Honoring Giver Intent

How a ministry fulfills a giver’s intent regarding specified gifts sends a strong message about whether a ministry can be trusted.


by Dan Busby


Ray’s wife, Colleen, struggled with cancer, and she passed away in 1999.

Donor loyalty is
not about the donor
being loyal to you;
it is you being loyal
to the donor.
Harvey McKinnon

At the time of Colleen’s death, a local hospital was making initial plans to construct an additional facility. Ray and Colleen had modest resources, but their son, Troyal, was wealthy.

Troyal began to talk with the hospital about making a $500,000 gift. The hospital offered to name the complex after Colleen. Hospital leaders showed Troyal mockups of the proposed building bearing Colleen’s name.

On December 30, 2005, Troyal made a gift of $500,000 to the hospital for a new facility. In 2006 and 2007, the hospital had continuing discussions with Troyal about the naming rights for the new facility.

In 2008, the hospital told Troyal that the $500,000 would be used for other construction projects—not for the facility they had discussed. In 2009, Troyal sued the hospital.

Troyal’s agreement with the hospital was oral; therefore, the jury had to determine who was telling the truth. In 2012, a jury awarded Troyal the $500,000 gift back plus the maximum in punitive damages—$500,000.

The larger the
restricted gift, the
greater the potential
for misunderstanding
between a giver and
the ministry.

One juror who clearly thought the hospital went back on its word said, “We wanted to show them not to do that anymore to anyone else.”[1]

The recipient of the gift was Integris Canadian Valley Regional Hospital in Troyal’s hometown of Yukon, Oklahoma. Troyal is better known as Troyal G. (Garth) Brooks. Ironically, the hospital is located on Garth Brooks Way.

While this true story involves a high-profile country music singer and a hospital, a similar situation could occur when a ministry does not have sufficient clarity about a specific purpose gift it receives. The larger the restricted gift, the greater the potential for misunderstanding between a giver and the ministry. The story underscores the importance of ensuring that all communications between a ministry and a giver are crystal clear, regardless of the size of the gift.

Trusted ministries
go beyond the legality
of a transaction,
beyond accounting
terminology, and
beyond colloquialisms.

Paul demonstrated the principle of honoring giver intent when Titus was specifically appointed to accompany local leaders to ensure the proper execution of the gift
(2 Cor. 8:14–25).

How can a ministry distinguish between a gift for a specific purpose versus a general purpose? Terminology is sometimes not our friend in this arena. “Accounting-ese” takes us down the unrestricted or restricted route. The terms “undesignated” or “designated” are used in a more colloquial sense. Trusted ministries go beyond the legality of a transaction, beyond accounting terminology, and beyond colloquialisms.

From the point when
the resource-raising
opportunity is
conceived, the
ministry should be
clear in its intent
to request gifts for
general purposes or
for specific purposes.

To define general- versus specific-purpose gifts, let’s use the following definition: A specific-purpose gift is one intended to support a purpose more specific than the general purpose(s) of the ministry. All other gifts support the ministry’s general purpose(s).

These distinctions may be helpful for clarification:

  • General-purpose gift. When a giver makes a gift to the ministry and does not specify a project, it is generally understood the gift is for the general purposes of the ministry. This is a general-purpose gift.
  • Specific-purpose gift. When a gift is made to a ministry whose purpose is to glorify God and reach the world for Christ, and the giver indicates it is for a certain project—the missions program, the building program, or another specific purpose—it is a specific-purpose gift.

How does a ministry model trust regarding honoring giver intent? It is a matter of following the five commandments of giver intent and avoiding the corresponding pitfalls.


The Five Commandments of Giver Intent

  1. Thou shalt be very intentional in communicating giving opportunities, so it is clear to potential givers whether general-purpose or specific-purpose gifts are sought.

An appeal for resources can be as crystal clear as a cloudless sky, as murky as a foggy night, or somewhere in between. A prospective giver should be able to read an appeal on a ministry’s website, listen to a verbal appeal for gifts, or receive other resource-raising communications and readily understand how gifts will be used in response to the appeal.

Before a ministry raises resources, it starts with an idea—a concept. This is true regardless of whether the giving opportunity is communicated by letter, email, website, radio, television, one-on-one, or using another form of communication.

From the point when the resource-raising opportunity is conceived, the ministry should be clear in its intent to request gifts for general purposes or for specific purposes. This is vital because clarity as to the type of funds requested should define the narrative (whether a letter, an Internet appeal, a text, and more) and giver response options; how the funds will be used; the identification of gifts in the accounting records (restricted gifts should be separately recorded); and the reporting to givers (ministries should be prepared to report on restricted gifts received and expended).

Without this type of clarity at the beginning of the process of raising funds, it will be challenging to create a consistent thread of communication, documentation, and reporting.

Pitfall:  Without adequate initial clarity, a ministry communicates an appeal for gifts that asks for specific-purpose gifts.

The ministry incorrectly considers the gifts as general-purpose gifts, does not separately account for the gifts, and does not spend the funds as many givers anticipate. All three actions are inappropriate and lay the foundation for distrust.


Pitfall:  A written communication (this might be in the form of a letter, brochure, via a website, or other forms of communication) for gift resources begins by describing a specific-purpose giving opportunity in glowing detail. Part-way through the appeal, there is a subtle (or not so subtle) shift towards an appeal for gifts to be used “where needed most.” By the time the appeal concludes and the giver is ready to respond to the appeal, there is no opportunity to give to the specific purpose described at the beginning of the appeal—only an option to give “where needed most.” This is “bait and switch” at its worst—givers may believe they were giving for a specified purpose while the ministry only intends to use the gifts for general purposes.


  1. Thou shalt expend specific-purpose gifts in consistency with the giver’s intent. If the ministry says it will spend a gift for a specific purpose, it should spend it for that specific purpose—it’s just that simple. While there can be exceptions based on explanations provided to givers at the time of the gift, or perhaps subsequently, the general rule is: Raise the funds for A; spend the funds for A. Raise the funds for B; spend the funds for B.


    Pitfall:  A ministry receives a significant gift for A and spends it on B without communicating with the giver. The ministry failed to honor giver intent.


  1. Thou shalt segregate the revenue and expenses relating to each type of specific-purpose gift in the accounting records to document compliance with giver intent. Separate revenue and expense accounts should be established for each type of specific-purpose gifts. Without this accounting treatment, the appropriate data will not be readily available for financial statement reporting purposes and for reporting to givers who provided the specific-purpose gifts.


    Pitfall:  Separate revenue and expense accounts are not used by a ministry for a series of gifts made for the same specific purpose. When the auditors ask for the relevant data at year-end, the information is not readily available, often requiring significant analysis of historic data.


  1. Thou shalt give special attention when specific-purpose gifts are insufficient to carry out giver intent or when specific-purpose gifts exceed the amount required to carry out giver intent. It is unusual when the gifts received for a specific purpose are exactly equal to the amount needed. If the ministry communicated to givers how gifts will be used in an under- or over-funding situation, this may be sufficient to allow the redirection of the funds. However, these situations are very fact-specific, and care must be used to demonstrate integrity.


    Pitfall:  A ministry raises gifts for a specific purpose with a goal of $2 million. Only $500,000 is raised. The ministry spends the money for general purposes without communicating with the givers. The ministry has failed to exhibit integrity.


Thou shalt not use a policy or board decision as the basis to override giver intent. Occasionally ministries accept specific-purpose gifts, but they feel they have the authority to override giver intent based on a staff or board policy. A board or staff policy that has the effect of accepting restricted gifts and ignores restrictions is unethical.

A ministry certainly has the authority to reject all specific-purpose gifts, i.e., the ministry has a policy to accept only general-purpose gifts. If a giver is unaware of the policy and makes a specific-purpose gift, the ministry should return the gift or ask the giver to change it to a general-purpose gift.

Fiduciary authority does not relieve the ministry from spending specific-purpose gifts as the giver intended. The board has the final fiduciary authority over the use of all resources. Fiduciary authority does not compete with giver intent—it is complementary. It isn’t either/or—it is both/and!

Money donated, even a giver-restricted gift, to a ministry is definitely the ministry’s money. It is no longer the giver’s money. The ministry’s board has the right and the responsibility to decide what is best for the ministry. So, if it is no longer the giver’s money, is it important for the ministry to honor the giver’s intentions? Yes. “A giver’s intentions should be considered sacrosanct because the giver-ministry relationship so fundamentally relies on trust.”[2]

Pitfall:  A ministry accepts gifts restricted for specific projects. The ministry has a policy that the board has the final fiduciary authority over the use of all resources. Thus, the board authorizes staff to always use giver-restricted funds where needed most because that is within their fiduciary authority.

Fiduciary authority does not compete with giver intent. A ministry’s board has the ultimate authority over all ministry resources—authority to ensure that the resources are used for tax-exempt purposes. But fiduciary authority does not override a ministry’s responsibility to honor giver intent.

Integrity has many faces for ministries. And abiding by giver intent is one of the most important faces of integrity when a ministry raises resources. Even if a ministry is legally compliant, integrity requires going beyond what the law requires.

Givers are watching and making giving decisions based on whether trust is being modeled. More importantly, God is watching for trustworthy actions. We are accountable for how we steward the resources He has entrusted to the ministries we serve (2 Cor. 8:14–25).

Trusted ministries honor giver intent—period.


  Questions   for reflection
  1. Does the ministry you serve have a healthy respect for specific-purpose gifts?
  2. Are ministry communications with givers crystal clear concerning how restricted gifts will be used?
  3. Does the ministry’s recordkeeping system adequately track restricted gift revenue and the related use of these funds?

[1] Associated Press, “Garth Brooks awarded $1 million in Oklahoma hospital case,” Entertainment Weekly: http://music-mix.ew.com/2012/ 01/25/garth-brooks-hospital-case/ (January 25, 2012).

[2] Doug White, Abusing Donor Intent: The Robertson Family’s Epic Lawsuit Against Princeton University (St. Paul, Minn.: Paragon House, 2014), 244.


From TRUST: The Firm Foundation for Kingdom Fruitfulness, ECFAPress, 2015, www.ECFA.org/KnowledgeCenter.

This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.