In 1996, the Institute was established by the Board of Spence¬-Chapin Services to Families and Children (now Spence-¬Chapin), which identified the need for an independent and objective adoption research, education, and advocacy organization that addressed the needs of birth parents, adopted people, adoptive parents, the people who love them, and the professionals that serve them. The organization was originally named in honor of Evan B. Donaldson, a passionate and committed member of the Spence¬-Chapin Board of Directors for nearly 20 years, serving as its president from 1986 until her death in 1994. To reflect the commitment and generosity of the entire Donaldson family, the organization became the Donaldson Adoption Institute in 2012.

From 1996-2017, DAI played a vital role in driving adoption reform, addressing critical issues such as the importance of access to original birth certificates and the need for quality post adoption services. We also created practicums for parents and professionals on issues related to adoption preparation, openness in adoption, and identity development, to name a few. We authored and co-authored dozens of position statements, commentaries, and testimonies pertaining to legislative issues ranging from adoptee rights to LGBTQ equality. We have seen our ideas and recommendations acted upon by public and private child welfare agencies, educators, legislatures and courts across the country.