Donor Intent Plinko Shows the Challenge of Legacy Security

Do you remember Plinko from the Price is Right? Other than spinning the Big Wheel, Plinko was the game I always wanted to play if Bob Barker ever invited me to “come on down.”

If you’re having trouble remembering, imagine a large board with wooden dowels scattered throughout. At the top are a series of openings. At the bottom are multiple slots marked with some cash prizes. The contestant drops a puck at the top of the board. It then plinks down, careening randomly off the dowels until it lands in one of those slots.

It’s exciting to watch the puck fall, bouncing toward and then away from where you want it to land, until it finally comes to rest…..often not where you intended.

The crazy path of the Plinko puck is an excellent metaphor for the often unpredictable path one’s donor intent can take when it isn’t well protected. In fact, we brought the metaphor to life at a recent conference in Florida.

Presenting Donor Intent Plinko

Our game of “Donor Intent Plinko” was simple – the bottom slots were marked with various charitable causes. Players would pick the one where they intended to leave a vast charitable estate Players would then drop the game puck to see if the ensuing generations followed through with their wishes.

All told, a few hundred people visited our booth to play the game. While we didn’t keep exact statistics, our guess is that fewer than 20% actually “won.” For the rest, their fictitious heirs drove giving off into all sorts of different directions.

The Heckerling Institute Conference, which we were attending,  is a gathering of more than 3,000 trust-and-estate attorneys and other estate planning advisors. Many of them gave knowing nods as we described how charitable intent could go astray when not well guarded. Some told us of having faced such horror stories.

Safeguarding IntentPlinko

For intent to be properly carried out, there needs to be a straight, clearly defined path between desire and action. Estate planning attorneys and advisors can help you with this, but they need you to be clear on your intent.

One way to safeguard charitable intent is work with an organization that shares your principles. This is where DonorsTrust comes in. Our mission centers on preserving donor intent for liberty-minded donors. For donors who care about using their philanthropy to advance limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise, we serve as a knowledgeable partner.

For donors who don’t have the principles of liberty at the core of their giving, other mission driven donor-advised fund providers can offer similar protections on other issues. Human nature being what it is, though, it’s hard to completely eliminate the threat of donor intent going astray. That is why working with an organization that is already committed to principles that match your own can offer the ability to have even less-than-perfect execution still remain within your intent.

If you or someone you know has specific intentions for their charity, both in life and after death, I recommend taking a look at our 8 Steps to Securing Your Donor Intent. This step-by-step guide highlights the key considerations to help you design a charitable legacy that will stay intact.

Plinko is fun to watch and exciting to play. However, no one wants their principles and values left to chance. Taking action to secure your donor intent can turn those little pegs on the board from an impediment into a glide path to your charitable goals.


  • Peter Lipsett

    Peter Lipsett is vice president at DonorsTrust. He also leads DonorsTrust’s Novus Society, a network of donors under 40 committed to growing their philanthropic know-how. He has a dual degree in political science and theater from Davidson College and finally got a practical credential with an MBA from George Mason University.

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