuity programs. ACGA wishes to thank the following individuals for their contributions to this publication:

Charles Gordy
Lindsay Lapole
Frank Minton
Cynthia Halverson
David Wheeler Newman
Terry Simmons
Edie Matulka
Kristen Schultz
Ron Brown
Laurie Valentine